One of the best experiences I have ever had in a National Park was at the Boston African American National Historic Site. I was standing in front of the Robert Gould Shaw / 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial in Boston Common when a park ranger approached me and asked if I wanted to join his guided tour. I never heard of the Black Heritage Trail, even though it intersected the more famous Freedom Trail that highlights some of the important Revolutionary War locations. As a kid, I walked along the red brick sidewalk marking the Freedom Trail as my family visited each site. I had no idea that there was another historic trail in Boston.
The tour started at the Shaw Memorial, which honors the Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the first all Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment who fought in the Civil War. The monument sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is full of amazing detail, great depth, and creates the sense of living, breathing, marching army. Saint-Gaudens took years to complete the monument, and the citizens of Boston had to concede that it was worth the wait. The monument’s location isn’t as prestigious as I would like. While it faces the golden-domed State House, the traffic pours past and the amazing monument seemingly goes unnoticed. Robert Lowell summed this up better than I ever can. Of course, traffic went by at a much slower place when the monument was installed.
From the Shaw Memorial, the ranger led a fantastic tour, walking us down the streets of Beacon Hill where Boston’s richest reside, transforming the neighborhood for me. One of the most dramatic stories from the tour was that of Lewis and Harriet Hayden. Born in to slavery in Kentucky, Lewis Hayden’s family was auctioned off when his owner moved from Kentucky to Pennsylvania. Hayden himself was traded for a pair of horses. He later married and had two sons, one of which died shortly after birth. His wife and sons were enslaved by a different owner and were sold into the Deep South. He never saw them again. He married Harriet and escaped to Canada with her and her son in 1844. Eventually they made their way to Boston. They actively aided numerous escaped slaves, and were active in several fugitive slave incidents that made national headlines. Hayden reportedly kept barrels of gunpowder in the house that they threatened to blow up if anyone attempted to capture the people taking refuge in their home. Hayden recruited volunteers for the Massachusetts 54th and other all African regiments. I am always surprised by the history we don’t know. Lewis Hayden’s story is as compelling as many other well known figures, but he remains largely unknown.
This neighborhood in the years before the Civil War must have been a treacherous place. The quaint alleys of Beacon Hill, now gated for private residents only, were once vital escape routes for escaped slaves and free African-Americans. After the Fugitive Slave Act, any African-American could be taken in custody and sent in bondage in the South. Residents left their doors unlocked, so if pursued, one could escape from an alley into a home or business, potentially avoiding capture. The image of people being snatched from their daily lives and put into bondage is haunting.
One thing that fascinated me is the close proximity of the African American neighborhood on one side of Beacon Hill to the wealthy Boston Brahmin neighborhood on the other side. Today all of Beacon Hill belongs to the rich, so I was curious about how that had changed. A short detour from the trail takes you to Louisburg Square, one of the most prestigious addresses in Boston. The names on the plaques on the houses on this side of the hill read like a who’s who of American History. Former Secretary of State John Kerry lives here now, and past residents include Louisa May Alcott and John Singleton Copley. A townhouse here was recently listed for $11 million dollars, which explains the Land Rovers, Porsches and Mercedes that dot the street. In the early 19th century, Boston’s Back Bay hadn’t been filled, so the swampy Charles River was closer to Beacon Hill, and industry dotted the banks. They were several rope-making operations, which was apparently an operation with a hideous smell. These were located on the back side of the hill. This is where the African American neighborhood was. The Brahmin lived on the other side of the hill, closer to the State House and Boston Common, where apparently things smelled a little better. Probably many of the residents of the unsavory North side, walked to the other side of the hill to work in the homes of the wealthy on the South side.
The African American Meeting House is a focal point of the Park and of the community. After I spent some time in the exhibit hall, I poked around the bookstore and joined the last ranger talk of the day. This is the only way one can visit the Meeting House. The Meeting House is much like any other old New England church or meeting house. The pews are hard and the interior sparse. There isn’t much to see, but Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart and William Lloyd Garrison spoke from the pulpit. The activism that helped bring more equal treatment of Black and White Americans started here.