Meet Boston's black community leaders, abolitionists, and activists and explore the ways in which they strategically used the power of public memory in their pursuit of freedom.
This exhibition examines the lives, work, and legacies of Boston’s black and abolitionist communities and the ways they documented their history, memory, and activism. From the American Revolution through the end of Reconstruction, black Bostonians pushed to expand the boundaries of freedom and citizenship in Boston, Massachusetts and the United States.
This movement manifested in petitions, speeches, organizations, lawsuits, writings, and protests spanning over eight decades and culminated with the 13th amendment ending slavery in 1865. The legal, constitutional, and social advances that followed during Reconstruction secured citizenship, equal protection, and voting rights for African Americans. Memory was and continues to be a powerful tool strategically levied in the process of crafting meaning, purpose, and legacy for this work and the men, women, and families who made it possible.
Prince Hall, a man who had formerly been enslaved, was an active citizen in Revolution-era Boston. He was an entrepreneur, a voter, and one of the founders of the African Masonic Lodge. He was a principal leader among Boston’s black community.
During and after the Revolution, Prince Hall and other black citizens actively criticized the denial of the ideals of freedom, rights, and equality to black men, women, and children. With the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783, Prince Hall and other African Americans repeatedly petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for their rights – to education for their children, to protection against illegal enslavement, and for amends for the disadvantages wrought by enslavement.
Their plan to re-settle was a direct response to the “strong prejudices, fixed by custom and education” that they faced in America. While this document is unsigned, a petition bearing strikingly similar language – likely a later draft - was submitted to the legislature on January 1, 1787 with eighty signatures, including Prince Hall’s.
Crispus Attucks is another Revolutionary-era figure who became a powerful symbol for Boston’s black abolitionists.
A man of African and Native American descent, Crispus Attucks had been enslaved in Framingham, Massachusetts, but ran away as a young man in 1750. On March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks was the first man killed in the Boston Massacre, arguably the starting point of the American Revolution.
However, during and after the Revolution, Crispus Attucks’ name and his ancestry as a man of color disappeared from public discourse and was widely forgotten.
By the 1840s and 1850s, black community militias throughout the North were named in his honor and annual commemorations of “Crispus Attucks Day” on March 5 were regular occurrences.
During the 1850s, when black Bostonians were campaigning for their right to serve in the armed forces and the idea of black citizenship was directly challenged by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, abolitionists raised the example of Crispus Attucks to serve their agenda.
If a black man was first to die in the fight to create this country, they reasoned, how dare the United States government now deny them the right to fight for their country and fail to guarantee their full citizenship within it?
Published sermons delivered on these occasions reflect the community’s purposeful cultivation of these events as moments of pride and celebration. They came together to remember these moments of progress toward freedom and to reinforce and re-energize the continued work towards ending slavery at home and abroad.
Emancipation, proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 and secured by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1865, marked a turning point in the meaning of freedom in America.
President Abraham Lincoln was remembered as the “Great Emancipator” for his role in these important milestones, a characterization that was often reinforced by art and imagery.
But for black communities and abolitionists – black and white, men and women – emancipation represented the culmination of decades of their activism and protest against slavery. Thousands of enslaved men and women whose flight from southern plantations forced the government to take a stand also helped bring about emancipation.
In 1913, W.E.B. DuBois commissioned African American artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller to create a new interpretation of emancipation in honor of its fiftieth anniversary.
Fuller’s Emancipation depicts male and female figures emerging from the tree of knowledge with grace and determination. This sculpture shows emancipation as a transformation that African American men and women faced with strength and dignity.
This interpretation was particularly important in the context of the early 20th century, when black communities across the country faced continuing civil rights campaigns and the threat of violence.
The Emancipation Proclamation represented a turning point in the history of black military service, too, as it officially invited black men to serve in the armed forces of the United States in the Civil War. Nearly two hundred thousand African Americans served in the Civil War, including Massachusetts’ 54th and 55th Regiments and 5th Cavalry.
For drummer Henry Monroe, a photograph may have been a poignant keepsake left with family before departing for war. Monroe was only thirteen when he enlisted and many years later he recalled his comrades’ keen awareness of remembrance and sacrifice before the regiment’s first major engagement at the Battle of Fort Wagner:
“…for the first time in history, black men would lead white men on the field of battle…Watches, rings, letters and loving messages for the dear ones at home are confided to the care of the men who remain behind guarding the captured outworks.”
Poet and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was among many who were keenly aware of both the black community’s and the nation’s attention on the service of the 54th and other black regiments.
Soon after the 54th Regiment’s charge at Fort Wagner, Harper published a poem in tribute to them, becoming an early participant in the process of commemorating black service.
The process of securing the public memory of the 54th Regiment and other black soldiers’ Civil War service began immediately and continued well into the 20th century.
Early commemorative efforts focused on the regiment’s martyred white leader, Robert Gould Shaw, who was killed at the Battle of Fort Wagner.
Sculptor Edmonia Lewis, a woman of African and Native American descent, had recently arrived in Boston when she was commissioned to create this bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw in 1864. Plaster copies of the work were then sold at the Soldier’s Relief Fair to benefit the war effort.
The careful and dignified representation of the 54th Regiment’s enlisted men was unique in the context of late nineteenth century war memorials. Still, the monument’s inscriptions only mentioned the regiment’s white officers.
It was not until 1982, nearly over eighty years after it was first installed and 119 years after the regiment left Boston, that the names of any black men were added to this monument of public memory.
