- Historic Sites
The Northern Front
Boston is so bright a beacon of Revolutionary history that it is easy to forget the city played an equally significant role in another civil war. Dara Horn, a Harvard junior, seeks out the moral engine of the Union cause.
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
A good place to begin searching, I discovered, is the city’s Black Heritage Trail, which ends at the African Meeting House, a tiny brick building approachable by an alley grandly named Smith Court. Built in 1806, the Meeting House is the oldest standing black church building in the United States. It also served its congregants as far more than a place of worship. The building’s cramped basement housed Boston’s and perhaps America’s first public school for black children, and when Massachusetts became the first Northern state to allow black soldiers to fight, the U.S. Army began recruiting soldiers for its first black combat regiment in that same basement room. It was a meeting place for Boston’s black community, and the main sanctuary was among Frederick Douglass’s most cherished public-speaking stops. And it was here that William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the most effective of all abolitionists, created his New England Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1898 community migration led to the building’s sale to a Jewish congregation, and it was used as a synagogue until it became a museum in 1972. Today it has been remodeled inside to resemble what it looked like as a church in 1855, which is to say very plain. The sanctuary is completely bare, with white-painted walls and unfinished wooden floors. But stand there in a moment when a school group isn’t tramping through and read Garrison’s words framed on the wall: “We have met tonight in this obscure schoolhouse, our numbers are few and our influence limited, but mark my prediction, Faneuil Hall shall long echo with the principles we have set forth. We shall shake the nation by their mighty power.”
No real marks of the war scar the city, but you can feel its presence in buildings that once shook with passionate voices.
When I visited the African Meeting House, I read those words and felt the wooden room tremble, the first rumblings of Boston’s great Civil War machine, the machine that would plow through eleven Rebel states and turn towns into smoldering ash and leave dead men in people’s back yards, not to mention a dead President in its wake, the machine that would cause a nightmare of battle that Boston would be fortunate enough to see only through the eyes of its surviving sons. But those words would also tear into the hearts of thousands and give them strength, making people remember, as words do every now and then, that no one is doomed to anything, that right does, every few centuries or so, make might.
And Garrison was right. Faneuil Hall, Boston’s and America’s oldest standing meeting-house, which he claimed would one day “echo with the principles we have here set forth,” now houses a sculpture of Frederick Douglass. More important, Boston really did “shake the nation” toward war, through the concerted efforts of its citizens to protect fugitive slaves. In the African Meeting House are all sorts of posters and pamphlets issued after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put escaped bondsmen at risk of capture and return to slavery in the South. One poster permanently on display in the Meeting House urges people in the city to exercise what Henry David Thoreau had recently labeled “Civil Disobedience.” “ CAUTION !!” it screams in giant letters. “Colored People of Boston, One & All, You are hereby respectfully CAUTIONED and advised, to avoid conversing with the Watchmen and Police Officers of Boston, For since the recent ORDER OF THE MAYOR & AEDERMEN , they are empowered to act as KIDNAPPERS and Slave Catchers, And they have already been actually employed in KIDNAPPING, CATCHING, AND KEEPING SLAVES .” As one of the more northern of Northern cities, Boston represented for many fugitives the gateway to freedom in Canada, the final stop on the Underground Railroad. Scattered around Beacon Hill are the safe houses where escaped slaves once hid from kidnappers, and these sites are now marked on the Black Heritage Trail.
The Black Heritage Trail would be worth the walk even without its history, because it takes you on a wonderful tour of Beacon Hill, perhaps Boston’s most rarefied and beautiful neighborhood. The tiny streets are almost always silent; the townhouses, while not large, are in impeccable condition; and the little brick sidewalks look almost as though they’d been polished to a shine. Today Beacon Hill represents Boston’s new young professional class, but in the 186Os the neighborhood was a strange mix of elite white literati, business tycoons, free blacks, and former slaves. The trail leads you past the Phillips School, which in 1855 became the first school in Boston for both white and black children, as well as the Abiel Smith School, a home that was used as a school until the one in the African Meeting House was set up. You pass by three churches, each a center of abolitionist activity; one, the Park Street Church (a little bit off the trail but hard to miss), was the site of Garrison’s first antislavery sermon ever. But the most memorable buildings are the homes of abolitionists, tidy little row houses where fugitives were welcomed and defended.