The Northern Front

The Black Heritage Trail would be worth the walk even without its history, because it takes you on a wonderful tour.

At 66 Phillips Street, for example, the brick townhouse, indistinguishable from the neighborhood’s countless other townhouses, was well known to Boston’s fugitives as an Underground Railroad station. Lewis Hayden, himself an escaped slave, turned his home into a safe house for runaways after the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. While hiding runaways in their basement, Hayden and his wife, Harriet, kept two gunpowder kegs under their front stoop. Once, when bounty hunters arrived at their house, the Haydens came out holding lit candles, threatening to drop the flames and detonate their house, themselves—and their visitors—rather than turn over their hidden guests. A few blocks down on Pinckney Street lived George Middleton, a black Revolutionary War veteran who appeared with a loaded musket and shouted down white children who were throwing rocks and clubs at black women and children outside his house. Farther down Pinckney is the home of John J. Smith, a local barber whose shop at the corner of Howard and Bulfinch served as a secret rendezvous place for abolitionists and fugitives.

The strange thing about all these houses, however, is that you can’t actually go inside any of them. Each one of these beautiful townhouses is marked with a plaque on its side, but none has even so much as a gift shop, let alone an exhibit, inside. Instead, the houses remain just as they were in the nineteenth century; they are private homes. As I walked down the streets of Beacon Hill, I saw people going in and out of those Underground Railroad stations, not with candles but with groceries and briefcases. Occasionally I wished I could slip into one of them and find the secret compartments where people once hid, just to see what they looked like inside, as if I were a bounty hunter routing out fugitive slaves or a fugitive who knew that even living free in a broom closet would be better than living outdoors in bondage. Most of the time, though, the decision to keep these houses as homes seems a good one to me. It is as if the city were implying that the people bringing home their groceries today would make the same sacrifices that the earlier tenants did, should history call upon them.

Or would they? You have to be careful with Boston, because as a city obsessed with its own history, it tends to peddle only the most beautiful and morally blameless aspects of its past. You will hear about the generosity and virtue of the Puritans long before you hear about their penchant for executing innocent men and women. You will hear about the prominence of immigrants in local politics long before you hear about the once-prevalent signs reading NO IRISH NEED APPLY . Likewise, if you ever do hear about Boston’s Civil War past, you will hear only of the city’s passion for freedom and never of the distinct possibility that some of the city’s most prominent citizens might have actually opposed abolition. How honest is Boston in portraying itself as the engine of liberation?

As I walked through Beacon Hill, I heard that question murmuring at me around each of the neighborhood’s silent corners, but the only reason I could hear it was that I already knew the answer. I passed a house where an abolitionist published an underground newspaper, and another house where a family of fugitive slaves took refuge, and the half-dozen or so other sites like it on the specially marked trail, but while the neighborhood might have been teeming with hidden refugees, there are still all the houses in between, houses without any sort of plaque attached to an outer wall proudly proclaiming them to be the homes of abolitionists. Who lived in those? Lesser-known freedom fighters? Perhaps, although many of the abolitionists mentioned on the Black Heritage Trail are already rather obscure. Free blacks who went to church right around the corner? Yes, in some cases, although Boston’s free black community, while it was one of the largest of its kind, still comprised only 2,261 people in 1860.