African American Heritage in Boston

black history monthTo mark Black History month, we asked Boston docent Alex Goldfeld about the African American experience and heritage in early Boston history.  Here’s what he had to share with us.

How does Boston fit into the history of African Americans in this country?

Every aspect of African American history can be seen, or at least glimpsed, in examples from Boston and its surrounding towns.  From the earliest colonial times to the movements for equal civil rights in the twentieth century, specific examples of the major historical trends can be found in greater Boston.

For example, African Americans have been in Boston and neighboring towns since the 1620s, similar to places in Virginia and elsewhere.  The earliest recorded person of color to own land and other property in the Boston area was Sebastian Kane in 1656.  Boston hired its first black employee, a man named Jeremiah, in 1689, and Africans organized the first black church society in Boston in 1693.

Regarding the long history of American slavery, Massachusetts has the unfortunate distinction of being the first colony to accord legal status to the practice, in 1641.  Thus, slavery was a legal and profitable practice in the Bay State for nearly 150 years.  After only the first 60 years, though, free and enslaved African Americans had helped make Boston the largest and most prosperous town in British North America.

Another common story is the resistance of African Americans to slavery beginning in the 1600s.  There were isolated, individual actions, like the story of Maria, in Roxbury, adjacent to Boston, who was convicted of burning the house of a white man in 1681.  There were also more organized uprisings, such as the famous revolt in New York City in 1712.  Black South Carolinians and Virginians, such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner, all organized insurrections in their states in the 1800s.  African Americans in Boston continually petitioned the royal government of Massachusetts to end the practice of slavery in the 1770s.  Ultimately, the system was brought to an end by 1783 through lawsuits filed by African Americans in other parts of Massachusetts, notably Quock Walker and Elizabeth Freeman.

Thousands of African Americans fought against the British in the American Revolution, a historical period for which Boston is now famous.  People like Peter Salem and Barzilai Lew fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, which was a successful test of American skill and resolve.  General George Washington arrived in nearby Cambridge to take command of the troops just two weeks later.  Skilled black sailors and committed black patriots also played an important role in the War of 1812, including the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, which made General Andrew Jackson a national hero.

Boston was home to a small, highly organized, free black community by the end of the eighteenth century, which organized on a national level for equal civil rights and the abolition of slavery.  In addition to successfully bringing slavery to an end in the United States, Boston was the epicenter for the creation and recruitment of the famous Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, the base for the first statewide desegregation of schools in 1855, and a center of resistance to discriminatory laws on marriage, employment, and politics.

After the Civil War, Black Bostonians were elected to the Boston City Council and the Massachusetts Legislature for the first time, a pattern consistent with other states during the era of Reconstruction.  The first branch of the NAACP was founded in Boston in 1911.  Incidentally, one of the founders of the original NAACP was W.E.B. DuBois, a native of Massachusetts and a great-grandson of Elizabeth Freeman, mentioned above.  William Monroe Trotter, a Harvard-educated journalist, organized protests against bringing the pro-slavery, anti-black film The Birth of a Nation to Boston in 1915.  I could go on…

After 325 years in Boston, African Americans founded the Black Heritage Trail and the Museum of African American History, in 1963 and 1964, to share the unique history of the city as well as its relevance to the history of our nation.

What neighborhoods of Boston are most tied to their history in the city?

The earliest and oldest black community in Boston was located in the North End.  Unfortunately, very few physical reminders of that community have survived to the present day.  Throughout the 1800s the West End, including the north slope of Beacon Hill, contained the majority of African Americans in Boston.  The Black Heritage Trail makes its way through this area, and there are many surviving structures from and voluminous research on the men and women from this locale.  In the early twentieth century the locus of the community had shifted to the South End and Lower Roxbury, and finally further south into Dorchester and Mattapan by the 1970s.  Roxbury and Dorchester were both independent towns founded at about the same time as Boston.  These towns were annexed to Boston after the Civil War, and the bulk of the African Americans in the city reside there today.  In addition, many other groups of people of African descent live in the same area, especially Haitians and Cape Verdeans.

When most people consider early Boston history, they think about such figures as John Adams and Paul Revere.  Who from the African American community might we not necessarily know about on this roster of prominent Bostonians?

