In the Weekends with Yankee episode “Join the Club” (season 4, episode 12), we travel to Martha’s Vineyard and visit the historically African-American neighborhood of Oak Bluffs to learn more about its significant residents and places. But all across New England, you can find sites that celebrate the African-American artists, writers, politicians, and protesters who helped shape this region and our nation. Read on for a guide to African-American heritage trails in New England. —Joe Bills
Guide to African-American Heritage Trails in New England
Boston’s Museum of African-American History oversees the Black Heritage Trail, the country’s largest collection of historic sites related to free African-Americans before the Civil War, as well as Underground Railroad locations and places of significance in the fights to end slavery and achieve civil rights. Notable stops include Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, the first all-black regiment recruited in the North during the Civil War; the African Meeting House, built by free black workers in 1806 and regarded as the oldest surviving black church building in the country; and, of course, the Museum of African-American History itself. Guided tours are available, as are audio tours and self-guided tours for those who prefer to go at their own pace.
The Freedom Trail Foundation takes an entertaining approach to celebrating the African-American patriots who played a vital role in the start of the American Revolution in Boston. Led by costumed guides, this tour gives visitors a new perspective on history through the eyes of African-American revolutionaries such as Phillis Wheatley, Prince Hall, Peter Salem, and Crispus Attucks.
In addition to its work in Boston, the Museum of African-American History teamed up with the Friends of the African Meeting House on Nantucket to create the island’s own Black Heritage Trail. The 10 sites are divided between downtown and New Guinea, the neighborhood where the island’s black population lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Guided tours leave from the Whaling Museum; visit sites including the Florence Higginbotham House, which was built by a freed slave named Seneca Boston in 1774; and end at the African Meeting House, a school, church, and social center of the black community dating back to the 1820s.
Founded in 1998, the African-American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard is focused on preserving the complex history and many contributions of people of African descent who have lived on the island. The trail, which includes locations in every town, comprises 30 sites but continues to grow as ongoing research by the nonprofit African American Heritage Trail History Project uncovers new stories. Among the trail’s highlights are the homes where Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson stayed, as well as the Oak Bluffs residence of author Dorothy West, a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance.
Sojourner Truth was born a slave in New York sometime around 1797 and earned her freedom in 1826. Through her writings, speeches, and performances, she would become a nationally known advocate for racial and sexual equality. From 1843 until 1857, Truth made her home in Florence, Massachusetts, which had evolved into a center of abolitionist activity. The walking tour includes stops relevant to that time period, including the homes and businesses of prominent abolitionists, and the house that Truth bought in 1850. Guided tours are available, and self-guided tours can be downloaded from the website in both print and video formats.
Dedicated to telling New Hampshire’s “forgotten stories,” the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire started with the creation of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, which preserves the history and cultural roots of an African community in Portsmouth that dates back to the early 1600s. From the docks that hosted the slave trade to the historic African Burying Ground, the trail tells a story that stands in conflict with many perceptions of racism and slavery in the Granite State. Recently, the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire expanded its offerings with a series of guided and self-guided tours of communities outside Portsmouth, each with a different part of the story to tell.
The self-guided Vermont African-American Heritage Trail spans the state, with stops including the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, a former sheep farm that was part of the Underground Railroad; Middlebury College, where in 1823 Alexander Twilight became the first black person to earn a degree from an American college; and the Constitution House in Windsor, which was a tavern when the first state constitution in America to ban slavery was signed there. Trail guides and maps can be downloaded from the website.
The Upper Housatonic African-American Heritage Trail tells the stories of the black experience in 29 communities in western Massachusetts and northwestern Connecticut. Among the 48 sites are the boyhood home of W.E.B. DuBois, in Great Barrington; the Col. Ashley House in Sheffield, where a slave named Elizabeth “Mum Bet” Freeman successfully sued for her freedom; the New Canaan grave of James Mars, whose 1864 autobiography called attention to slavery in New England; and the former Music Inn in Stockbridge, which for many years was a major jazz performance venue and education center. Trail guides can be downloaded from the website.