Explore Boston's Black Heritage Trail
Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood served as home for more than half of the Blacks who lived in Boston in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. Today, the streets of Beacon Hill form the Black Heritage Trail®, offering visitors a look at the lives and the struggles of the African Americans who lived here and fought for the education and freedom of the Black community in the city and the U.S.
The roughly one-and-a-half-mile trail creates a link between more than a dozen historical sites and structures and offers a representative look at the places of importance to the Black community, including their churches, homes, schools, and businesses during the early centuries of the United States.
The trail also highlights some of the homes that provided a safe haven for escaped slaves who followed the routes of the Underground Railroad to their freedom in the Northern states, Canada, and Mexico.
What Are Some Notable Sites on the Black Heritage Trail?
The following list represents some important stop-offs on the Black Heritage Trail®. Please note that many of them are private residences today and not open for public touring. However, the audio guides of the tour give tour visitors an in-depth look at the sites.
Museum of African American History
The Museum of African American History tells the story of American Blacks in the 18th and 19th centuries and gives tour visitors an in-depth perspective on the place that Boston’s Black communities played in the fight for equality and freedom.
Its exhibits are dedicated to telling, interpreting, and preserving the contributions that African Americans made to American life. It’s the largest museum of its kind in New England.
Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial
The story of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment was one of the first Civil War regiments made up of African American soldiers. Led by white abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th Regiment fought against Confederate soldiers at Fort Wagner on July 18th, 1863.
Although Shaw and many of his men ultimately lost their lives in the battle, the fight was not in vain. That battle changed public opinion about allowing Blacks to fight in the Civil War and ultimately, led to almost 180,000 Black men enlisting in the military fight in the war. The Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial honors their fight.
George Middleton House
George Middleton, an African American livery man and horse breaker by trade, built what’s now known as the George Middleton House in 1786, with the help of Louis Glapion. He was active in the Revolution, leading a group called the Bucks of America, a Black militia group.
Throughout his life, Middleton involved himself with the Black community and Black causes, including the abolition of slavery and equality in education. The George Middleton House is Beacon Hill’s oldest surviving home.
Named after Boston’s first mayor, John Phillips, the Phillips School originally allowed white students only, with Black students being segregated to nearby schools. After many protests and petitions, the state legislature outlawed segregation in education in Massachusetts schools in the year 1855. The Phillips School counted among the first Boston public schools to allow an interracial student body.
John J. Smith House
The John J. Smith House at 86 Pinckney Street served as the home for state legislator, barber, and abolitionist, John J. Smith. His barber shop became a meeting place for abolitionists during the 19th century. Smith was the third African American to be elected to the legislature. He spent his life advocating for the Black community. Smith also played an instrumental role in the rescue of escaped slave, Shadrach Minkins.
Charles Street Meeting House/ African Methodist Espicopal Church
Once a segregated Baptist church, the Charles Street Meeting House eventually became home to the First African Methodist Episcopal church when the congregation bought the church in 1876 for $40,000. Aside from offering religious services, the Charles Street Meeting House became an important place for activists to meet and organize activities.
Lewis and Harriet Hayden House
The Underground Railroad offered escaped African American slaves a network of secret safe houses to hide in and routes to journey to freedom. In Boston, the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House at 66 Phillips Street counted among the secret safe houses.
The Haydens themselves had fled enslavement in Kentucky and made a home for themselves in Boston. By 1850, their home, which fronted as a boarding house, became one of the area’s most well-known safe houses.
2 Phillips Street/ John Coburn House
Clothier John Coburn played a major role in the abolition of slavery, acting as treasurer for the New England Freedom Association, an organization that dedicated itself to the plight of escaped slaves by supporting the Underground Railroad.
He was also responsible for the founding of Massasoit Guards, a Black militia. Although state leaders never recognized the militia officially, it served as the community, aiding in its defense. The John Coburn House was Coburn’s residence, starting in the year 1844.
Smith Court/ Abiel Smith School/ African Meeting House
During the 1800s through the beginning of the 1900s, Smith Court played a pivotal role in the free Black Community residing in Boston. A gathering place of sorts, people came to Smith Court to participate in political, spiritual, and educational events. Many of the residences in Smith Court also became safe houses for escaped slaves traveling the route of the Underground Railroad.
As far as public buildings are concerned, two buildings in particular, the Abiel Smith School and the African Meeting House, were instrumental in the activities that took place in Smith Court. The Abiel Smith School became a trailblazer in American education when it became one of the first public schools for African American children in the United States in 1835.
Beginning in the early part of the 19th century, the African Meeting House holds the distinction of being the oldest surviving Black church in America. Both buildings served as meeting houses for people who fought for the rights of African Americans in the country.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Black Heritage Trail
Although just 1.6 miles long, the Black Heritage Trail® serves as a living reminder of the struggles of the African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. These early Americans fought for freedom and equality for African Americans by supporting Black education, helping escaped slaves via the Underground Railroad, and by taking part in state government. Black Heritage Trail® and the structures on it preserve their legacy.