The Black Side of Boston

The Black Bucket List hits up Beantown and the surrounding area, exploring New England's rich black history.

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The stately Federal-style buildings of Beacon Hill, the Bunker Hill Monument or the market at Faneuil Hall are usually the sights that dazzle visitors to Boston. But during my own recent trip to New England, it was a bronze relief of black soldiers that captured my attention. The Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial, perched across from the Statehouse on the edge of the Boston Common, showed a group of staunch, noble and determined black military men on foot flanked by a lone white officer on horseback. I gazed at the bold expressions of this monumental work and thought: There is a story here.

And what a story. This 114-year-old bronze relief depicted one of the most moving chapters of American Civil War history: when blacks, banned from joining the Union Army, came to Boston by the hundreds from all corners of the country to join the all-volunteer 54th Regiment. After training under the leadership of Robert Gould Shaw, a white colonel, they set off for points south in May 1863 to defend the cause of abolition against the Confederacy.

The rare gathering of a throng of black soldiers in central Boston created such a spectacle that upwards of 100,000 locals lined the streets to see them off. The 1989 feature film Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick, popularized the story. But for me, there was nothing like the real drama of standing in the midst of this piece of black America's past.

This and other intriguing episodes in African-American history that occurred in the early years of this stately New England city earn it a place on The Root's Black Bucket List of must-see destinations for travelers interested in African-American culture.

A Surprisingly Rich Black History

Although Boston's austere aura and mixed record on race relations have not made it a top destination for contemporary black travelers, it was, during the early 1800s, home to one of the most colorful, lively, politicized black communities in the country. One reason is that Massachusetts, the first state to abolish slavery in 1783, attracted the largest concentration of free blacks in the country.

Many of those residents in turn took up the causes of abolition, education of blacks and equal rights with an appropriate vengeance. Frederick Douglass could often be heard in Boston pulpits exhorting blacks to take up arms against slavery. Other locals sheltered escaped slaves in their homes, plotted to help abolish slavery and established some of the first black churches and schools in the country.

Eager to learn more about this era of history, I decided to take a self-guided walking tour of Boston's Black Heritage Trail, an excursion organized by the National Park Service. In all it has 14 stops, each of them a venue of significance in the city's African-American history.

A Hub of Abolitionists and Activists

Starting with the 54th Regiment Memorial, the trail winds through the streets of the city's vaunted Beacon Hill neighborhood for 1.6 miles. It took me around three hours to complete the tour; taking the time really helped me put into context the city's early black history and the characters who shaped it.

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