The Black Heritage Trail is a 1.5 mile long path in Boston through North Beacon Hill with stops at important African American historical sites. North Beacon Hill was a center of Boston’s 19th century African American community. The Trail contains more than 15 pre-Civil War structures including the 1806 African Meeting House which is the oldest standing black church in the United States.
The tour starts at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (commemorating Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment) and then continues to the George Middleton House, the Phillips School (1st integrated Boston public school), John J Smith House, Charles Street Meeting House (First African Methodist Episcopal Church or Charles Street A.M.E), Lewis and Harriet Hayden House, John Coburn House, Smith Court Residences, Abiel Smith School (Museum of African American History), African Meeting House.
Almost all of the sites on the trail are private residences so only the outside of the buildings can be seen. The National Park Service offers ranger guided tours in the spring and summer.
Stop 1. Robert Gould Shaw Memorial
(across Beacon St from the MA State House)
The memorial commemorates Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first documented African American volunteer regiment in the Civil War fighting for the North.
While African Americans had fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, northern racist sentiments kept African Americans from joining the North at the beginning of the Civil War. A clause in Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation allowed African American volunteer regiments and the first was formed under Massachusetts Governor John Andrew in 1863 - the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Governor Andrew chose Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent Boston abolitionist family, to lead the 54th regiment.
The 54th Regiment became famous following an attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863 (depicted in the 1989 academy award winning movie Glory). At least 74 enlisted men and 3 officers were killed in the battle, including Colonel Shaw, and many more were wounded. Sergeant William H. Carney became the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by saving the regiment’s flag from being captured even though he was severely injured. At the end of the war by the time the regiment returned to Boston in September 1865 only 598 of the original 1,007 men who enlisted were able to take part in the welcoming ceremony.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the artist that created this high-relief bronze monument which was unveiled on May 31, 1897. The scene shows the 54th Regiment marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston to head south with Colonel Shaw on horseback and three rows of infantry men march behind him.
Stop 2. George Middleton House
(5 Pinckney Street, private residence – not open to the public)
George Middleton was an early leader in Boston's African American community and was a colonel in the Revolutionary War.
During the Revolutionary War Middleton was the leader of a black militia company called the Bucks of America and while little information about the group has survived they likely guarded the property of Boston merchants during the war and may have been known as the "Protectors." John Hancock presented the Bucks of America with a unit flag which is preserved in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
After the war African Americans began to form a small community on the north side of Beacon Hill. Middleton was one of the first to locate there and bought land on Pickney Street and built this house, along with his friend Louis Glapion, in 1786. Middleton was heavily involved in the community and was an early member of the African Lodge (later known as the Prince Hall Masons). In 1796 Middleton helped to organize the African Benevolent Society (provided financial relief and job placement for members - primarily widows and orphans) and he also fought and petitioned for equal school rights for black children.
This house is now the oldest home on Beacon Hill that is still in use. The wood structure is a typical example of a late 18th century Boston home built by African Americans.
Stop 3. The Phillips School
(corner of Pinckney and Anderson Streets, private residence – not open to the public)
In 1855 the Phillips School became the first integrated public school in Boston although it started as a public high school for white males.
The first public high school in America was the English High School (at that time the English Classical School) started in 1821. The school moved to this location after this building was built in 1824. In 1844 the English High School moved again and the Phillips Grammar School was started for white boys and girls. The school was named after the first mayor of Boston, John Phillips, who was the father of famed abolitionist Wendell Phillips.
In 1855 when Boston schools were integrated by an act of the Massachusetts legislature, the Phillips school became the first integrated public school in Boston. In the early 1870s, Elizabeth Smith, daughter of abolitionist John J. Smith, started teaching at the Phillips School and was probably the first African American to teach in an integrated Boston public school.
Stop 4. John J Smith House
(86 Pinckney Street, private residence – not open to the public)
John J. Smith was an African American abolitionist and politician who served three terms as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Smith was born in Virginia and moved to Boston in the 1840s and spent his pre-Civil War years working as a barber. His shop was an important place for Boston’s 19th century black community; it served as a center for community organizing and abolitionist activities. Charles Sumner, the US Senator, was an ardent abolitionist and a friend and client of Smiths who spent much of his time at Smith’s shop. Smith also helped assist and shelter escaped slaves during this time.
During the Civil War, Smith was a recruiter for Massachusetts African American regiments.
In the 1840s and 50s Smith and his wife Georgiana fought for equal school rights, which was finally passed by Massachusetts legislation in 1855, integrating Boston’s schools. Smith’s daughter Elizabeth, in the early 1870s, became the first person of African descent to teach in Boston’s integrated schools.
Smith served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, as its third African American member, in 1868, 1869, and 1872. In 1878, Smith was appointed as the first African American to serve on the Boston Common Council and he successfully worked to have the first African American appointed to the Boston police force. Smith lived here at 86 Pinckney Street from 1878 to 1893.
