Beacon Hill shares African American past

BOSTON — Today, Beacon Hill stands as a celebrated ‘National Historic District’ because of a rich cultural and historically significant heritage spanning the mid 1700s to early 1900s.

The African-American community of ‘free-blacks’ living in Boston before and after the Civil war, were a large part of this history, now commemorated in the National Park Service’s “Black Heritage Trail.”

Established in the 1980s, the trail offers visitors a glimpse into the often heroic and sacrificial contributions made by several black and white Bostonians including George Middleton and Abiel Smith in the fight for equal rights. With a nation divided on the issue of slavery, equal rights and justice for all, black freedmen and slaves alike, took up the cause for emancipation.

“It preserves the proud history of blacks who once strived on Beacon Hill. The overlooked history of blacks who contributed to the welfare of all, for civil rights,” said Bernadette Williams, 48, supervisory park ranger for the Boston African American National Historic site.

Ranger Jarumi Crooks talks with Codman Academy Charter Public School students  (Photo by Arlene Satchell).

Waging a war against the injustices of the time, their battles, assisted by white abolitionists and fiery outspoken blacks, helped to secure the end of slavery in the state in 1783 and the desegregation of public schools in 1855.

The trail celebrates the history of free blacks who once lived on the northern slope of Beacon Hill, an area encompassing Beacon Street, the Charles River embankment, Pinckney, Revere and Hancock Streets.

“It’s important for people to grasp the idea that free black people all over the place were fighting for freedom and equal rights,” said Frank Middleton, director of youth programs, for the national historic site.

Middleton, 35 spent 10 years as a park ranger and currently works with youth groups on conservation projects within the National Parks Service. Each ranger, while given the basic training on protocol and procedures, often tends to develop his or her own script and style when conducting a tour.

If you opt to take one of the free tours offered by the National Park Service, you will be taken on a walking jaunt up Joy Street (formerly Belknap Street), to view centuries-old houses, along narrow elm-lined streets, lit with gas lamps. These corridors of time, framed with brick side walks echo the area’s rich and compelling antebellum history.

It’s a history, park ranger Jarumi Crooks, is committed to share with visitors and newly arrived residents to the city of Boston. A history major, Crooks, 23 said he always wanted to be a historian and enjoys conducting the black heritage tour. His name “Jarumi,” Nigerian for “one who struggles and wins” is perhaps a befitting symbolism to the history highlighted along the trail.

Ranger Jarumi Crooks points to a plaque above the door dedicated to Cato Gardner at the entrance of African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. Gardner is the African who donated money to build the church (Photo by Arlene Satchell).

“The history that gets you here is amazing and sits in a beautiful place,” Crooks said.

54th Regiment Memorial

The starting point of the tour — the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on the corner of Beacon and Park streets, provides a visually compelling and emotionally stirring introduction to the two-hour long, 1.6 mile tour. The memorial immortalizes the riveting journey and struggles of the 54 th Regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry, made up of the first regiment of volunteer black soldiers recruited in the North.

“It’s about African Americans in Boston, not so much what it [Memorial] meant to the city, but to each other and to the nation as a whole,” Crooks explained.

Additionally it symbolizes the fight for equality, integration and injustice said Crooks.

Overcoming the racial bias of the age that decried black men’s ability to carry arms and fight as soldiers, a 1000-strong army, and the fifth African American troop organized during the civil war, quickly formed. As they were assigned insignificant duties away from the front lines, or suffered salary discrimination, or were often lacking sufficient food and rest, the infantry finally got their chance to prove themselves during the July 18, 1863 battle at Fort Wagner.

The soldiers led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, fought honorably in a battle that ended Shaw’s life and 62 others. Twenty-six years old at the time of his death, Shaw, denied an officers burial, was stripped and buried in a mass grave along with his men. Their story is captured in the 1989 motion picture, “Glory” starring Denzel Washington.

The memorial that stands today, the work of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens took about 14 years to complete and was dedicated on May 31, 1897. It depicts Shaw on a horse flanked by his “men of honor” who came from varied walks of life to join in the freedom fight.

The faces portrayed, reflect the group’s diversity: 16-year old drummer boys, fathers and sons, a dentist, barbers, laborers, cabinet makers and boatmen were all said to have been among their ranks.

As they marched in a dignified procession out of Boston, steadfast in purpose and aim, an angel hovered above with a laurel of poppies (symbols of death) and an olive branch (symbol of peace) – uncertainty for a fate that laid in wait.

One recent Saturday in April, George Peck, a visitor from Washington State, seemed somewhat transfixed at the sight of the memorial.

“I saw it on a PBS special and wanted to see how it matched up. People from the West Coast hear these names, but don’t really know much more,” Peck said, who was visiting the site while on a recent business trip.

George Middleton House

As the typical tour gets in motion, Crooks can be seen taking visitors on a slightly challenging walk up the incline of Joy Street to visit the George Middleton House. Located at 5-7 Pinckney St., the house built in 1787 is said to be the oldest extant dwelling built by African Americans on Beacon Hill.

Middleton, a free black, was a freedom fighter before and after the abolition of slavery in Boston, and supported freedom and education for all people of color. Born in 1735, Middleton, a veteran of the Revolutionary War worked as a liveryman and was a member of the Prince Hall Masons, the first African Lodge founded in 1784.

