Boston and Massachusetts have deep historical ties to slavery and the slave trade. Paradoxically, Boston was also the cradle of the 19th century movement to abolish slavery in the U.S.
Many leading Black abolitionists in Boston lived on the North Slope of Beacon Hill and worked a short distance away in what was then a bustling commercial neighborhood near the wharves of Boston Harbor. This six-block downtown area around what is now City Hall Plaza was home to the offices of several anti-slavery groups; it also bore witness to some momentous events in the early history of the movement. Beacon Hill Scholars founder Horace Seldon called the area “Abolition Acre.”
We created a walking trail to serve as a self-guided tour of Abolition Acre. Along the trail, you’ll learn how this hotbed of abolitionism helped ignite a national movement to end slavery.
The walking trail complements other efforts to raise public awareness of the North Slope community’s critical contribution to the abolitionist struggle in Boston and beyond. These efforts include the programs of the Museum of African American History — located on the North Slope — and the Black Heritage Trail, a popular walking tour led by interpretive rangers of the National Park Service Boston African American National Historic Site.
Starting Point: The site of the Boston Massacre at the Old State House, located at 206 Washington Street in downtown Boston. A commemorative marker is embedded in the sidewalk beside the building at the intersection of State Street and Congress Street. (The massacre actually took place a few yards from the marker in the middle of State Street.)
The Boston Massacre was a deadly riot on March 5, 1770. British Army soldiers fired on a hostile crowd of some 300, killing five men and injuring six others. The dead included Crispus Attucks, a man of Native American (Nipmuc) and African descent. He is widely considered the first martyr of the American Revolution. The incident spurred support among colonists for independence from Britain.
Check out the balcony above the marker. It’s where the Declaration of Independence was first read in public in Boston on July 18, 1776. The iconic founding document enshrines freedom and equality as God-given rights in the new republic. But here’s a revealing statistic: 73% of the White men who signed that document – at least 41 of 56 – “owned” slaves.
Stop 2: The Old Courthouse and Prison at 26 Court Street, just north of the Old State House.
Walk up State Street (which turns into Court Street) for two blocks to Court Square. You’ll see the Old Courthouse and Prison, with its grand Doric columns, on your left across from the Commonwealth Bank.
This building was the site of dramatic abolitionist defiance of the federal Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, two notorious laws that required escapees from slavery to be returned to their “owners.” The 1850 law also required public officials and citizens in free states to cooperate in enforcing the law, with stiff penalties for non-compliance.
In 1851, some 50 Black and White abolitionists wrestled Shadrach Minkins from the custody of state marshals and hustled him out of the courthouse. Minkins had found sanctuary in Boston after fleeing slavery in Virginia. Activists subsequently helped Minkins reach Canada through the Underground Railroad. Two prominent Black abolitionist leaders, Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris – the latter one of the first African-American attorneys in the U.S. – were among those prosecuted for helping to free Minkins. They were acquitted.
Four years later, activists failed to free Anthony Burns, another escapee from slavery, when they stormed the courthouse. In the melee, a U.S. marshal was fatally stabbed. After Burns lost his case, he was escorted under heavy guard to the ship that would carry him back to bondage in Virginia. Hundreds of federal troops lined the route to the harbor to hold back the waves of protesters.
The abolitionist community agreed to purchase Burns’ freedom for $1,200. The Rev. Leonard A. Grimes, the pastor of Boston’s Twelfth Street Baptist Church and a prominent abolitionist, led the effort to raise the necessary funds. Burns returned to Massachusetts a free man. The Burns case attracted national publicity and fueled anti-slavery sentiments all across the North.
Stop 3: The clothing stores of radical Black abolitionist leaders David Walker and Emiliano Mundrucu.
