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In Roxbury, historic duplex offers chance to amplify Boston’s slavery ties

The Shirley-Eustis House recently purchased what historians believe is a former stable house and living quarters for enslaved people.

Shirley-Eustis House executive director Suzy Buchanan shows off the estate’s outbuilding at 42-44 Shirley Street. Historians proved the former stable had slave activity and bought it from a developer planning to convert it into apartments.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Suzy Buchanan grew excited as she pointed out an 18th-century lath among the mold-and-mildew-tinged walls inside the historic duplex home at 42-44 Shirley St.

“There are few 1700s buildings left in Roxbury,” said Buchanan, executive director of the Shirley Eustis-House, a steward organization for a series of parcels on Shirley Street that serve as one of the country’s few remaining colonial estates.

Anyone unfamiliar with the history at 42-44 Shirley may grimace at the aging structure, but Buchanan sees the dilapidated house as a prime candidate for community investment. The centuries-old house, which at one time was at risk of being demolished, has proven ties to slavery it is one of the few confirmed sites in the city where enslaved people worked and lived.


The Shirley-Eustis House's outbuilding, at 42-44 Shirley Street. Historians proved the former stable ties to slavery.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In 2020, a developer’s proposal to demolish the site to make way for affordable housing units sparked a community effort to landmark the site and preserve its historical significance to Roxbury. Then, in June, the Shirley-Eustis House acquired 42-44 Shirley St. from the developer. The acquisition has ushered in a community planning process and a multi-million dollar campaign to fund mortgage payments as well as whatever uses the neighborhood deems fit for the landmark.

Supporters of the effort to buy and preserve the property say it is an opportunity to amplify Boston’s colonial history beyond the Freedom Trail ― the downtown-based walking trail ― where the lasting impacts of the slave trade, atrocities against Black and Indigenous people, and British imperialism on present-day affairs are center stage.

“This house has a real role to play for the future of historical tourism in Boston,” said Buchanan.

Exposed wallpaper at 42-44 Shirley Street. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The structure at 42-44 Shirley St. is a former stable and is one piece of a set of buildings protected in 2021 by the Boston Landmarks Commission. Most of the buildings once made up the summer estate of former Massachusetts Bay Colony governor William Shirley, whose family, research shows, enslaved several people — Jack, Jane, Nanny, Thomas Scipio, Caesar, Cesar, Affy, and William. Former governor and abolitionist William Eustis then owned the land in the early 19th century.


For decades, the historical significance of the specific structure at 42-44 Shirley St. was murky. But then, a city-commissioned archaeological dig last fall turned up evidence of enslaved labor. Joe Bagley, Boston’s archaeologist, and his team uncovered a pea-size cowrie shell, which was often used as currency during the slave trade.

There’s no way to know for certain if the shell belonged to enslaved people, but Bagley believes so.

“We’ve only found those exclusively in Boston on sites where we know there’s documented enslaved people present,” Bagley said.

Historians now believe that the duplex at 42-44 Shirley St. once served as a stable for the Shirley-Eustis House, housing 12 to 15 horses and enslaved men and boys to watch after them.

The entrance to #42, on the west end of the house. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Around 1868, a new owner split the stable in half and converted the space into tenements. Over the next century, the presence of enslaved people there was remembered largely through word-of-mouth.

In 2020, West Roxbury-based developer Mike Bavis purchased the duplex with plans of converting it into 14 affordable housing units. But then neighborhood residents cited the site’s historical significance at a community meeting.

Bavis listened to the community’s concerns, and ultimately agreed to sell the property to the Shirley-Eustis House.


“Once all that information was gathered, it was our hope that this building could transfer to people that could help bring back the physical history for people to visit and see,” Bavis said. “The end game for everybody was that the community could have something that Roxbury, that Boston could be proud of.”

The Shirley-Eustis House had considered buying 42-44 Shirley St. since 2019, but couldn’t afford the $760,000 asking price. Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston, Inc., a nonprofit that redevelops historic properties, said groups managing historic properties in the city often lack the funding and staffing to purchase such important sites.

The Shirley-Eustis House, at 33 Shirley Street, is across the street from the estate’s outbuilding.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Also, many investors and developers are discouraged by the high rehabilitation costs that come with aging structures, so many historic landmarks fall to demolition.

“Not everything can be saved,” Kottaridis said. “But when you find something special, it’s important to intervene and do whatever it takes to save it.”

Deeming 42-44 Shirley worth saving, Historic Boston guided the Shirley-Eustis House through a 6-month acquisition process. In June, Bavis and the Shirley-Eustis House finalized a $1.1 million acquisition.

The Shirley-Eustis House put down an immediate $650,000, thanks to a Community Preservation Act grant. And the upcoming fundraising campaign would pay for the remaining $450,000, while also funding an estimated $4 to $6 million in renovations.

If all goes as planned, the Shirley-Eustis House may transform the property’s ground floor into an exhibition space to spotlight colonial America, Buchanan said. The former stable could give visitors a visual lesson on what 18th-century stables looked like, display some of the findings from the archaeological dig, and offer a perspective on enslaved labor that varies from the brute field work often associated with slavery in the South.


On the second floor, some rooms could serve as rentable office space for local organizations.

René Mardones, director of community organizing for the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, said additional office space could help offset the displacement of local groups caused by rising commercial rents. Especially if it’s inexpensive.

Along Dudley Street, “we face not only the increase in rent for families, but also how we can have affordable commercial space,” Mardones said. So, “having a place with affordable rentals is great.”

State Senator Liz Miranda, who represents the neighborhood and sits on the Roxbury Historical Society’s board, said it’s crucial that the final vision connects the Shirley-Eustis House’s history with that of other storied institutions throughout the area, and centers not the lives of the colonial family, but rather the people they enslaved.

“The Shirley-Eustis House currently talks about British rule,” Miranda said. “We need a place that tells the story of the other narrative.”

She thinks the centuries-old outbuilding has the potential to mirror nearby sites like the Dillaway-Thomas House, where historical markers inform visitors about the past and a community space allows residents to congregate and hold events.

“I could see it becoming a destination,” Miranda said. “And I’m so happy it’s in Roxbury because this is the soul of the Black community.”


Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at Follow her @tianarochon.