The most prominent African American in Boston during the era of the Revolution was Prince Hall.  In large part through Hall’s organizing, African Americans sent no fewer than five petitions to the Massachusetts government requesting the abolition of slavery between 1773 and 1775.  Prince Hall founded the first order of black freemasons in 1775, and they received their charter from England in 1787.  That same year, Prince Hall petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to grant African-American children access to public schools.  The Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Masons is the oldest continuous African-American organization in the nation.  The Masons erected a monument in honor of Prince Hall at his grave in the North End of Boston, and they annually return to the cemetery to celebrate the achievements of their founder.

George Middleton was a Mason and a colleague of Prince Hall.  Known as Colonel Middleton in Boston, he commanded an African-American military unit during the Revolution, and he and his men were honored for their service after the war with the gift of a silk company flag by Governor John Hancock.  Middleton was also a cofounder of the African Society in Boston in 1796, which was a charitable organization for the black community.  Middleton’s home still stands in what is now the Beacon Hill neighborhood, and it is the oldest surviving house in that historical district.

Whereas the American Revolution literally started in and around Boston, a second Revolution was based in the same venerable city.  During the first half of the nineteenth century the black community in Boston, along with their white allies, led the fight to abolish slavery in the United States.  The businessman Lewis Hayden, the teachers Susan Paul and Charlotte Forten, the orator and future physician Sarah Remond, the attorney Robert Morris, and the journalist, William Nell were among the leaders of the many committed black abolitionists in and around Boston.  More well-known figures, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, were also part of this network.  Two major venues used by the famous and the obscure in that movement, Faneuil Hall and the African Meeting House, have been preserved and are highlights of any visit to Boston.

Can you recommend any great sources where we can read more on this topic?

William Cooper Nell, born and raised in Boston, and William Wells Brown, a self-emancipated Kentuckian who later lived in Cambridge and Chelsea, Massachusetts, both wrote interesting histories of African Americans.  In 1855, Nell published The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, and in 1865 Brown published The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements.  If not for Nell’s efforts, much of what is now known about African-American soldiers in all 13 original states might have been lost.

Samuel Sewall, a judge and a fairly progressive man for his time, wrote The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial in 1700.  Shortly thereafter, in 1706, the famous minister and member of the Royal Society of London, Cotton Mather, published The Negro Christianized.  Sewall was writing about ending African slavery, and Mather was putting forth the most Christian way to steward enslaved people.  Both documents undoubtedly will sound racist to the modern reader; however they are also an interesting and important glimpse into the prevailing attitudes of these early white Bostonians and their peers.

In 1942 Lorenzo Greene published what is perhaps the best overview of the northern black experience prior to independence from Great Britain.  His book is The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776.  Leon Higginbotham also wrote about the colonial experience, but from the point of view of the legal system in In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, The Colonial Period.  James and Lois Horton wrote two books I would recommend.  The first is solely about local people dealing with global affairs, and it is entitled Black Bostonians, Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North.  More recently, the Hortons released an excellent book called Slavery and the Making of America.  It is less academic in tone than Black Bostonians, and it was also made into a PBS television series.

The Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Public Library, both institutions that have essentially become part of history themselves, have made great efforts to make their collections available online.  The MHS has an online exhibit based on their own resources called “African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts,” available here.  The BPL has placed many of its letters and other manuscripts related to the antislavery movement online, though not in an organized exhibition, available here.

The Massachusetts Historical Society is a private library open to the public, and its collection of materials relating to the history of the United States is rivaled only by the Library of Congress.  The comfortable reading room is filled with beautiful portraits, and the librarians could not be more hospitable or helpful.  The Boston Public Library was the first large free municipal library in the country, and it was the first in the nation to create a system of branch libraries.  The reading room is spacious and beautiful and is part of a building that is itself a work of art.  I highly recommend that anyone conducting research on American history should patronize both institutions in person and on the Internet.

Lastly, I think everyone who visits Boston should take a guided walking tour of the Black Heritage Trail.

Alex’s recent research on African-American history in Boston, though based on records that are more than 300 years old, had never before been published.  Some of his conclusions can be found in his book, The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood, released in 2009.  He is the driving force behind Context’s newest walk in the city, Black Boston: Freedom in the Empire and the Republic.

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