Boston’s Black History is Misunderstood.
When many people think of Black-White race relations in Boston, they often think of the violent racial battles in the 1970s over forced desegregation of Boston Public Schools through busing.
Either that, or, if they’re not from Boston, they think of the zillion recent Tough White Gangster Boston movies like “The Departed” and ask, “Wait, there are Black people in Boston?”
Guess what, folks? Boston actually has a LONG, RICH African-American History!
An Eye-Opening Black History Timeline
To give you a taste of the powerful facts learned on this tour (which every Bostonian and visitor to Boston should know!), Alex provided me with Black History Timeline notes from his tour, which I am sharing, below in blue, with my comments inserted in black.
Read, enjoy, and share your comments at the end of the article!
1630: Boston is founded.
1638: The first Africans arrive in Boston, via the West Indies. They came aboard a ship from Salem called Desire. They are enslaved. (Notice how African-American history in Boston begins just 8 years after the founding of Boston!)
1641: Massachusetts accords legal status to slavery. (Argh.)
1656: Sebastian Kane, a black man, owns property in Dorchester (then a separate town from Boston). (Note how early in Boston’s History that African-Americans have a stake in the city.)
1659: Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is established at the North End. The earliest black Bostonians are buried there. (We always think of the North End as the Italian part of Boston, but in fact it’s also the center of the earliest Black History in Boston.)
1681: Maria, an enslaved black woman, and two accomplices, are convicted of burning down the home of a white man in Roxbury (then a separate town from Boston). This was potentially a form of resistance. Maria was burned at the stake. (Whoa!)
1703-1707: The Massachusetts government passes a series of laws designed to “regulate” free black people in the province, including a curfew; punishing interracial marriages; placing high duties on the importation of black servants while paying a bonus for the importation of white servants; and stopping people of color in Massachusetts from aiding fugitive slaves. (Yikes.)
1706: Reverend Cotton Mather publishes The Negro Christianized, which is a guide for white people about educating enslaved black people on Christianity. Among other unfortunate things, the book encourages black people to think of their enslavers in the same way they would Jesus Christ. (Oh my.)
1708: Under a recently passed provincial law, the Selectmen of Boston begin calling free black men to perform public works for the town at no pay. (This was SUCH a shocking revelation of the tour!!! Because of the resulting hours and hours and hours of forced labor compelled by this law, it turns out that much of Boston was built by free Black men working under duress for no pay! Can you imagine if you, a free person, were forced by your city to perform frequent manual labor?! Alex talks more of this in his book, The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood)
1718: Reverend Cotton Mather opens a school for Africans and Native Americans at the North End.
1722: Boston’s population is slightly more than 10,500, with approximately 17% of this total being African-American. (Fascinating!)
1723: Christ Church opens in Boston (known today as the Old North Church). By 1727 there are 32 enslaved Africans worshiping there, two of whom are baptized in the church.
1755: Phillis, Phoebe, and Mark Codman kill John Codman, their enslaver, in Charlestown (then a separate town from Boston). When Paul Revere tells of his famous ride to Lexington in 1775, he remembers riding past “where Mark was hung in chains.” (This is an aspect of the Paul Revere story that we never hear.)
1770: Crispus Attucks, an African American from Framingham, was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre. Three African Americans testify at the trials of the officer and the soldiers who committed the Boston Massacre. (Rumors say that others present at the “Boston Massacre” were students from Boston Latin School.)
1773: Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is published in London. (African-Americans have contributed to our country’s literature since the beginning of the United States.)
1773-1775: African Americans sent no fewer than 5 petitions to the Massachusetts government requesting the abolition of slavery. (Organized!)
1775-1783: The American Revolutionary War. 5,000 African Americans serve in the military forces of our emerging nation. (African-Americans helped build America in so many ways.)
1783: Slavery is abolished in Massachusetts. (Hooray!!! Click the following links to learn more about the role of African-American’s in ending slavery in MA, through Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker.)
1786: Colonel George Middleton purchases land on the north slope of Beacon Hill. His home, built shortly thereafter, still stands as the oldest structure in the neighborhood and the oldest African-American home in Boston. (Bostonians now often associate Beacon Hill with fancy, hoity-toity housing and retail, forgetting that it’s also the site of some of the deepest, richest African-American history in America.)
1784: The first African-American Masonic Order is granted a charter from London. Prince Hall had been leading the unincorporated organization since 1775. The organization is still headquartered in Boston today and is known as the Prince Hall Masons.
1787: Prince Hall petitions the Massachusetts legislature to grant African-American children access to public schools. His request was denied. (It is fascinating to see how many years back our battle for fair, integrated schools stretches.)
