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The Black Heritage Trail

Until the end of the 19th century, the north side of opulent Beacon Hill contained a vibrant free black community—more than 8,000 at its peak—who built houses, schools, and churches that stand to this day. In the African Meeting House, once called the Black Faneuil Hall, orators rallied against slavery. The streets were lined with black-owned businesses. The black community has since shifted to other parts of Boston, but visitors can rediscover this 19th-century legacy on the Black Heritage Trail.

Established in the late 1960s, the self-guiding trail stitches together 14 sites along a 1½-mile walk. Park rangers give daily tours Monday through Saturday, Memorial Day through Labor Day, at 10 am, noon, and 2 pm, and from Labor Day to Memorial Day at 2 pm, starting from the Shaw Memorial in Boston Common. To tour on your own, pick up brochures from the Museum of African American History (46 Joy St.), the National Park Service Visitor Center (15 State St.), or download one online at www.afroammuseum.org/trail.htm.

Start at the stirring Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Common. Shaw, a young white officer from a prominent Boston abolitionist family, led the first black regiment to be recruited in the North during the Civil War. From here, walk up Joy Street to 5–7 Pinckney Street to see the 1797 George Middleton House, Beacon Hill's oldest existing home built by blacks. Nearby, the Phillips School at Anderson and Pinckney streets was one of Boston's first integrated schools. The John J. Smith House, at 86 Pinckney, was a rendezvous point for abolitionists and escaping slaves, and the Charles Street Meeting House, at Mt. Vernon and Charles streets, was once a white Baptist church and later a black church and community center. In 1876 the building became the site of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the last black institution to leave Beacon Hill, in 1939. The Lewis and Harriet Hayden House at 66 Phillips Street, the home of freed slaves turned abolitionists, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, visited here in 1853 for her first glimpse of fugitive slaves. The Haydens reportedly kept a barrel of gunpowder under the front step, saying they'd blow up the house before they'd surrender a single slave. At 2 Phillips Street, John Coburn, cofounder of a black military company, ran a gaming house, described as a "private place for gentlemen."

The five residences on Smith Court are typical of African American Bostonian homes of the 1800s, including No. 3, the 1799 clapboard house where William C. Nell, America's first published black historian and a crusader for school integration, boarded from 1851 to 1865. At the corner of Joy Street and Smith Court is Abiel Smith School, the city's first public school for black children. The school's exhibits interpret the ongoing struggle started in the 1830s for equal school rights. Next door is the venerable African Meeting House, which was the community's center of social, educational, and political activity. The ground level houses a gallery; in the airy upstairs, you can imagine the fiery sermons that once rattled the upper pews.

Updated: 2014-04-16

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