A WARM WIND WHIPS around the Massachusetts State House, blowing a newspaper page down Beacon Street, westward toward the shops on Charles. The magnificent glowing dome, gilded in 23-karat gold, seems equal to the sun. Beneath it, the solemn affairs of state are taking place.
Opposite the State House is a darker edifice, striking and symbolic of the most fundamental questions of government and citizenship. The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial is dedicated to the first all-Black corps of soldiers from the Northeast to fight in the Civil War. They fought for slavery’s abolition — and for a union that would recognize them as citizens.
While unveiled in 1897 to the acclaim of Bostonians, the bronze relief does not escape today’s examination of monuments within a broader conversation and reckoning on racism. The memorial foregrounds the soldiers’ white commander, stressing a racial and social hierarchy even as it’s meant to illuminate the dignity of the soldiers.
The Black men depicted in the statue, made by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, reflect the mostly young men who marched in formation through the streets of Boston to the Common in May of 1863. There on the green, thousands had come to see them off before their voyage into slave-holding South Carolina, where they would wage an assault on Fort Wagner. Nearly half the regiment would be lost. They look resolute. Above them, in the sculpture, is an angel. Behind them and not represented in the monument are the whole communities from which they come, and which they represent, including the Boston Black community.
Here begins Boston’s Black Heritage Trail — a walking tour created by the Museum of African American History that winds its way through the North slope of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. The area was home for more than a century to a free Black community, one of the most active such communities in the nation. The trail’s sites focus on life before and after the Civil War. Highlights include the museum’s African Meeting House; the Abiel Smith School, the first public school established for Black children in the United States; and former residences, a number of which served as important stations of the Underground Railroad, the vast network of contacts, safe houses, and routes used by fugitives in pursuit of freedom. The 1.6-mile trail, which can be walked in about two hours, comprises 14 historic sites. Maps and information can be found online and at the Museum of African American History. I suggest walking it in good weather.
I am following the trail for the first time, though I have lived in Boston for years, and am a reader of Black and African diasporic history. I have attended unforgettable programs at the African Meeting House. I have walked past the Shaw memorial more times than I can count. I have stopped at times to gaze upon the bronze faces, on my way downtown, to the State House, or to a wonderful shoe store that existed on Beacon Street when I was an undergraduate at Emerson College. Then, I did not place the monument within the larger framework of the trail.
How did following the entire trail escape me? Did my association of Beacon Hill with the history of Boston Brahmins, with power and wealth, with the industrialists who by and large opposed racial equality because of their ties to Southern cotton, keep me from walking its streets? Did I have the feeling of not belonging on those slopes in the 20th century, on the Beacon Hill of impossible rents (for me), flower shops, and antiques stores? Am I guilty, perhaps, of not seeing something because it is so close to me in proximity? There on Beacon Hill was and is a textbook of the 19th-century Black experience. Am I redeemed if I admit that the more recent and practical question of finding on-street parking has more than once stopped me? (I strongly recommend taking the subway to Park Street Station on the Red Line, a short walk from the Shaw memorial.) No matter, here I am, finally on the trail, map in hand.
The trail’s second stop, the George Middleton House, sits snuggled between two red brick buildings, likely built after the house was erected in 1787 by Middleton, a Black hero of the Revolutionary War and esteemed activist. It is the oldest standing house built by African Americans on Beacon Hill — in fact, it is the oldest house on Beacon Hill, period. There is a particular sweetness to the three-story wooden structure, with wide windows gazing out onto Pinckney Street. I am standing in front of the house, waiting for the spirit of Middleton to speak to me, when the most unexpected thing happens (I cannot guarantee this will occur on all tours): A tall man emerges from the front door. He finds me gazing at the house, now a private residence. I imagine he is accustomed to such behavior, living in a historic house.
We exchange greetings and he shares with me his name and affiliation: Stephen Judge, fifth owner of the house. He lives there with his husband. Here is the story Judge relays: Middleton shared the house with his partner, Louis Glapion, who hailed from the Caribbean. Glapion, I’ve since discovered, worked as a hairdresser, an occupation of high standing in the Black community of the day, which would have made both Middleton and Glapion respected members of the contemporary Black community. Several sources support the inclusion of Middleton and Glapion in queer histories.
This information requires the consideration of assumptions I didn’t realize I had about what I would find on the Black Heritage Trail. Here I was expecting musty history. I had never heard of Middleton, this early leader of Boston’s African American community. Glapion’s origins remind me of the great diversity of Black Boston in the 18th century (and the centuries before and after), with members coming from all regions of North America, from the Caribbean, and other parts of world. I am reminded that American Blackness has never been monolithic in identity or ideology — which challenges the white supremacist myth of the “natural” hierarchies of race.
What did unite 19th-century Black Bostonians, however, were common goals including racial equality foremost; the abolition of the institution and economics of slavery; the protection and provision of aid to fugitives; ongoing advocacy for the education of their children in the long struggle for equal school rights; and the preservation of their rights as citizens, particularly after the federal 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that required escaped slaves be returned to their enslavers, and after the 1857 US Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, which effectively stripped citizenship from Black people. The court ruled that African Americans were not and could never be citizens of the United States.
