Black Boston: Freedom in the Empire and the Republic

Last winter, I had a wonderful experience with Context Travel exploring the new Art of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This Spring, I had another wonderful experience with Context on an in depth, three hour long walking tour of Black Boston. The tour was led by Alex Goldfeld, the President and Historian of the North End Historical Society, and the former Director of Operations at Museum of African American History.

Besides being a historian of the North End; Boston’s “Little Italy,” Alex Goldfeld has also conducted extensive research on the history of African Americans in Boston. The Black Boston: Freedom in the Empire and the Republic tour met in front of the statue of Paul Revere in the North End and ended in front of the African Meeting House on the north slope of Beacon Hill. The tour took us back to the year 1638, the date when the first Africans arrived in Boston.

Within the first five minutes of the tour, we wanted to know what type of work the first Africans performed in Boston. Context Travel walking tours are often very small and foster an environment where questions are encouraged throughout the tour, regardless of how “ignorant” we think those questions may be. After all, Context Travel organizes walking tours for the “intellectually curious.” According to Alex, the first Africans in Boston were considered “Jack of all Trades,” they were trained to milk a cow and to tend to other domestic duties of the house.

The three hour long tour took us along Boston’s Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail, stopping at many of Boston’s most recognized landmarks. The inspiring stories of Bostonians and their courageous journey in their quest for freedom were all weaved in with the architectural and landscape treasures of Boston.  Among the landmarks included in the tour are:

Old Church Church – Boston’s oldest church dating back to 1723.

Copps Hill Burial Ground – Boston’s first black colony, called “New Guinea” was located on Copps Hill’s northeastern base of the North End. The western point of the burial ground, the least desirable one and  was reserved for blacks, both slaves and free. The Prince Hall monument commemorates the blacks buried here.

Prince Hall Monument

Faneuil Hall – Built in the style of an English country market, it served as a platform on which women advocated for voting and equal rights and abolitionists spoke against the cruelties of slavery.

The Old State House – The site where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians on July 18, 1776. This was also the site of the Boston Massacre and where Crispus Attucks was killed.

Park Street Church – William Lloyd Garrison gave his first speech against slavery here.

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial – designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in collaboration with the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, the memorial commemorates the Massachusetts 54th Regiment; the first Civil War regiment of freed blacks led by Robert Gould Shaw.

Middleton-Glappion House, 5 Pinckney Street – Middleton was a black jockey coachman and founder of the African Society. The house is dated around 1795.

The Lewis and Harriet Hayden House – The house became an Underground Railroad Station. There is an amazing story attached to this house, but you’ll have to go on this tour to hear it.

The Abiel Smith School – First school built for black children designed by Richard Upjohn.

The African Meeting House – An amazing and inspiring building built by blacks and often attributed to Asher Benjamin as architect. William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 in this building. The building is now owned by the African American History Museum and is undergoing a restoration and is expected to open to the public later this year.

For a more detailed account and more stories please also see Melissa Mannon’s post on ArchivesInfo, who accompanied me on the tour.

Click here for more information on all the walking tours offered by Context Travel.

African Meeting House, photo by Erica Holthausen

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