Continue up State Street for 200 yards to the intersection of Tremont Street and Cambridge Street. To your right is City Hall Plaza and the Government Center subway station. Immediately in front of you on the sidewalk is a “Walk to the Sea” marker that shows the early 19th century location of Brattle Street where Walker and Mundrucu both had their stores, at numbers 42 and 26, respectively. Brattle Street ran pretty much directly through the middle of what is now City Hall Plaza.
Black abolitionists associated with the vibrant free African American community on Beacon Hill played a leadership role in the emerging abolitionist movement. David Walker was one of the most charismatic and influential of these leaders. An evangelical Christian born free in North Carolina, Walker is best known for his fiery pamphlet, David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. It is an impassioned rallying cry to African Americans to resist slavery, educate themselves for self-improvement, and unite against oppression. In his Appeal, Walker also calls out White Christians for their hypocrisy in supporting slavery. Modern historians consider the Appeal to be one of the most significant social and political documents of the 19th century.
Walker circulated the Appeal throughout the South via clandestine networks of friends, allies, and sympathizers. His creative distribution methods included stitching copies of the pamphlet into the lining of coats he sold to southbound Black sailors who were customers at his clothing store.
Enslavers and their political allies in the South feared that Walker’s pamphlet would incite rebellions by the enslaved. And they did everything in their power to suppress it. This included passing stricter laws against anti-slavery material. Walker himself became a target: the governor of Georgia, George Gilmer, promised a reward of $10,000 (about $312,500 today) for his capture.
In 1830, when Walker was found dead on a Boston street at the age of about 34, many Black Bostonians believed he had been poisoned by agents of Southern planters. But no evidence to that effect came to light. The cause of David Walker’s death is officially listed in city records as consumption (tuberculosis.)
A Black Brazilian immigrant born in Brazil, Emiliano Mundrucu was a revolutionary, an abolitionist, and a civil rights campaigner. Before he came to the U.S., Mundrucu had traveled widely and he spoke French, Spanish, and Portuguese as well as English. He brought to Boston a tradition of Black resistance that had been shaped by his experiences as a Black man in South America and the Caribbean.
Mundrucu was possibly the first Black person in U.S. history to mount a legal challenge against racism and segregation. In 1833, he sued a steamboat captain for denying his wife, Harriet, a free Black Bostonian, and their one-year-old daughter Emiliana, access to the ladies’ cabin during a voyage between New Bedford, Massachusetts and the island of Nantucket. The captain told Mundrucu: “Your wife a’n’t a lady. She is a n—er. I don’t allow any n—–s in the cabin.”
Mundrucu successfully sued the captain for breach of contract and damages but the ruling was overturned on appeal. The case attracted widespread coverage in newspapers across the northeastern U.S. and internationally.
The Mundrucus’ actions were typical of the public protests undertaken by activists to raise public awareness and spark debate about discrimination and civil rights issues. In 1843, campaigns spearheaded by abolitionists finally forced an end to racial segregation on trains and the legalization of interracial marriage in Massachusetts.
Stop 4: The offices of The Liberator, the leading abolitionist newspaper.
Another of the old streets that crossed what is now City Hall Plaza was Cornhill. It ran along the right side of the plaza as you face City Hall. (Note the famous golden Steaming Kettle above the Starbucks on the corner. The giant kettle – which holds over 227 gallons and actually emits steam – was manufactured in 1873 as a novelty sign for the Oriental Tea Company.) The home of The Liberator, and the headquarters of New England’s anti-slavery movement, were for a time located at 21 and 25 Cornhill, roughly the site of 100 City Hall Plaza, halfway down the block on your right.
The Liberator was the flagship publication of the abolitionist community. First published in 1831, it was created by the White abolitionist leader, William Lloyd Garrison, and Isaac Knapp, another White abolitionist publisher. The influential journal appeared every week until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Financial support from the Black community was critical to sustaining The Liberator: All but about 50 of the first 500 subscribers to the paper were African Americans.
