The Black Heritage Trail ®

Explore Boston's free African American community of the nineteenth century through the Beacon Hill neighborhood they called home.

By Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket and Boston African American National Historic Site

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.

The Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial

This monument, dedicated in 1897 is located directly opposite the Massachusetts State House.  It commemorates the 54th Regiment, the first black regiment raised in the North following the Emancipation Proclamation, and its martyred leader, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863).

With pressure from black and white abolitionists, President Lincoln officially admitted black soldiers into the United States armed forces in 1863, two years into the Civil War.

The 54th Regiment of Massachusetts was the first black regiment to be recruited in the North.

Robert Gould Shaw, Lewis, Edmonia (c.1845-c.1911), 1864, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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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.

Sergeant William H. Carney holding 54th Regiment flag, 1863, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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Sergeant William Carney (1840-1908) of New Bedford was wounded multiple times during the Battle of Fort Wagner in his effort to save the American flag from Confederate capture.

Carney's bravery earned him the distinction of the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Exercises at the Dedication of the Monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry, May 31, 1897 FrontispieceMuseum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

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.

Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial (1897/1910) by Smith, Hamilton Sutton (1857-1924)Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

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.

The 62 names listed on the reverse side of the monument represent the black soldiers who died during the assault on Fort Wagner. Their names were added in 1982.

George Middleton House

Built in 1797, this house is among the oldest extant homes on Beacon Hill. Its original owners were George Middleton (1735-1815), a liveryman, and Louis Glapion, a  barber. George Middleton led an all-black militia company called the Bucks of America during the Revolutionary War. Governor John Hancock presented the Bucks of America with a painted silk flag in recognition for their service, which is now in the collection of Massachusetts Historical Society. Both Middleton and Glapion were also active in the black community's early organizations. Both were members of the African Masonic Order and Middleton was a founder of the African Society in 1796.

Phillips School

Erected in 1824, the Phillips School was only open to white children until 1855.  Prior to 1855, black children who lived in the neighborhood had to attend the school on the first floor of the African Meeting House or the Smith School. When segregated schools were abolished by legislative act in 1855, the Phillips School became one of Boston's first schools with an interracial student body.

Elizabeth N. Smith, Smith, Hamilton Sutton (1857-1924), 1870/1880, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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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 House

In the course of his career, John J. Smith (1820-1906) was a barber, an abolitionist, a Civil War recruiter, an elected official and an active community leader within the Beacon Hill black community. He was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1820 and moved to Boston by 1846. He moved to his home at 86 Pinckney Street in 1878 and lived here until he moved to Dorchester in the mid-1890s.

John J. Smith, Smith, Hamilton Sutton (1857-1924), 1890/1900, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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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 J. Smith Family Group by Smith, Hamilton Sutton (1857-1924)Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

John's wife Georgianna participated in the equal school rights campaign of the 1850s and served as president of an organization called the Ladies Benevolent Firm.

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 Hamilton Smith, Smith, Hamilton Sutton (1857-1924), 1905/1920, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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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 and Harriet Hayden House

Lewis Hayden (c.1811-1889) was one of Boston’s most visible and militant African American abolitionists and a close collaborator with John J. Smith. Hayden was born enslaved in Kentucky. He escaped slavery with his second wife Harriet and their son Joseph in 1844 and, by 1846, the Hayden family made their way to Boston. Lewis ran a clothing store and quickly became a leader in the black community. In 1850, the Haydens moved into this house at 66 Phillips (then Southac) Street. The Haydens routinely cared for self-emancipated men, women, and families at their home, which served as a boarding house.

Lewis Hayden by J. S. Conant & Co., EngraversMuseum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

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.

Excerpt, Vigilance Committee Account Book (1850/1855) by Jackson, Francis (1789-1861)Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

The Vigilance Committee was an organization devoted to assisting people on their journeys from slavery to freedom.

Records from the Boston Vigilance Committee, of which Lewis was a member, indicate that scores of people received aid and safe shelter at the Hayden home between 1850 and 1860.

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.