1791: The Bill of Rights, including guarantees for the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to freely assemble, is adopted.
1796: The African Society is founded in Boston to aid and uplift members of the African-American community. George Middleton, a Prince Hall Mason and a veteran, was a founder of the society.
1798: The African School opens in the home of Primus Hall near the corner of today’s Phillips and West Cedar Streets on Beacon Hill. The school was founded and funded by Boston’s black community.
1806: The African Meeting House is dedicated. It still stands today and is the oldest surviving black church building in the United States. (Boston has so many impressive “Firsts!”)
1812-1815: War of 1812. Hundreds of African Americans serve in the American Navy.
1826: The Massachusetts General Colored Association was formed in Boston as the first avowedly abolitionist organization in the city. Its leadership and membership is entirely African-American.
1830s: Charles Lenox Remond, a free African American from Salem, becomes one of the first paid, full-time anti-slavery speakers.
1831: William Lloyd Garrison begins publication of the Liberator.
1831: Nat Turner organizes an unsuccessful uprising in Virginia.
1833: Maria Stewart is the first American woman to publicly speak on politics and race relations. She addresses her fellow African Americans at the African Meeting House. (Another Boston “First!”)
1835: The Abiel Smith School opens. Legally segregated schooling in Boston was then firmly established. (School segregation again.)
1840s: Conditions at the Abiel Smith School grow worse due to cruel teachers, inadequate funding, and overcrowding. In 1844, Black Bostonians led by William Cooper Nell and John T. Hilton urge parents to withdraw their children from the Abiel Smith School “at whatever inconvenience or expense.”
1841: Frederick Douglass speaks on Nantucket about his experiences in slavery.
1842: The African-American community in Boston forms the Freedom Association explicitly to assist self-emancipated individuals. The Freedom Association later merges with the Vigilance Committee thus forming an interracial action group. (It’s uplifting to hear History about interracial groups fighting for justice.)
1845: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is published.
1849: “Great School Rights Meeting” is held at the African Meeting House. Petitions propose the closing of the Abiel Smith School or replacing the white headmaster with a person of color.
1849-1850: The Legality of separate schools is tried in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in the case of Roberts vs. City of Boston. Charles Sumner and Robert Morris, a black attorney, represent Sarah Roberts. The decision in the case upholds legally segregated schooling. (Fascinating and sad.)
1850: The U.S. Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act which seriously erodes the rights and freedoms of African Americans in Massachusetts and other free states.
1851: Lewis Hayden and other members of the Vigilance Committee successfully rescue Shadrach Minkins from federal custody. Minkins was accused of being a fugitive slave from Norfolk, Virginia. (Alex explained the dramatic scene of the group storming into the courtroom to grab Shadrach and bring him to freedom. So brave!)
1851: Sojourner Truth gives her famous Ain’t I a Woman? speech at a women’s rights convention in Ohio.
1855: Segregated schools are outlawed in Massachusetts after several years of organization and protest. The Abiel Smith School ceases to be a black-only school after 20 years. William Cooper Nell is celebrated for his efforts at the African Meeting House in December. The Abiel Smith School became an integrated school. Today the building is a museum and a showcase of black history. (All these years after school segregation was outlawed in Boston, it’s shocking how segregated many of our schools still are.)
1856: Charlotte Forten becomes the first African-American teacher to teach white students in Salem.
1857: The decision in Dred Scott’s lawsuit states that African Americans are not American citizens, are “inferior,” and have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (Noooo!)
1859: John Brown leads an unsuccessful uprising at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
1862: Charlotte Forten travels to South Carolina to teach newly-emancipated African Americans, all of whom had been legally barred from any sort of education.
1863: The Emancipation Proclamation frees enslaved people only in the rebel states that had not yet been retaken by the United States military.
1865: The Civil War ends. Nearly 200,000 African Americans served their country and fought for universal freedom in the Army and Navy. The Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment was recruited at several locations including the African Meeting House. They trained and went to war as the first African-American regiment from the northern states. (A huge part of American History, shown in the 1897 monument across from the Massachusetts State House and in the movie, “Glory.”)
1865: The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified. It outlaws slavery in the United States.
1868: The 14th amendment is ratified. It overturns the Dred Scott decision and returns citizenship to African Americans. In addition, individual states could no longer curb the citizenship rights of people living within their jurisdictions.
1870: The 15th amendment is ratified. It guarantees the right to vote to all Americans regardless of race, color, or former enslavement. (!!!!)
Are you as moved as I was by the rich and long history of African-Americans in Boston? Thanks, Alex and Context, for your wonderful tour!
Want to learn more? Check out Alex Goldfeld’s book, The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood.