Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, part of the Boston African American Historic Site, offers the opportunity to go back in history to explore the city’s 19th century African American culture. This community largely resided in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, thus why that is exactly where this 1.6-mile walking tour takes place.
Along the Black Heritage Trail, you’ll learn all about what African Americans went through with civil rights during this time period, from important members of the community, to details about the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement. Many of the stops on this tour were actual places escaped slaves hid at along the Underground Railroad.
How to Visit
Visiting the Black Heritage Trail is free, as the National Park Service, located at 46 Joy Street, provides free, 90-minute guided tours during the spring and summer months. You can also take a self-guided tour at any time of year.
Also at 46 Joy Street is the Museum of African American History, which is actually inside one of the trail stops, the Abiel Smith School. There is a cost for admission to explore the museum: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students and free for ages 12 and under.
Stops on the Black Heritage Trail
There are 10 official stops along the Black Heritage Trail, each found below. Regardless of how you choose to explore the Black Heritage Trail, keep in mind that many of the historic homes along the way are private residences, so you won’t be able to actually go inside them. However, the entire neighborhood you’ll walk through is beautiful and you’ll get to learn about the history of this community along the way. You will, however, be able to enter both the Abiel Smith School and the African Meeting House.
Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the Civil War’s first African American unit. This memorial was built in 1897 to commemorate this group of men, who marched down Beacon Street. More on their story can be found in the award-winning movie, “Glory.”
George Middleton House
The George Middleton House is named after — you guessed it — Colonel George Middleton, an American Revolutionary War veteran. He and Louis Glapion, a Black hairdresser, built the two-family together and finished in 1787. Middleton was the leader of an all-Black unit known as the “Bucks of America.” Once the war was over, Governor John Hancock honored Middleton for his service and he then went on to fight against slavery as a civil rights activist.
The Phillips School
Back in the 1800s, the Phillips School was known as one of the best in Boston. While it was originally built in 1824 as an all-White school, it became one of the first schools to accept African American students in 1855 once Massachusetts state law put an end to segregation in city schools. Today, the Phillips School is a private residence.
John J. Smith House
John J. Smith was born free and moved to Boston from Richmond, VA in 1848. He was an abolitionist and a key player in fighting slavery, with his home being a stop along the Underground Railroad as he worked to get escaped slaves to freedom. He eventually went on to become a Massachusetts State Representative.
Charles Street Meeting House
The Charles Meeting House is a historic church, previously known in 1807 as the Third Baptist Church of Boston with a majority-White congregation. In the 1830s, an abolitionist named Timothy Gilbert was expelled from the church after inviting African American parishioners into his pew, which was against the customs of the time. This church later became known as an abolitionist hub and was bought by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Many famous African Americans spoke here, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
Lewis and Harriet Hayden House
Lewis and Harriet Hayden, husband and wife, escaped slavery from Kentucky and made their way to what is now Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. As abolitionist leaders, they helped slaves escape to freedom by welcoming them into their home as a stop along the Underground Railroad. Their home was visited by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1853 as she was working on her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
John Coburn House
The John Coburn House was built in 1844 for John Coburn and his family. As part of Boston’s Black community, he was known as a local business owner and was a part of organizations like the New England Freedom Association. His home was also used as a stop along the Underground Railroad, protecting runaway slaves as they escaped to safety.
Smith Court Residences
The five houses that make up the Smith Court Residences are great examples of the types of homes that Boston’s African American community lived in during the 19th century. The four single-family homes were built from 1799 to 1853 and were home to prominent African Americans, including William Cooper Nell, the first American published Black historian, and abolitionist James Scott. And while the Beacon Hill of today is one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods, the fifth building, an apartment complex, was built in an effort to create affordable housing available for rent. Affordable is not a word synonymous with this neighborhood today!
The Abiel Smith School
The Abiel Smith School was the United States’ very first public school built specifically for African American children. It was funded by a gift left behind by Abiel Smith, a White philanthropist who passed away in 1812. Today, this building is part of the Museum of African American History, which anyone can visit to learn even more about this part of history.
The African Meeting House
The African Meeting House was built in 1806 and is the United States’ oldest African American church. It was a significant destination for abolitionist events and figures, including William Lloyd Garrison, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglas and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Prior to the opening of the Abiel Smith School, African American children in the neighborhood went to school here and now its the home of the Museum of African American History. This is another stop along the trail that visitors can explore.