The National Park ranger clears his throat. Across from the State House at the Shaw Memorial, under the frozen eyes of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a small semicircle of guests huddle close around him. He shouts to be heard over the trolleys and duck boats speeding by.
The story he tells is typical of Boston: one of statesmen and speeches, rebels and gunplay, revolution and war. But odds are you haven’t heard this one before. That’s because this ranger isn’t with Bunker Hill or the Constitution or any other place you visited on your sixth-grade field trip. Halfway between Faneuil Hall and the bar from Cheers, this is the Black Heritage Trail — the best tour in Boston you haven’t already been on.
The tour moves away from the crowded corner into a neighborhood you might not expect. At Joy Street, the ranger hangs a right and leads his group up the steep streets of Beacon Hill. Long before the joint forces of historic preservation and gentrification turned this neighborhood into one of the most luxurious in Boston, it was home to the largest free black population in North America and ground zero in young America’s struggle with slavery, oppression, and racism.
In Boston’s early days, the north slope of Beacon Hill reeked from the stink of rope factories and was difficult to build on. So while the Brahmins erected the State House and their mansions on the fresher side, African Americans were allowed to move in literally a stone’s throw away.
The neighborhood swelled after Massachusetts banned slavery in 1783 and residents discovered that their fortuitous location provided them with a unique soapbox. Conditions were ideal to turn this neighborhood into a political machine. Although racism still abounded, residents’ numbers bred security, and security led to organization. Prosperity sparked education, which led to acknowledgment, then outrage, then action. They raised money, opened schools, and built homes. Then, as in all great American stories, they started picking fights.
Leaning nonchalantly on private stoops, the ranger recounts the amazing battles waged by the buildings’ previous tenants. He points out the old Phillips School, which currently houses pricey condos. The now-renovated classrooms were among the first desegregated anywhere, 99 years before Brown v. Board of Education.
Around the corner and a couple of blocks from Senator John Kerry’s house, the ranger points out the home of another lawmaker,Lewis Hayden. Before serving in the state legislature, he’d been the most militant Underground Railroad conductor in New England. He kept his foyer packed with kegs of gunpowder so that when slavecatchers knocked on his door, he could answer with a lit torch in one hand, offering them a very simple choice.
The juxtaposition between the neighborhood’s current lavishness and its humble yet heroic past can be distracting, even a little humorous, at times. But the ranger’s measured words suck you in, and he sets the stage to hook you with what he’s saved for last.
He stops at a gap in an otherwise solid row of townhouses. It’s wide enough to walk, but you’d likely miss it if it weren’t pointed out to you. From the tour you’ve learned that Beacon Hill, befitting its name, was the light at the end of the tunnel for many traveling the Underground Railroad.
The ranger explains that Holmes Alley was once one of countless hidden paths used to smuggle self-emancipated souls to freedom. As you walk down it, the story you spent the last hour listening to suddenly becomes very real. You find yourself running your hands along the alley walls, picking out the memories embedded there, or focusing on the weight of your own feet and marveling at the courage of those who walked here before you.
Fittingly, the alley spills out at the foot of the African Meeting House. Built in the shadow of the Golden Dome, it served as the minority rebuttal to the American status quo. In this intimate space, great orators and average men once shared the pulpit to plan actions, celebrate victories, and find the faith to keep fighting.
As the ranger reads from some of their speeches and sermons, it’s easy to imagine Frederick Douglass towering over the lectern. With his massive frame, his Twain-like wit, and his position of inscrutable moral superiority, he was easily one of the most intimidating Americans of his time.
The words he bellowed there shook the rafters and reverberated through the very core of the nation: “From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, ‘Now or never.’ Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.’ ‘Better even die free, than to live slaves.'”
The ideas born in the African Meeting House seeped into the parlor rooms of wealthy abolitionists on the other side of the hill. They were repeated by clergy and statesmen and echoed through the halls of the governor’s mansion. Eventually they fell from the lips of Lincoln himself as he announced the Emancipation Proclamation and called for the formation of the first black volunteer regiments.
At the African Meeting House, the men of the neighborhood turned out in droves to fill the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts. And as they marched in lockstep down Beacon Street (the moment enshrined in the Shaw Memorial at the beginning of the tour) to fight and die in Southern forests and on Southern shores, the battle African Americans had fought against slavery for so long finally ceased to be a defensive one.
The tour concludes next door at the Museum of African American History. Its simple displays are a much-needed catharsis. Slowly the drama and heartbreak drift away, you stop at the gift shop to buy the DVD of Glory, and you’re once again in the savvy, swanky center of metro Boston.
But as you go off to dine or shop, you’ll find that the story sticks with you. And as you walk by the Frog Pond (just down the street), you may take a moment to appreciate the rainbow hues of the children playing there and find one more reason to be proud of the city you love — the City of Firsts, the City of Freedom, the City of Boston.
Read more: Forgotten history of slaves in Portsmouth
Boston African American National Historic Site
Black Heritage Trail guided tours Memorial Day-Labor Day Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m., 12 noon, 2 p.m.; Labor Day-Memorial Day Mon.-Sat. 2 p.m. and by appt.; free. Meet at Shaw Memorial, jct. Beacon and Park Sts., across from State House.
Self-guided tours available from the Museum of African American History (which consists of the African Meeting House and Abiel Smith School). Brochure and map available at the museum’s Welcome Center (which is also the NPS Visitor Center) in the Smith School. Mon.-Sat. 10-4; free. The African Meeting House is currently undergoing restoration; guided tours of the restoration work and access to the museum’s exhibit galleries in the Smith School are available.
46 Joy St. 617-725-0022; afroammuseum.org