Explore Boston's free African American community of the nineteenth century through the Beacon Hill neighborhood they called home.
Welcome to Boston's Black Heritage Trail!
This virtual "walking tour" explores the rich history of Boston's nineteenth-century black community of Beacon Hill. The men and women who lived, worked, and gathered at these sites were part of an entrepreneurial, activist, thriving and, above all, free community.
Slavery came to an end in Massachusetts in 1783 as a result of legal activism by enslaved men and women such as Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker, who used the principles of the American Revolution to claim freedom as their own.
Community leaders such as Prince Hall (c.1735-1807) and others spearheaded the effort to unite the free black community on the north slope of Beacon Hill, where a rich tradition of civil rights activism, abolitionism, and leadership flourished throughout the nineteenth century.
Join us to virtually visit the homes, schools, and businesses that reveal this essential American history.
Robert Gould Shaw, a young white officer from a prominent abolitionist family, accepted command of the new regiment.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Regiment led an assault on Fort Wagner as part of the campaign to capture the Confederate city of Charleston, South Carolina.
In the hard-fought battle, Colonel Shaw and many members of the regiment were killed. Though they failed to capture the fort, the 54th proved to the nation their skill, courage, and discipline as soldiers.
Even once admitted to the army, the men of the 54th Regiment and other black units still faced discrimination. They were not allowed to be commissioned officers and, despite recruitment promises, black soldiers were only offered about half of the pay that white soldiers received.
Rather than accept a lower salary, the 54th Regiment served without pay for a year and a half. Ultimately, Congress relented and increased their pay retroactively.
This high-relief bronze memorial to Colonel Shaw and the 54th Regiment was erected through a fund established by black community leader and business-owner Joshua Bowen Smith in 1865.
The sculpture was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the architectural setting was designed by McKim, Mead and White. Shaw's family insisted that the monument represent the enlisted men of the 54th Regiment, not just Colonel Shaw.
Saint-Gaudens worked on the monument for fourteen years and took great care to represent each unique soldier.
Elizabeth Smith was the daughter of abolitionist and community leader, John J. Smith. Elizabeth began teaching at the Phillips School in Beacon Hill in the 1870s and was among the first African American teachers in an integrated Boston Public School.
Elizabeth's family home is the next site on the Trail.
John J. Smith's barbershop served as a hub of abolitionist activity with frequent visitors including U.S. Senator Charles Sumner.
Following the Civil War, Smith was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1868, 1869, and 1872 and was appointed to the Boston Common Council in 1878.
Smith was also a member and Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons.
John and Georgianna had six children, each of whom went on to be accomplished in their fields:
Elizabeth was the first African American teacher at the Phillips School;
Georgina was an artist;
Florence was a teacher and school principal in Washington, D.C.;
Hamilton Sutton was a lawyer, dentist, and photographer;
Harriet was a Boston school teacher; and
Adelaide was a musician and concert vocalist.
Julia Smith (1885-1980), John J. Smith's granddaughter, spent some time at his Pinckney Street home as a child and was very proud of his work as an abolitionist.
Of her grandfather's collaboration with Lewis Hayden on the Underground Railroad, she recalled: "My grandfather had one portion of the cellar fixed so that when these slaveholders would come up, and if Lewis Hayden had an overflow, then he would get the slaves into my grandfather’s house."
Lewis Hayden's home is the next site on the Trail.
Lewis Hayden understood the pain of enslavement firsthand. His first wife, Esther Harvey, and his son were sold to U.S. Senator Henry Clay, who sold them into the deep south. Hayden was never able to discover their ultimate whereabouts.
In Boston, Hayden became a member of the Prince Hall Masons and, like John J. Smith, served as the Grand Master.
Following the Civil War, Lewis Hayden also served a term in the Massachusetts legislature in 1873.
This page records at least one instance in which Hayden was reimbursed by the Boston Vigilance Committee for boarding self-emancipated men and women at his home.
Lewis Hayden was one of the men who helped rescue a self-liberated man, Shadrach Minkins, from federal custody after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Hayden also contributed money to militant abolitionist John Brown, in preparation for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
In addition to his anti-slavery activism, David Walker ran a Boston clothing shop, advertised here.
To distribute his pamphlet, "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World," in the South, Walker sewed copies into the lining of the jackets he sold to sailors. Then, in Southern port cities, they could quickly and discretely distribute Walker's pamphlet to free and enslaved communities.
Activist and Beacon Hill resident William Cooper Nell led protests, boycotts, and petition drives in order to secure equal school rights for black and white children.
The 1849 lawsuit on behalf of five-year-old Sarah Roberts was unsuccessful and established the judicial precedent for the "separate but equal" principle, but the community was successful in legally securing integrated schools in 1855.
Following that decision, both the Phillips School and the Smith School soon began operating as integrated schools.
Many of the leading black activists and abolitionists of the nineteenth century spoke at the African Meeting House.
Frederick Douglass visited the Meeting House many times. In one speech delivered there in December 1860 on the brink of Civil War, Douglass said:
"...All methods of proceeding against slavery, politics, religion, peace, war, Bible, Constitution, disunion, Union -- every possible way known in opposition to slavery is my way."
When the 54th Regiment was authorized in January of 1863, black soldiers came from all over the country to enlist and the African Meeting House was one of the sites where young men like John H. Wilson could sign up to serve. Frederick Douglass and John J. Smith were among those who traveled widely as recruiters, encouraging men to go to Massachusetts to enlist.
On May 28, 1863, the 54th Regiment paraded through Boston before departing for service in South Carolina, a moment now memorialized in the Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment Monument, which was the first site on the Trail.
Samantha Gibson, Manager of Education and Interpretation
Cara Liasson, Collections Associate
L’Merchie Frazier, Director of Education and Interpretation
Boston African American National Historic Site
© Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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