The Black Side of Boston

Illustration for article titled The Black Side of Boston

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.


As I followed the trail, using a Park Service brochure and map, I was thrilled to learn of Boston's unsung black activists. One stop, a house at 66 Phillips Street, is now a private residence, but in the mid-1800s it was a hub of anti-slavery and the home of Lewis and Harriet Hayden, both escaped slaves. The couple frequently held abolitionist gatherings. They also sheltered escaped slaves before helping them gain passage across the Canadian border.

A few blocks away, at 86 Pinckney Street, was the home and occasional barbershop of John J. Smith. An outspoken critic of slavery, Smith turned his barbershop into a meeting place for community organizers and abolitionists.


Wandering through Holmes Alley, a narrow passageway, I could almost feel the ghosts of runaway slaves hiding in the stairwells, with their angry masters in hot pursuit and the hushed voices of the Underground Railroad patrons in the background.

One highlight of the tour is the African Meeting House, a towering brick building with four oversize arched windows. Constructed in 1806, mostly by black laborers, it was the first African Baptist church of Boston. Besides serving as the black community's main spiritual center, it was the center for educational and cultural activities and political meetings.


A long list of prominent abolitionists, led by Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, took to the pulpit here. And when locals began to organize the 54th Volunteer Regiment to help thwart the Confederate Army, the meetinghouse was used as a recruitment center.

Black history also hangs heavy in the Abiel Smith School, located next door. When Boston's growing black families needed a place to educate their children, this compact brick building became the first public school built for blacks in the country. Opened in 1835, it was the educational center for all black schoolchildren.


Two decades later, after a brutal battle for integration, blacks were allowed to enroll in white schools in the city. Boston's Museum of African American History owns the Abiel Smith School building (along with the African Meeting House) and uses it for exhibitions.

Black Boston Culture Today

Steeped now in local black history, I wondered about the city's contemporary black culture. A 10-minute taxi ride south brought me to Roxbury, the center of black Boston for the past several decades. Dudley Square, a settlement of cafés, bars and small businesses in low-rise buildings, is the heart of the neighborhood.


This is clearly a close-knit hood, where a mostly black population mixes easily with the Puerto Ricans and others who now make their home here. The Faces of Dudley — an oversize mural painted in bright colors along a building front across from the square's bus station and police precinct — captures the warm, lively aura of the area. There are grinning faces of current and past residents, highlighted by Malcolm X, who lived here as a teenager with his half sister. There is the Silver Slipper Restaurant and other beloved hangouts.

My first stop was The Haley House Bakery and Café, right on the square. Over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and home fries, I took in the crowd: a small group of young friends having coffee, a black mother and her two kids, a couple here, another there. More than a café, this is a community-based nonprofit that seeks to employ local residents and teach cooking skills. The whole place conveys the warmth of a caring neighborhood.


From there, it was a short walk past the Greek Revival and Victorian homes concentrated in Roxbury to the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. Housed in a grand mansion with a High Victorian Gothic facade, the museum is dedicated to paintings, sculpture and all other forms of art produced locally, nationally and internationally by black artists.

This place exudes the soul of blackness. Outside in the courtyard is Eternal Presence, a commanding oversize sculpture of the head of a black man commissioned by the museum. Inside, among other works, is The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, a striking multimedia piece depicting a black Christ on a crucifix surrounded by other religious objects. A two-hour tour of these and other works kept me absorbed.


African Americans Off the Coast

Of course, Boston is not the only historic African-American stronghold in New England. In the late 1800s and 1900s, blacks found the northern corner of the U.S. more welcoming than other parts of the country and settled in various corners of the region, including Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts.


One of the most prominent black settlements started in the late 1700s on the island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts. Here, a mix of freed blacks and escaped slaves bought property and established a church, school and other buildings. The African Meeting House, used as a gathering spot for blacks from the early 1800s, features exhibits about early black life on the island.

Over the last century, the island of Martha's Vineyard, located off the southern coast of Massachusetts, has become a beloved vacation spot for prominent African Americans. Politicians Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Ed Brooke, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and actor Paul Robeson all vacationed here.


In the high summer season, the Martha's Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs draws a lively crowd of black professionals from New York, Atlanta and other urban areas. On any summer afternoon, they hang along the beach or at a cluster of black-owned shops and restaurants around town. The most beloved gathering spots include Lola's Southern Seafood restaurant, Cousen Rose Gallery and C'est La Vie, a gift-and-art shop.

Back in Boston, anxious to dig deeper into the contemporary culinary scene of the city, I dropped into Teranga, a popular new restaurant in the South End specializing in the cuisine of Senegal. Once I was inside, it was clear that this piece of Africa also told a story.


And as the evening progressed, parts of that story unfolded. The atmosphere, enhanced by African art and soft drum music, was calm and romantic. The crowd was mixed. But the key role was played by the food — dishes like accara (black-eyed pea fritters) and thiébou djeun (herb-stuffed white fish in a tomato stew). They brought the taste of Mother Africa straight to Boston, adding yet another layer to the city's rich black culture.

Gary Lee is a freelance feature writer specializing in the culture of urban areas in the U.S. and other countries. He is based in Washington, D.C., and can be reached here.

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