Garrison – who advocated for the immediate end of slavery – became a local, regional, and national leader of the abolitionist movement. In 1832, joined by several leading Black abolitionists, he launched the New England Anti-Slavery Society (NEASS) at the historic First African Baptist Church on Beacon Hill. Within a year, nearly 50 anti-slavery societies modeled after the NEASS had sprung up in free states across the country.
As activism surged, Garrison proposed the formation of a national society devoted to abolition and Black civil and political rights. The American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) was founded in 1833. Its growth was explosive. Five years later the AASS had grown to some 2,000 affiliated groups totaling between 100,000 and 150,000 members – perhaps as high as 250,000, according to some historians.
Stop 5: The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society headquarters
Walk south along the edge of City Hall Plaza with City Hall on your left. You’ll see the statue of Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell ahead of you. Turn right on to Washington Street Place, an unmarked pedestrian-only redbrick corridor. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society had its offices at 46 Washington Street, halfway down the block on your left. It’s now 28 State Street and houses a branch of Citizens Bank.
Women and female anti-slavery societies were the activist backbone of the abolitionist movement. By 1838, New England had over 65 such societies, 40 of them in Massachusetts. By 1855, over 200 female anti-slavery societies were active in the free states.
On October 21, 1835, Black and White members of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) defied a pro-slavery mob, several thousand strong, that had gathered in the street outside the BFASS offices. The mob was apparently incensed by rumors that the fiery British abolitionist George Thompson would be speaking there. The threat of violence was increasing, and BFASS members decided to leave for their own safety. They ran the gauntlet of the angry mob as they marched arm-in-arm to the nearby house of a member, Maria Weston Chapman, to reconvene and continue their discussions. Beacon Hill Scholars founder Horace Seldon dubbed this act of resistance “The Women’s March of Courage.”
At the time, the White abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison was working in the office of his newspaper, The Liberator, then housed in the same building. To escape the mob, he climbed through a back window, but the mob captured him, dragged him through the streets, and threatened to kill him. The sheriff had him placed in jail overnight for his own protection. This was one of several instances in which Garrison was in physical danger from angry pro-slavery forces. He also had a bounty placed on his head by the state of Georgia of $5,000 ($150,000 today).
The incident was not an isolated one. The perceived threat posed by anti-slavery organizations and their activity drew violent reactions from pro-slavery interests in both the Southern and Northern states. Mobs broke up anti-slavery meetings, assaulted lecturers, ransacked anti-slavery offices, burned postal sacks of anti-slavery pamphlets, and destroyed anti-slavery printing presses.
Stop 6: The house where Phillis Wheatley Peters, America’s first published African American female poet, lived as an enslaved person. She is widely regarded as the mother of African-American literature.
At the end of Washington Street Place, the Old State House will be in front of you. Turn left onto State Street (called King Street in the 1760s). Continue on State across Congress Street. The next street on your right is Kilby (previously Mackerel) Street. The home of John and Susannah Wheatley, who enslaved Phillis Wheatley Peters, was on this corner – of King and Mackerel – in what was then a fashionable neighborhood.
In 1761, a West African girl was kidnapped by slave traders and transported halfway across the world. She arrived in Boston aged seven or eight aboard the slave ship Phillis (the name her enslaver later gave her). The young girl was doubtless traumatized, alone and without family, in a completely alien environment. She almost certainly spoke little if any English. Yet just a decade later Phillis Wheatley Peters was being hailed in Britain and its American colonies as a literary genius for her remarkable poetry.
Her enslaver, Susannah Wheatley, the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor, had provided her clearly gifted servant with opportunities to study. Phillis mastered Greek and Latin as well as English, and composed her first poem at the age of 11. Boston’s ruling elite, who typically regarded Africans as intellectually inferior or even sub-human, did not believe Phillis could have written the poems attributed to her. Seventeen prominent Bostonians – including Governor Thomas Hutchinson and seven church ministers – formally investigated and concluded that indeed she had.
