By Linda McK. Stewart
Boston spells history with a capital H.
From its earliest days as a hotbed of revolutionary shenanigans, right up to the present, Boston has prided itself in leading the nation in historical awareness. While slavery flourished in the South, Boston was a safe haven for hundreds of blacks who enjoyed full civil rights. Black Bostonians traveled abroad, interacted with national and international leaders. Long before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, black Bostonians distinguished themselves as educators, artists, authors, elected officials and patriots.
So in 1976 when February was designated Black History Month, no city in the U.S. was better prepared than Boston to show off its treasure trove of black history sites and memorabilia.
“We don’t need a special Black History Month,” says Sentidra Joseph, a National Park Service ranger. “As far as we’re concerned, here in Boston, any month of the year could be called Black History Month.”
Slavery was abolished throughout the Union in 1862 but in Boston it had already been outlawed for 79 years.
Black Heritage Tours, sponsored by the Museum of African American History, begin at the corner of Beacon and Park Streets, in full view of the gold-domed State House. Joseph, herding a gaggle of middle-schoolers pauses in front of the Civil War Monument that commemorates the heroic Massachusetts 54th Regiment, an all-black volunteer group, led by a 25-year old colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. The monument, a portrait in bronze18-feet wide, 15-feet high, sculpted by Augustus Saint Gaudens, depicts Shaw on horseback accompanied by his troops on the march.
“Can anyone tell me what the Civil War was about?”
Then tentatively, “Was it George Washington and some king?”
“Was it stuff about Indians?”
“Maybe Navy Seals?”
Joseph puts them straight with a thumbnail explanation of the Union north against the slave-owning South. These men, she tells them, made history by charging heavily defended Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Many were killed including Colonel Shaw. At the request of his Boston family, he was buried in a mass grave along with his fallen troops.
A moment of respectful silence. The group moves along Beacon Street and turns uphill on Joy Street. They’re off to explore the north slope of Beacon Hill, Boston’s pre-Civil War community of free black men and women. It was the largest such community in the nation. First stop: 5 Pinckney St. and the tidy residence of George Middleton, built in 1797. It’s Boston’s oldest house built by a free black man. Middleton fought with the Massachusetts Militia against the British in the American Revolution. Until his death in 1815, he was an influential and outspoken opponent of slavery.
Further along Pinckney the group halts at No. 86, the handsome red brick home of one John J. Smith, a Virginia-born black man who quit his home state in 1840 to settle in Boston. He and his wife Georgiana were a vital link in the Underground Railway by which runaway slaves found their way to Canada and freedom. After the Civil War, Smith was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the first black man ever elected to a state’s legislative body. The house is now a private residence into which you are respectfully uninvited.
“Any questions?” Joseph asks her group.
“Was there a Mrs. Smith?” Indeed, there was a Mrs. Smith. Georgiana Smith worked tirelessly in the cause of school integration. She was well rewarded when in 1855 Massachusetts mandated the integration of public schools. John and Georgiana Smith lived to see their daughter, Elizabeth, become the first black teacher on the faculty of an integrated public school.
The home of Harriet and Lewis Hayden at 66 Phillips St. is the next stop. The house is a handsome example of prime mid-19th century design. Its freshly painted exterior, its gleaming marble steps and brightly polished brasses give no clue to its pre-Civil War history when Lewis Hayden was a resident. Hayden was born a slave in Kentucky. How he escaped and made his perilous way from Kentucky to Canada and thence to Boston is a history book in itself. He and his wife Harriet hid scores of runaway slaves in the house, which functioned as a stopover on the Underground Railroad. Hayden kept a couple of kegs of gunpowder by his front door. One night when the cellar was crowded with runaway slaves, there was a banging on the front door. Hayden, candle in hand, opened to a band of bounty hunters, up from the South. “Take one step across this threshold,” he is said to have told them, “I’ll drop this candle and blow you and this whole house to kingdom come. Now get out.” And they did.
The tour ends at the beautifully restored African Meeting House where famed black orator Frederick Douglass spoke countless times, exhorting his fellow citizens to enlist in the Union army during the Civil War.
“So what did you learn?” Joseph asks the departing kids. “Some really cool stuff,” replies one roly-poly kid toting a 1,000-pound backpack, “stuff I never heard in school. Thanks a lot.” He and Joseph exchange hearty high fives.
IF YOU GO: For information about Boston’s Black Heritage tours, call 617-512-5611.
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