The education of black children was high on the list of priorities for Middleton as the black population of Boston increased in the 1800s. In 1799 the State sanctioned the education of black children in homes and in 1808 the basement of the First African Baptist Church (later called the African Meeting House) opened up to accommodate the younger children in the community.

In these modern times according to Crooks, school and college groups tend to account for a significant portion of the visitors to the heritage trail during the months of September to June.

“We’re better than Disney World and its here [the trail] for a reason – to enjoy it,” Crooks said.

The Wendell Phillips School on Beacon Hill (Photo by Arlene Satchell).

Phillips School

Next stop along the trail is The Phillips School named after abolitionist Wendell Phillips, bordering Pinckney and Anderson streets. Built in 1824, it had been open to white children only up until 1855 when it became the first desegregated school in the city. Before integration, it stood as a reminder of the injustices suffered by the black children in Beacon Hill who were relegated to the basement of the African Meeting House for their education.

John J. Smith House

Further along the trail is the John J. Smith House at 86 Pinckney St. , where the Virginia native, ‘surgeon’ and barber lived from 1878 to 1893. His barbershop became a gathering place for many abolitionists and provided temporary refuge for many runaway slaves. He was a recruiting officer in the Civil War for a black cavalry and later served as member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Charles Street Meeting House

The white congregation of the Third Baptist Church of Boston built this meeting house in 1807. Here they practiced segregation in the church’s seating arrangements, which usually relegated blacks to sitting in the balconies. In 1876 after the Civil War the African Methodist Episcopal Church bought the facility and it remained at the location on Mt. Vernon and Charles Street until 1939.

Lewis and Harriet Hayden House

Another notable dwelling along the trail is the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House, located at 66 Phillips St. Escaping slavery in Kentucky, the couple used the Underground Railroad’s network to re-establish themselves in Boston as members of a free black society. Their house later became a beacon of light and hope for two-thirds of the runaway slaves who traveled through Boston via the Underground Railroad.

Ellen Craft, a light skinned black, who escaped slavery with her husband William posing as her slave, were two of many slaves that sought refuge in the Hayden’s residence.

Stories like this are part of the history the trail provides of “the human struggle for equality that is not stagnant, that plays itself out everyday,” Middleton said as he reflected on the trail’s significance.

While this Heritage trail does not get huge visitors numbers as say the Freedom Trail, it “ends up getting people who are “conscious and seek it [the history] out,” Middleton said.

In 2005, 327,921 guests visited the trail and as at the end of March 2006, visitor numbers stood at 6,785.

John Coburn House

An enterprising black clothing retailer John Coburn occupied premises at 2 Phillips Road in Beacon Hill. During the night, the location was converted into a gambling establishment under the auspices of being a “private place for gentlemen”.

Another one of Coburn’s establishments tucked away on Coburn Court, off of Phillips Street, lies in virtual ruin, partly demolished as city officials stopped renovation work, citing insufficient documentation from the owners. The building’s fate is in limbo today as the matter is yet to be resolved.

Abiel Smith School

After years of frustration and public outcry, the first black public school in Boston opened in 1835, built with a $2,000 donation made by Abiel Smith, a white philanthropist. But the facilities at 46 Joy Street, were still not at their best, as continued overcrowding and poor upkeep compelled some parents to boycott the school in its later years. The school remained open until Boston’s schools were integrated in 1855. Today it has been given new life as the Museum of Afro-American History.

African Meeting House

As the trail ends at its final stop at 8 Smith Court — the African Meeting House, visitors of late have been informed of its closure due to on-going renovations. They can however visit the adjacent Museum of Afro-American History, which houses a book store and exhibition gallery. The church house built in 1806 is considered the oldest extant black church building in the United States. The renovation project is expected to restore it to its original 19 th century condition. Major events are planned later in the year to celebrate its bi-centennial anniversary.

Other historically significant figures often mentioned during the trail tour include Cato Gardner, an African who donated monies to erect the African Meeting House; Robert Morris, the second African American to practice law in the city of Boston and the first to win a lawsuit, and Frederick Douglass, noted orator and author, who spoke on occasion from the pulpit of the African Meeting House among others.

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (Photo by Arlene Satchell).


If You Go

The National Park Service offers free, Black Heritage Trail guided tours as follows:

  • Daily: (summer) at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., Daily: (winter) except Sundays at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.
  • Advance reservations are required and can be made by calling 617-742-5415, 24 hours in advance of your desired tour date.
  • Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and stay hydrated, especially during summer.
  • Tour begins at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on the corner of Beacon and Park streets across from the gold-domed Massachusetts State House.
  • For more information on the sites included in this trail, check the Web site at
  • To be launched in fall 2006: A new guided tour trail focusing on the Underground Railroad.

The Museum of Afro-American History:

  • Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the summer months and closed on Sundays in the winter season, however schedules are subject to change, so calling ahead of your visit is recommended.
  • A suggested donation of $5 is welcomed if you visit the museum’s exhibits.
  • For upcoming museum events, please check the Web site at
  • Recommended reading from the Museum’s bookstore include: “David Walker’s Appeal,” edited by Peter Hinks; “Shadrach Minkins” edited by Gary Collison.

Special note:

The historic homes listed along the Black Heritage Trail are privately owned and therefore not open to the public.

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