Stop 5. Charles Street Meeting House
(70 Charles Street)
The Charles Street Meeting House was built in 1807 by the Third Baptist Church (who used the nearby Charles River for its baptisms) and by the time of the Civil War became a stronghold of the anti-slavery movement. Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Charles Sumner were among the abolitionists who spoke there.
After the War, the Third Baptist Church sold the Charles Street Meeting House in 1876 to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (later known as the Charles Street A.M.E) which was the largest of Boston’s five black churches. The A.M.E. Church was a leader in political and social activism. It became the last black institution to leave Beacon Hill in 1939 when it departed to Warren Street in Roxbury.
The building passed through the ownership of various churches and in the 1980s was converted to offices and ground floor retail/restaurant.
Stop 6. Lewis and Harriet Hayden House
(66 Phillips Street, private residence – not open to the public)
Lewis Hayden was one of Boston’s most visible and militant African American abolitionists.
Lewis Hayden was born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky in 1812. His first wife and son were sold to US Senator Henry Clay who later sold them into the Deep South and Hayden was never able to discover their whereabouts. Hayden later remarried and the couple escaped with their son Joseph to Canada in 1844. They moved back to the USA to Detroit in 1845 and then to Boston in January 1846.
Lewis ran a clothing store and became a leader in the black community. In 1850, the Haydens moved into the house at 66 Phillips (then Southac) Street. The Hayden’s routinely cared for self-emancipated African Americans at their home becoming a stop on the Underground Railroad and using their house as a boarding house between 1850 and 1860. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1853, visited the Hayden house to meet with newly escaped slaves to get information for her book, Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.
During the Civil War, Lewis Hayden worked as a recruiter for the 54th Regiment. Later he served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and worked for the Massachusetts Secretary of State.
Stop 7. John Coburn House
(2 Phillips Street, private residence – not open to the public)
John P. Coburn, born in Boston between 1809 and 1813, was one of Boston’s wealthiest African Americans. He has two clothing shops, including the Brattle Street clothes shop, where he cleaned, tailored and sold men’s clothing. In addition he co-owned a profitable gaming house, the Coburn Gaming House, which doubled as a safe house on the underground railroad.
Coburn resided at this house from 1844 until his death in 1873. In 1845 Coburn was the treasurer of the New England Freedom Association. This group was founded by African American leaders in 1842 as a fugitive slave assistance group.
In 1852, Coburn founded and served as the captain of the Massasoit Guards, a black militia unit, to police Beacon Hill and protect residents from slave catchers. The Guards were never officially recognized by the state despite repeated petitions. The group was named after a Wampanoag chief who had been friendly to Massachusetts colonists.
Stop 8. Smith Court Residences
(2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 7A Smith Court, private residence – not open to the public)
The north slope of Beacon Hill and especially the area around lower Joy Street and Smith Court was an important center of the 19th century African American community. The homes on Smith Court along with the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School are the best preserved physical buildings from that time.
3 Smith Court, the James Scott and William C. Nell House, was built between 1798 and 1800 and starting in 1830 was rented to numerous African American men and their families. The longest resident of the building, James Scott, was a tenant from 1839 to 1865 and owned the property from 1865 until his death in 1888. In 1851, Scott was arrested and charged with spearheading the rescue of Shadrach Minkins (an escaped slave who was arrested in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act but was rescued out of federal court by the Boston Vigilance Committee) but was acquitted for lack of evidence. A later tenant, William Cooper Nell from 1850 to 1857, was an advocate for school integration, active in the Boston Vigilance Committee and sheltered or aided numerous self-emancipated slaves at 3 Smith Court.
Stop 9. Abiel Smith School, Museum of African American History
(46 joy street, mon-sat 10am to 4pm, closed Sundays, http:s//www.maah.org )
The Abiel Smith School was one of the first public schools, and is the oldest still standing, that was built specifically to educate black children. The school was completed in 1835, using money from Boston philanthropist Abiel Smith (and the building was named after him), allowing the children that were using a room at the African Meeting House to finally have their own school building.
By 1849 most African Americans in Boston withdraw their children from the Abiel Smith School to protest segregated education and by 1855, Massachusetts legislation was passed to integrate public schools, of which the Phillips School was the first in Boston.
Today the building houses the Museum of African American History which features rotating galleries and a museum store.
Stop 10. African Meeting House
(8 Smith Court)
The African Meeting House was built in 1806 for the African Baptist Church of Boston and it is now the oldest black church still standing in the United States. Abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Maria Stewart, Wendell Phillips, Sarah Grimke, and Frederick Douglass all spoke at the meeting house.
The building also housed in its basement in 1806 the first African American grammar school that had previously been meeting in the house of Primus Hall (which he started in 1798). In 1835 the school moved next door to the Abiel Smith School once the building was completed.
The Meeting House has been returned to its 1855 appearance through historic restoration and is now opened for talks and guided tours from the next door museum.