This is one of the proposed layouts for how the added names would be arranged.
Frederick Douglass, who was born into enslavement but escaped to become one of the nation’s most prominent abolitionists and voices of freedom, was keenly aware of the power of memory.
As the nation rushed to reunite and move on in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Douglass was one of the most commanding voices to challenge the conciliatory attitude toward the War.
Instead, he argued the Civil War must be remembered as a war fundamentally about slavery in which there was a right side, a wrong side, and unfinished promises yet to fulfill.
In his third and final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1882 and again in 1892, Douglass recalled his life’s work and shared his interpretation of its usefulness for the rising generation; he called the final chapter of his life “a life of victory, if not complete” alluding to the unfinished work of the pursuit of equality.
Like Douglass, many others hurried to document the abolition movement and its legacy before it was too late and history had written their story for them.
Abolitionist Oliver Johnson revealed his sense of anxiety about public understanding of abolitionism in his introduction to his biography of William Lloyd Garrison:
“The abolition of slavery in the United States is an event of the past, and the generation now coming upon the stage will know no more of the struggles it cost, or of the men and women by whose toils and sacrifices it was brought about than can be found in a chapter of history but imperfectly written.”
However, even those who were conscious of preserving the memory of the abolitionist movement could easily conjure a distorted history of abolition. Both Johnson and Grimké contributed to a historical narrative and public memory of abolition that began with and revolved around William Lloyd Garrison – rather than crediting early black anti-slavery activists such as Prince Hall, David Walker, and many others.
Abolitionist William Still published The Underground Rail Road in 1872. In it, he documented the many diverse experiences of individuals’ and families’ self-emancipation and of the complex network that assisted them. His records provided an important counterpart to growing mythology about what it was like to escape enslavement.
Sarah Bradford’s biographies of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869 and 1886, were based on interviews and stories collected from Harriet. Bradford specifically stated that she wanted to preserve Harriet Tubman’s place in history and memory:
“Her name deserves to be handed down to posterity, side by side with the names of Jeanne D'Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale, for not one of these women, noble and brave as they were, has shown more courage, and power of endurance, in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering...”
It was not just the abolitionists who were concerned about their prior careers though – rising generations of activists and community members also sought them out as renowned and accomplished leaders.
Abolitionist autograph albums compiled during the 1880s reveal the high regard in which community members held abolitionist men and women such as Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hayden, and Maria Weston Chapman.
Hamilton’s daughter, Julia was born in 1885 and lived until 1980. In 1978, she gave an extensive oral history interview as part of the Black Women Oral History Project conducted with support from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.
In Julia’s interview at age 93, she revealed the important role that the memory of her grandfather as an activist and abolitionist played in her life and identity:
“My grandfather was a very strong-minded man, very kind hearted, very keen, and an excellent orator, and he did his own thinking, and fearless. He persisted to be interested in the abolitionist movement until the Civil War was fought, and the slaves were supposed to be free and have the same rights as other citizens, people in America. And up to this present day, the struggle is still going on. I want that recorded.”
The work of abolitionists also proved valuable to the rising generation of civil rights activists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In this 1896 issue of The Woman’s Era magazine, created by and for black women, Victoria Earle Matthews reported on efforts to feature eighty year old Harriet Tubman as a guest at their next meeting:
“It will be an inspiration for the rising generation to see and clasp hands with this noble mother in Israel!”
In 1905, Boston hosted a two day centennial celebration of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s life and work, organized primarily by black community leaders under the Boston Suffrage League.
Organizers called the event “a remarkable tribute to the memory of one of the world’s great moral heroes by the citizens of the city where he worked, suffered and triumphed, a generation after his death.”
One session of this celebration was held in the African Meeting House, which was then used as a synagogue. The speeches and ceremony focused on Garrison’s accomplishments but the featured speakers also talked about the importance of continuing to channel the dedication and sacrifice that Garrison had demonstrated toward uplift within black communities of their time.
Journalist and playwright Pauline Hopkins said: “Let us vow, as the greatest tribute we can pay to Mr. Garrison’s memory, to keep alive the sacred flame of universal liberty in the Republic for all races and classes, by every legitimate means.”
In 1917, the Boston Suffrage League, led by journalist William Monroe Trotter, honored the one hundredth birthday of leading abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
Organizers insisted this commemoration should be a city-wide event in honor of Douglass. They requested a square in Roxbury to be named in his honor, that his image be displayed in public libraries, and that exercises be held in public schools.
Within the black community, leaders used the opportunity to highlight the increasingly violent prejudice that many black Americans faced. The headline in Boston’s leading black newspaper The Guardian, which positioned itself as a successor to The Liberator, read: “25 Lynched in Year Ending at Liberator 100th”
The Museum of African American History is a product of this process. Museum founder Sue Bailey Thurman used the monuments, memorials, historic sites, and cemeteries of Boston as a starting point to investigate the history of the Beacon Hill black community.
The Freedom Trails of Negro History and, ultimately, the Museum of African American History, were the results of her work, once again resurrecting the history of Boston’s black revolutionaries, activists, and abolitionists in order to instruct and inspire the present and future generations.
The Freedom Trails of Negro History developed into today's Black Heritage Trail. Visit our other exhibition to virtually "walk" the Trail!
Samantha Gibson, Manager of Education and Interpretation
Cara Liasson, Collections Associate
L’Merchie Frazier, Director of Education and Interpretation
© Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
Learn more: www.maah.org
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Nantucket Campus: 29 York Street, Nantucket, Massachusetts