John Coburn House

John P. Coburn (c.1811-1873) was a clothes dealer and community activist. This home, at 2 Phillips (then Southac) Street, was designed by architect Asher Benjamin and Coburn lived here with his wife Emmaline and their  son Wendell. Coburn ran a clothing shop on Brattle Street and may have operated a gaming house for wealthy Bostonians at his home. As an activist, Coburn was the treasurer of the New England Freedom Association and a member of Boston Vigilance Committee. John P. Coburn was arrested for his alleged role in the rescue of Shadrach Minkins, along with others including Lewis Hayden, but all were eventually acquitted. In the 1850s, John Coburn helped establish a militia company for the black community called the Massasoit Guards, despite the state's refusal to recognize black men's right to serve in the military.

David Walker - Maria Stewart House

At this site, now 81 Joy Street, stood the home in which pioneering activists David Walker (c.1785-1830) and Maria Stewart (1803-1879) lived. David Walker was born free in North Carolina and witnessed the cruelties of slavery firsthand. He moved to Boston in the 1820s and quickly became an active member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, an organization dedicated to ending slavery and pursuing equal rights. Walker is best known for his pamphlet, "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World" in which he called on black citizens, free and enslaved, to end slavery immediately and claim equal rights in America. Maria Stewart was among the first American women to speak publicly before audiences of men and women on issues of politics, racial equality, and women's rights.  She delivered speeches throughout Boston, including at the African Meeting House.

The Rights of All The Rights of All (1829-10-09) by Cornish, Samuel (1795-1858), editorMuseum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

David Walker also helped support communication between black communities as the Boston "authorised agent" for the first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal and its successor, The Rights of All.

The Rights of AllMuseum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

The list of agents reveals the broad reach of the newspaper, with representatives from Maine to Louisiana and international agents in Canada, England, and Hayti.

The Rights of All, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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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.

Holmes Alley

Holmes Alley is a narrow pathway that connects South Russell Street with Smith Court, where the African Meeting House is located. Here, on the South Russell Street side, the alley was built through a house. Such alleyways are common in Beacon Hill, although most are now gated and private. In the 19th century, however, the maze of alleyways through and around the buildings allowed neighborhood residents to deftly, and sometimes secretly, navigate. When the black community was threatened by bounty hunters who were empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, pathways like this one proved useful for evading notice or capture.

Abiel Smith School

The Abiel Smith School opened in 1835 and replaced the lower level of the African Meeting House as the site of the school serving the black community of Boston. The Smith School is now one of the historic sites that makes up the Museum of African American History. The building is named for Abiel Smith, a white merchant who bequeathed part of his estate to the City of Boston to support education for the black community. In the 1840s, the Smith School was at the center of the community's campaign to integrate Boston's public schools. 

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.

First Independent Baptist Church, Belknap Street (1843) by Dickinson, S. N.Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

The African Meeting House

The African Meeting House was built in 1806 and served as a spiritual, cultural, political, and institutional hub for the Beacon Hill black community. It was home to the First African Baptist Church of Boston and soon became an active gathering place for meetings of all kinds - from anti-slavery organizing to concerts and celebrations. 

Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass, Lillie, Lloyd (1932 - ), sculptor, Green, Almont, photographer, 1994, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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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."

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Louis Edward Levy (1846-1919) and Max Levy (18571926) as Levytype Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, photoengravers, 1893, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was a poet, author, and lecturer as well as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and an anti-slavery activist.

Harper spoke at the African Meeting House at least three times between 1854 and 1864.

Sergeant Major John H. Wilson, 1864-06-03, From the collection of: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
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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.

Thanks for "walking" with us!

The members of the Beacon Hill black community of the 18th and 19th centuries and their fellow abolitionists helped expand the meaning of freedom and civil rights, both locally in Boston, and for the nation.  Thank you for exploring the Black Heritage Trail and sharing in this important American history! When in Boston, visit the Museum of African American History and walk the Trail with our partners at Boston African American National Historic Site.  And whether near or far, consider these sites part of your story and your history!

Credits: Story

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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