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Boston African American National Historic Site

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park - BEST Massachusetts Places to Picnic

14 Beacon Street
Suite 401
Boston, MA 02108

(617) 742-5415

WELCOME to Boston African American National Historic Site

Boston African American National Historic Site is comprised of the largest area of pre-Civil War black owned structures in the U.S. It has roughly two dozen sites on the north face of Beacon Hill. These historic buildings were homes, businesses, schools, and churches of a thriving black community that, in the face of great opposition, fought the forces of slavery and inequality.

Places includes:

  • George Middleton House (Note: A site on the Black Heritage Trail�, is a private residence and is not open to the public.)
  • The Phillips School (Note: A site on the Black Heritage Trail�, is a private residence and is not open to the public.)
  • John J Smith House (Note: A site on the Black Heritage Trail�, is a private residence and is not open to the public.)
  • Lewis and Harriet Hayden House (Note: A site on the Black Heritage Trail�, is a private residence and is not open to the public.)
  • John Coburn House (Note: A site on the Black Heritage Trail�, is a private residence and is not open to the public.)
  • Smith Court Residences (Note: A site on the Black Heritage Trail�, is a private residence and is not open to the public.)

Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment

The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, located across Beacon Street from the State House, serves as a reminder of the heavy cost paid by individuals and families during the Civil War. In particular, it serves as a memorial to the group of men who were among the first African Americans to fight in that war. 

Although African Americans served in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, northern racist sentiments kept African Americans from taking up arms for the United Stated in the early years of the Civil War. However, a clause in Abraham Lincoln�s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation made possible the organization of African American volunteer regiments. 

The first documented African American regiment formed in the north was the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, instituted under Governor John Andrews in 1863. African American men came to enlist from every region of the north, and from as faraway as the Caribbean. Robert Gould Shaw was the man Andrews chose to lead this regiment.

Robert G. Shaw was the only son of Francis George and Sarah Blake (n�e Sturgis) Shaw. The Shaws were a wealthy and well connected New York and Boston family. They were also radical abolitionists and Unitarians. Robert did not blindly follow his parents ideological and religious beliefs, but all recognized the importance and responsibility involved in leading the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.

The Massachusetts 54th Regiment became famous and solidified their place in history following the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. At least 74 enlisted men and 3 officers were killed in that battled, and scores more were wounded. Colonel Shaw was one of those killed. 

Sergeant William H. Carney, who was severely injured in the battle, saved the regiment�s flag from being captured. He was the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The 54th Regiment also fought in an engagement on James Island, the Battle of Olustee, and at Honey Hill, South Carolina before their return to Boston in September 1865. 

Only 598 of the original 1,007 men who enlisted were there to take part in the final ceremonies on the Boston Common. In the last two years of the war, it is estimated that over 180,000 African Americans served in the Union forces and were instrumental to the Union�s victory.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens took nearly fourteen years to complete this high-relief bronze monument, which celebrates the valor and sacrifices of the Massachusetts 54th. Saint-Gaudens was one of the premier artists of his day. 

He grew up in New York and Boston, but received formal training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts Paris. In New York, forty men were hired to serve as models for the soldiers� faces. Colonel Shaw is shown on horseback and three rows of infantry men march behind. This scene depicts the 54th Regiment marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston to head south. The monument was paid for by private donations and was unveiled in a ceremony on May 31, 1897. 

In 1982, 64 names of known soldiers who died at the Battle of Fort Wagner were inscribed on the back of the monument.

African Meeting House

The African Meeting House was built in 1806 to house the first African Baptist Church of Boston (a.k.a. First Independent Baptist Church) and it is now the oldest extant black church building in America. Moreover, this was the first African American Baptist church created north of the Mason Dixon Line. 

The church was organized primarily by and for black Bostonians, but not without cooperation and assistance from Boston�s white Baptist churches. The Reverend Thomas Paul, a native of New Hampshire, spearheaded the founding of this church and was its minister until 1829. The African Baptist Church was officially constituted on 8 August 1805 with twenty-four members, of whom fifteen were women. 

A building committee was organized of prominent men from the white Baptist churches; these men handled financial transactions and partially oversaw construction, but many of the people who worked to construct the church building were African American craftsmen. Cato Gardner, a native African, led the fundraising effort by personally raising $1,500. 

The Belknap Street Church, as it was also known, was originally encouraged by white Baptist churches to only allow African American to become members. However, a few white people did attend the Rev. Paul�s services and some African Americans in Boston continued to attend predominately white churches throughout the 19th century despite discriminatory practices.

In addition to serving as a spiritual center for the community, the African Meeting House was the chief cultural, educational, and political nexus of Boston�s black community. The African School held classes in a room on the first floor of the meeting house from 1808 until 1835, when it moved into the new Abiel Smith School. 

Classes returned to the meeting house in 1849 when most African American chose to withdraw their children from the Smith School in order to protest against segregated education. Adult education was regularly offered at the meeting house in the form of classes and lectures. 

Abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Maria Stewart, Wendell Phillips, Sarah Grimke, and Frederick Douglass all spoke at the meeting house. The Massachusetts General Colored Association, which was the first abolitionist organization in Boston, met at the African Meeting House, and in 1832 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded there. 

