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A vivid trace of black history

By Keith Reed
Globe Staff / July 25, 2004
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Beacon Hill is one of the city's most exclusive, expensive neighborhoods, but 200 years ago it was the hub of black Boston. The 1.5-mile Black Heritage Trail takes visitors back to that era: down narrow, dank alleyways that once served as the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves elude bands of Southern slave-catchers; past unassuming brick homes that were once protected day and night by abolitionist militiamen; and to the places of worship and learning of one of the nation's first communities of free, middle-class black residents.

Start at the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial on Boston Common. In the shadow of the Massachusetts State House, the reverse side of the bas-relief monument carries the names of 62 black Civil War soldiers who died in a heroic assault on the Confederate city of Charleston, S.C. Stop by at the right time and you might find a bunch of withered roses laid on the iron horse carrying Shaw. Be sure to peer behind the horse, so as not to miss the soldiers sculpted behind Shaw, bringing extra realism to the piece.

Next are several private residences of historic significance. The small, two-level George Middleton house is the oldest residence built by blacks on Beacon Hill. The home of John J. Smith, a free 19th-century black man

who served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, is next, followed by the homes of John Coburn and Lewis and Harriet Hayden, prominent black abolitionists of the time. At the Hayden house, get close enough to peer into the vestibule, where Lewis Hayden claimed to keep kegs of gunpowder stored under the porch. If slave-catchers came knocking, he'd answer holding a candle, which he threatened to drop onto the explosive if they didn't leave. Many of the homes still have their original brick facades, though most have been rehabbed into condos or other residences. Though the redevelopment probably kept them from decaying, the interiors are not open to tourists.

Between these private residences are stops at the old Phillips School, one of Boston's first interracial schools (now condos), and the Charles Street Meeting House, which was the home until 1939 of the large black population of the Charles Street AME Church. But it's the end of the trail that holds the real treats, starting with the Abiel Smith School, a welcome stop for weary feet and restless imaginations. While the monuments and homes give walkers plenty of chances to reflect on what life must have been like for black Bostonians in centuries past, the Smith School will give them some-

thing to actually do. Dedicated in 1835, the Smith School was the first building in the United States constructed for the sole purpose of housing a black public school; when the state outlawed public school segregation 20 years later, it closed. In the 1990s it was renovated and now houses the Museum of Afro-American History. The school is now equal parts modern, with interactive exhibits that teach about the education of African-Americans in the early 20th century, and retro, with classrooms set up to closely resemble the ones used in the mid-19th century. It's difficult to imagine how pupils sitting on wooden pedestals rising only a foot off the ground, instead of at desks, were able to concentrate. And how, exactly, did they manage to learn to read in what must have been a dimly lit space before the era of widespread electricity?

That the vaulted brick African Meeting House is now at the end of the Black Heritage Trail is perhaps fitting. It was built in 1806 as a religious refuge for black Christians who preferred to worship without being relegated to balconies. The building would eventually be the center of black political life as well, serving as a recruiting station for the 54th Regiment, and as de facto town hall for Boston's African-American community, earning it the nickname "the black Faneuil Hall."

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