Phillis Wheatley Peters published her first collection of poetry, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” in Britain in 1773 with the financial support of a British patron. Soon after her trip there, she was granted her freedom by the Wheatleys. She most likely made that a condition for her return to Boston. Her subsequent poems became increasingly and explicitly critical of slavery.
Stop 7: The site of Franklin Hall where Black abolitionist and women’s rights champion Maria W. Stewart made a famous speech in 1832 entitled “Why Sit Ye Here and Die?” to the New England Anti-Slavery Society.
Continue west along Kilby Street for three blocks, through Liberty Square, to Water Street. Turn right onto Water Street. At the end of the first block, at the intersection with Congress Street, you’ll see a plaque on the building to your right that commemorates the founding there in 1831 of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Its offices moved to Cornhill three years later.
Cross Congress Street and continue straight for another three blocks to Washington Street. Turn left on Washington and walk past the Old South Meeting House to Franklin Street on your left. Franklin Hall was located at 16 Franklin Street, halfway down the first block on the left at the site of Marshalls department store.
Maria Stewart was a trailblazer. She is believed to be the first Black American woman to lecture in public about women’s rights, especially Black women’s rights, and against slavery. She was also the first U.S.-born woman to address racially mixed audiences of women and men – something considered scandalous, even blasphemous, at the time.
Born free in Hartford, Connecticut, Stewart was a bold and militant orator driven by political and religious zeal. She wrote and spoke on a range of topics of vital importance to the Black community, including abolition, equal rights, and racial pride and unity. During her three short years in Boston, she was involved with a number of local Black empowerment institutions, including the Massachusetts General Colored Association and the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society. Her writings regularly appeared in the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.
Stewart was also passionate about education. She urged Black women to excel in their traditional roles as domestic servants and homemakers for the sake of their families’ economic security. But she also asked them to transcend those roles through education: “How long shall the daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” Stewart herself became a teacher and taught in public schools in New York and elsewhere. She remained politically active in abolitionist and women’s organizations.
Stop 8: The Park Street Church where Black abolitionists pushed to desegregate the church pews as part of a broader campaign for equal rights for African Americans.
Retrace your steps to Washington Street and cross over to Bromfield Street. Walk up Bromfield to the intersection with Tremont Street. Directly opposite you is the Granary Burying Ground, where a number of famous individuals from the American Revolutionary era are buried, including Crispus Attucks, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and James Otis; also Peter Faneuil, one of Boston’s wealthiest slave traders. Turn left onto Tremont and walk down the hill for two blocks to the historic Park Street Church. It will be on your right at the corner of Park Street.
In 1830, Frederick Brinsley, a Black clothing store owner, was banned by Park Street Church officials from using a pew in the church. He had acquired the pew – number 82 – from a prosperous White merchant, who had begun attending a more theologically liberal church and may have been sympathetic to the cause of church de-segregation.
Brinsley’s pew acquisition was part of a concerted strategy by the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), the country’s first Black abolitionist organization. Brinsley was a founding member. At the time, almost all churches in Massachusetts were White-led, and their pews were reserved for Whites; Black worshippers were confined to the gallery or box pews at the back of the church.
The Park Street Church, an evangelical Congregational church, was no exception. Church leaders subsequently developed a form of pew ownership that effectively excluded anyone of color, and Brinsley was forced to surrender the title to his pew. But the campaign helped forge an alliance between Black and White activists that some historians believe was critical to the growth of northern abolitionism
Stop 9: The Massachusetts State House. In 1855, legislators passed the country’s first law banning school segregation after a 15-year campaign spearheaded by abolitionists.
From the Park Street Church, walk up Park Street to the intersection with Beacon Street. The Massachusetts State House, with its golden dome, is directly in front of you.
In the first half of the 19th century, racist laws and practices denied most young African Americans the opportunity for a formal education. Educating Black children was forbidden by law in many Southern states to protect the institution of slavery. In the north, segregation dominated: two schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut where Black and White children studied together were destroyed by mobs. Only a few public schools were open to Black students.