Community celebrations often occurred at the meeting house, including annual commemorations of Haitian Independence (1803) and the end of the international slave trade (1807). In 1863 the meeting house served as a recruitment post for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment, which was the first official African American military regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

In 1898 the Baptist congregation sold their meeting house and moved to a new location in the South End. The meeting house became the Jewish Congregation Anshi Libavitz in 1904 and was acquired by the Museum of African American History in 1972. The building is a National Historic Landmark.

Charles Street Meeting House

The Charles Street Meeting House was built in 1807 by the Third Baptist Church. It was built according to a design by Asher Benjamin. As was the case with every American church in the early 19th century, segregated seating was enforced. African Americans who attended this predominately white church could only sit in the gallery and were excluded from other privileges of membership. 

On a Sunday in 1836, Timothy Gilbert tested this exclusionary rule. Gilbert invited several African Americans to join him in his pew and he was immediately expelled from the church. Gilbert and several other members of Third Baptist Church subsequently founded the First Free Baptist Church, which became Tremont Temple. This church did not sell pews to individuals and is known as the first integrated church in America. 

In later years, Third Baptist Church did take a position against slavery, despite its earlier treatment of African Americans. Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Charles Sumner were among the abolitionists who spoke there.

After the Civil War, the Third Baptist Church dwindled in numbers. They sold the Charles Street Meeting House in 1876 to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Charles Street A.M.E. Church, as it was thereafter known, was organized in 1833 and incorporated in 1839. 

This church was located on West Centre (Anderson) Street from 1841 to 1876. After the Civil War, it became the largest of Boston�s then five black churches. The Charles Street A.M.E. Church continued to be a leader in political and social activism well into the twentieth century. Ministers such as John T. Jennifer spoke about political issues ranging from the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to temperance to Irish independence. 

In 1889 The National Association of Colored Women was founded at the Charles Street Meeting House by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. By 1900 economic, social, and political forces made continued existence on Charles Street difficult for this church and they moved to Warren Street, Roxbury in 1939. The Charles Street A.M.E. Church was the last black institution to leave Beacon Hill.

Abiel Smith School

The Abiel Smith School, located at 46 Joy Street, was constructed between 1834 and 1835. It was built by the City of Boston to house the African School and was one of the earliest buildings designed by architect Richard Upjohn. 

Starting in 1787, many black Bostonians fought tirelessly against the inequality and discrimination in public schools. At that early date, numerous community members, including Prince Hall, petitioned the state legislator claiming that it was unjust for their taxes to support the education of white children when the city had no school for black children. 

However, a small number of African American children did attend the city�s white schools in the early 1800s.

In 1798, sixty member of the black community organized the African School in order to educate their children. This school first met in the home of Primus Hall. It moved into the first floor room of the African Meeting House in 1808. 

At this date, the African American children who were enrolled in Boston public schools moved their enrollment to the African School. In 1812, the Boston School Committee finally became worn down by decades of petitions and requests; they officially recognized the African School and started providing partial funding ($200 yearly), but the condition of this school remained poor and space was inadequate.

In 1815 white businessman Abiel Smith died and bequeathed $4,000 for the education of African American children in Boston. The school committee used interest from this money to fund the African School and they later used a portion of it to construct the Abiel Smith School. 

The Abiel Smith School was opened on March 3, 1835, but the conditions in this school were inferior to those of the white schools in Boston and the black community continued to fight for equal opportunities in education.

One of the most forceful advocates for school integration was African American historian-activist William Cooper Nell. When Nell was a student at the African School, he was awarded the prestigious Franklin Metal, along with two other African Americans. 

Yet, instead of receiving the medal, they were given biographies of Benjamin Franklin and they were not invited to the award ceremony at Faneuil Hall. Nell did attend the ceremony dinner, but not as a guest. He persuaded one of the waiters to allow him to help serve the white honorees and guests. 

It was on this night that Nell vowed, �God helping me, I would do my best to hasten the day when the color of the skin would be no barrier to equal school rights.�

Another activist was Benjamin Roberts. He filed suit, on behalf of his daughter Sarah, against the Boston School Committee in 1849. Roberts wanted his daughter to be able to attend the school closest to their home and he sought to challenge Boston�s segregated system. 

His lawyers were Charles Sumner and Robert Morris, who was the first black attorney in Massachusetts. Their arguments were forceful and articulate (and later used as precedent in Brown v Board of Education), but they did not win the lawsuit. Sadly, the opinion set forth in the Roberts case was used as precedent for �separate but equal� ideologies in nearly all segregation cases thereafter, including Plessy v. Ferguson.

Also in 1849, most African Americans in Boston chose to withdraw their children from the Abiel Smith School to protest against segregated education. In 1855, success was achieved when the Massachusetts Legislature outlawed �separate schools,� but Boston was the only place in the commonwealth that still maintained segregated education. 

African American children started attending other public schools, including the Phillips School, and the Abiel Smith School was closed that same year.

The Abiel Smith School is now part a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

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