I carry my new awareness, as well the historically contested ideas of Black freedom and citizenship, to the next stop of the trail a few blocks away. The Phillips School is a beautiful brick building on top of which sits a cupola designed to increase the natural light and flow of air within the space beneath it. Granite stairs lead into the school, also now a private residence. When it was constructed in 1824, it was seen as one of the best public schools in Boston, educating primarily children from nearby wealthy families. The Phillips School would not be integrated until 1855 after a tireless fight by Black parents. It ended with the Massachusetts Legislature banning segregated schools, the first law in the country to do so. (It would be nearly 100 years until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional nationwide.)
Much has been written about the critical struggle for equal school rights in Boston and the nation, and the important laws that have emerged as the result of the advocacy of Black communities. Standing before the Phillips School, I try to imagine the experience of the children and young people who personified desegregation, the ones who walked into the schools for the educations their parents so wanted for them, despite the animus raging around them. I try to see girls like the young Sarah Roberts, whose story is beautifully rendered in The First Step, a picture book written by Susan Goodman and illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Her expulsion from her neighborhood and all-white school in 1848 ultimately led to Roberts v. Boston, the first case to challenge a segregated school system.
The Phillips School is the first school on the Black Heritage Trail. The second, near the trail’s end, is the Abiel Smith School, one of the most significant for several reasons. But there is more between the schools for me to see and consider: a handful of sites including The John J. Smith House, the Charles Street Meeting House, and the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House.
THE JOHN J. SMITH HOUSE stands a large edifice with black shutters on its many windows, a second-floor window seat, and a stately black door that metaphorically opens onto history. There is Smith, a Massachusetts state representative. There is Georgiana Smith, his wife, who works for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency established in 1865 to provide relief to formerly-enslaved people and others after the Civil War. See them creating a home and a hub for community organizing and activism here on Pinckney Street. How to visualize the many people who visited while working on emancipation and abolition, and who walked renewed out of the house onto the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill? Perhaps en route to the Hayden House?
A glass-arched entryway and dark green door mark the brick house of Lewis and Harriet Hayden on Phillips Street — the sixth stop of the Black Heritage Trail. This door also serves as a passageway to the past, and to one of the most noted stations, or safe houses, of the Underground Railroad, which extended from the South to Canada. The Haydens had themselves been fugitives, from Kentucky, and were among the enslaved who emancipated themselves with the help of fellow abolitionists. Once settled in Boston in the 1850s, they became among the community’s most influential antislavery activists — contributing to Boston’s longstanding reputation as a sanctuary for fugitives.
Women, men, and children mobilized to protect fugitives. In 1836, a group of Black women in Boston, in an incident later called the Abolition Riot, executed a daring rescue of two fugitives who had self-emancipated from Baltimore. When Eliza Small and Polly Ann Bates were brought before a judge of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the Boston women rioted in the courtroom, creating a path for Small and Bates to be spirited into a waiting carriage that sped away. The day I stand outside the Hayden house, bright yellow flowers rest in the building’s two window boxes.
To walk the Black Heritage Trail is to be reminded of difficult American history, of the daily discrimination and segregation Black people faced; of the brutality of slavery and the slave economic system; of the conditions of Black schools; and challenges and threats to Black lives and Black freedom. To walk the Black Heritage Trail is also to be amazed at what the Boston community has endured and achieved, to acknowledge its ongoing advocacy, organization, vision of freedom, and upholding of American ideals.
“This is one of Boston’s most rewarding walkable histories,” says L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation at the Museum of African American History.
The trail ends at the twin sites of the African Meeting House, built in 1806, and the Abiel Smith School building completed in 1835. They comprise the museum’s Boston campus (there is another campus on Nantucket). The museum organizes exhibitions, programs, and education activities that “showcase the powerful stories of black families who worshipped, educated their children, debated the issues of the day, produced great art, organized politically and advanced the cause of freedom” as its website so aptly describes.
The African Meeting House, the nation’s oldest existing Black church building, stands as a space of extraordinary history and community. For 19th-century Black Bostonians, it was a think tank and site of worship, a concert and lecture hall, a site of collaboration between Black and white abolitionists, an incubator of rescue missions, the launch pad for emancipatory movements — and the very center of Black Boston.
During visiting hours, the doors of both the meeting house and museum are open to the past, present, and future.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
> The Black Heritage Trail: The Museum of African American History partners with the National Park Service, which offers free guided tours of the trail (currently on hold). Check nps.gov/boaf for updates. Homes on the trail are not open to the public.
> Museum of African American History: The Abiel Smith School and African Meeting House are now open for visitors. Reserve timed tickets at least 24 hours in advances at maah.org.
> The African American Trail Project: This collaborative history project housed atTufts University highlights more than 200 sites across Greater Boston and Massachusetts. Find a map and more information at africanamericantrailproject.tufts.edu.
Danielle Legros Georges, a writer, literary translator, and professor of creative writing at Lesley University, was Boston’s poet laureate from 2015 to 2019. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.