William Cooper Nell
In the quest for equal school rights, Black activists and their White allies in Massachusetts forced an end to school segregation in several communities, including Nantucket, Lowell, and Salem. Boston proved a harder nut to crack. But prominent Black abolitionists including William Cooper Nell led a sustained campaign that eventually won the day. It featured petitions, protests, and a boycott of the Abiel Smith School – Boston’s only public school for African Americans at the time.
Key to the landmark victory was the community support marshaled by Nell. The fight for equal educational opportunity was deeply personal for him. A journalist, author, and publisher, Nell himself attended the Abiel Smith School and, at the age of 12, he was denied a coveted medal for excellence because he was Black.
Nell wrote for The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, and later worked as co-publisher of Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, which became the voice of Black abolitionism. He helped found two organizations, the New England Freedom Association and the Boston Vigilance Committee, to assist people who had fled slavery in the South and were at risk of being returned to bondage under the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act.
Nell also authored The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), a painstakingly researched history of African American involvement on the Patriot side of the revolution. In 1863, Nell was appointed a clerk at the Boston Post Office, becoming the first known African American to work in the U.S. Post Office Department.
The successful Boston campaign received a major boost from a high-profile legal challenge to segregated schools.
Five-year-old Sarah Roberts had to walk past five White schools that would not admit her, to attend the crowded and under-resourced Abiel Smith School, then housed in the basement of the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. With the help of Robert Morris, one of the country’s first African American lawyers, Sarah’s father, Benjamin Roberts, filed a lawsuit against the city on her behalf. He lost; the state Supreme Court endorsed the principle of “separate but equal” schooling. But the effort paved the way for passage of the 1855 desegregation law.
Almost 100 years later, in 1954, the “separate but equal” standard established in the Sarah Roberts case was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education and segregated schools were made illegal throughout the country.
Final Stop: The Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial on Boston Common.
The memorial honors the courage and sacrifice of the African American and Native American soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry and their commander, Colonel Robert Shaw, who fought for freedom in the Civil War. The bronze relief sculpture is across the street from the Massachusetts State at 24 Beacon Street at the edge of the Boston Common.
Some 200,000 Black Americans served in the Union ranks during the Civil War – including an extraordinary 78 percent of free Black men of military age in the free states. Thousands of Black women also joined the war effort, serving as cooks, nurses, spies, and more. President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that Black contributions were critical to turning the tide of war in favor of the Union – and to its eventual victory.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 opened the way for free men of color, and those newly liberated from bondage, to fight in the Union Army. In February of that year, the Massachusetts 54th was formed, becoming the second regiment of color to join the Union forces. Those who signed up to serve knew full well that capture by Confederate forces could mean being sold into slavery or execution.
On July 18, 1863, the Massachusetts 54th stormed Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. Over 250 of the 600 charging soldiers were killed, wounded, and/or missing and presumed dead; just 12 Confederate soldiers died. Although it lost the battle, the 54th did considerable damage and Confederate troops abandoned Fort Wagner soon afterwards. (The story of the Massachusetts 54th is dramatized in the award-winning 1989 movie “Glory.”)
It is fitting that the heroes of the 54th are honored and celebrated a stone’s throw from the vibrant free Black community on the North Slope of Beacon Hill that many of the regiment’s volunteers called home. That community gave America another set of heroes – the Black abolitionists who helped to lead, build, inspire, and mobilize a movement to end the dehumanizing horror of slavery.
It is fitting that the heroes of the 54th are honored and celebrated a stone’s throw from the Black community that many of the regiment’s volunteers called home. That community gave America another set of heroes – the Black abolitionists who helped to lead, build, inspire, and mobilize a movement to end the dehumanizing horror of slavery.
You can learn more about the free Black community on the North Slope, and the prominent Black activists who lived there, elsewhere on this website and/or by taking the Black Heritage Trail, a guided or self-guided tour of the area organized by the National Park Service.