- This article is an itinerary.
The Black Heritage Trail is a short walking tour winding visitors through Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood. Covering ten sites important in American black history, its 1.6 miles can be completed in an hour or two, depending on how long you spend at each site, and any side trips you might decide to take.
In 1783, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to declare slavery illegal — mostly out of gratitude for black participation in the American Revolutionary War. When the first federal census was counted in 1790, Massachusetts was the only state in the Union to record no slaves. Subsequently, a sizable community of free blacks and escaped slaves developed in Boston, settling on the north face of Beacon Hill, and in the North End. With a strong abolitionist community, Boston was long considered a desirable destination for southern black slaves escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad.
The free African American community in Boston was concerned with finding decent housing, establishing independent supportive institutions, educating their children, and ending slavery in the rest of the nation. Although some black Bostonians lived in the North End and in the West End north of Cambridge Street, more than half the city’s 2,000 blacks lived on Beacon Hill just below the residences of wealthy whites. The historic buildings along today’s Black Heritage Trail were the homes, business, schools, and churches of a black community that organized from the nation’s earliest years to sustain those who faced discrimination and slavery.
The Museum of African American History (Abiel Smith School), 46 Joy Street. M-Sa 10AM-4PM. Free.
Self guided tours are free and available year round. Stop by the Museum of African American History in person for a printed map, or get online and print one yourself. Guided tours, also free and lasting about 90 minutes, are available several times a year during the summer and fall seasons. If your schedule doesn't line up with a guide, you can download a family focused audio tour and listen yourself for only $0.99. The majority of sites on the tour are today private houses and not open to the public. The only sites available for touring are the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School.
Centrally located on Beacon Hill across from the State House, driving is profoundly discouraged. The T is a quick, cheap, and convenient way to access this area of the city. Park Street Station is the closest stop for those taking the Red or Green lines, on the Blue line Government Center and Bowdoin stations are about equidistant, and Downtown Crossing (DTX) is the closest station on the Orange line. See Boston by public transit for more information.
Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial
1 (Park and Beacon Streets). Responding to pressure from black and white abolitionists, President Lincoln admitted African American soldiers into the Union forces in 1863. The 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was the first black regiment recruited in the North. On July 18, 1863, the 54th regiment led an assault on Fort Wagner in an attempt to capture Confederate-held Charleston, S.C. In this hard-fought battle, Col. Robert Gould Shaw and many of his soldiers were killed. Sgt. William Carney of New Bedford was wounded while saving the flag from capture. Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery, the first black soldier to receive this honor. This bronze memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was dedicated May 31, 1897, in a ceremony that included Carney and members of the 54th Regiment.
George Middleton House
2 (5–7 Pinckney Street). Built in 1787 this structure is one of the oldest standing homes on Beacon Hill. George Middleton (1735–1815), one of the original owners, was a Revolutionary War veteran. Middleton led the Bucks of America, one of three black militias that fought against the British. After the war he became an activist and community leader, helping found the Free African Society and serving as the 3rd Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, a fraternal order started by black Bostonian Prince Hall.
The Phillips School
3 (Anderson and Pinckney streets). This architecture is typical of 1800s Boston schoolhouses. Built in 1824, this was a white-only school until 1855. Black children attended school on the first floor of the African Meeting House or, after 1834, the Abiel Smith School. When the Massachusetts Legislature abolished segregated schools in 1855, the Phillips School became one of Boston’s first integrated schools.
John J. Smith House
4 (86 Pinckney St). Born free in Richmond, Va., John J. Smith (1820–1906) moved to Boston in the late 1840s. He opened a barbershop that became a center for abolitionist activity and a rendezvous point for people escaping on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Smith was a recruiting officer for the all-black 5th Cavalry. He was later elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for three terms.
Charles Street Meeting House
5 (Mt. Vernon and Charles streets). This meeting house was built in 1807 by the white Third Baptist Church of Boston. New England’s segregationist tradition of church seating prevailed. Timothy Gilbert, church member and abolitionist, tested the tradition in the mid-1830s by inviting black friends to his pew one Sunday. Gilbert was expelled. Joined by other white abolitionist Baptists, Gilbert founded the First Baptist Free Church, which became Tremont Temple—considered to be one of the first integrated churches in America.
Lewis and Harriet Hayden House
6 (66 Phillips Street). Lewis Hayden (1816–1889), born enslaved in Lexington, Ky., escaped with his wife Harriet and settled in Boston. Lewis became a leader in the abolition movement, and the Hayden House became an integral stop on the Underground Railroad. The Haydens reportedly kept kegs of gunpowder in their home that they threatened to ignite if slave catchers tried to enter. Hayden also recruited for the 54th Regiment, was a Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, and was later elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
John Coburn House
7 (2 Phillips Street). John Coburn (1811–1873) was a clothing retailer and community activist. He served as treasurer of the New England Freedom Association, an organization dedicated to helping people escape from slavery. In 1851 he was arrested, tried, and acquitted for the courthouse rescue of Shadrach Minkins, a freedom seeker who was caught in Boston by federal slave catchers empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Coburn was co-founder and captain of the Massasoit Guards, a black military company in 1850s Boston that was a precursor to the 54th Regiment.
Smith Court Residences
8 (3, 5, 7, 7A, and 10 Smith Court). These five homes typify those of black Bostonians in the 1800s. Number 3: Owner James Scott’s Underground Railroad activity is documented in the records of the Boston Vigilance Committee. Like John Coburn (see 2 Phillips Street), Scott was arrested, tried, and acquitted for the 1851 rescue of Shadrach Minkins. William Cooper Nell, abolitionist and community leader, also lived at Number 3. Nell, the driving force in the struggle to integrate Boston’s schools in 1855, is considered the nation’s first published black historian. The brick apartment houses on the west end of the court and on the corner of Joy Street typify the tenements that developers built between 1885 and 1915. The apartments provided inexpensive, dense housing units for the waves of late-1880s European immigrants. Except for the Smith Court Residences, most wooden houses were torn down to make way for these four and five-story apartments.
Abiel Smith School
9 (46 Joy Street). White philanthropist Abiel Smith willed money to the city of Boston for educating African American children. The city built this school building with Smith’s legacy. In 1835 Boston’s black children attended the Smith School, which replaced the school in the African Meeting House. The school remained Boston’s black public school until public schools were integrated in 1855.
The African Meeting House
10 (8 Smith Court). The African Meeting House, built by free black laborers in 1806, is considered the oldest surviving black church building in the United States. In the 1800s the building served as the center of religious, social, educational, and political activity for Boston’s free black community. William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England AntiSlavery Society here in 1832. Frederick Douglass spoke here, and it was a recruitment station for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War.
Take normal big city precautions, but there is little to worry about here in terms of personal safety. Not only is this is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, but you're also walking within a stones-throw of all the security within the Capitol building. These sites are all located on a hill, so make sure you're OK with a little light exertion. Take care in inclement weather, those bricks may look beautiful but they can become slippery when wet.
You're centrally located here in "The Hub of the Universe", and will have no lack of options for what to do next after finishing the tour.
- Walk across Cambridge or Tremont Street and into the heart of Downtown Boston.
- Hop on the Red Line and head south into South Boston, home of the Institute of Contemporary Art.
- Continue exploring black culture at The Museum of Afro American Artists, way off the beaten path in Roxbury.
- Keep walking across the Longfellow bridge and into Cambridge's Kendall Square.
- Take the B trolley on the Green Line to head into student centered Allston.