Boston African American National
14 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02108
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.
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Page 1 of 1