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Boston's bright light: The African Meeting House

Boston’s bad reputation for race relations has been well-earned. But the city also played a historic role in the abolition of slavery.
A view from the podium inside the African Meeting House in Boston.
A view from the podium inside the African Meeting House in Boston.

BOSTON — The city’s bad reputation for race relations has been well-earned. In the mid-1970s, when Massachusetts moved to desegregate its public schools through a busing program, white Bostonians erupted in violent protests and riots. The Boston Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to integrate. And Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in New England and played a central role in America’s early slave trade.

But there’s another side to the racial history of this much-maligned city. It played a historic role in the abolition of slavery and helped shape the lives of many of the important historical figures of the time.

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison founded his Liberator Newspaper in Boston which called for “the immediate and complete emancipation” of all slaves in the United States. Prince Hall, a black abolitionist, stalwart defender of equality and the father of black Freemasonry, was a pillar of Boston’s black community and used the city as a launching pad to feed the national abolitionist movement.

But perhaps the brightest specter of Boston’s history is the African Meeting House. Built in 1806, it is the oldest, still-standing black church in the United States. Located in the historic Beacon Hill neighborhood, the African Meeting House was built by free blacks after congregants were discriminated against at white churches.

The Meeting House, located at 46 Joy Street, served as a church, a school for black children and a safe space for abolitionist and black residents to communicate and commiserate. Many of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War with the famed all-black 54th Massachusetts were recruited from the halls of this 5,364 square-foot building.

“The newspapers of the time carried stories about the building of the African Meeting House and one of the sentences that always strikes me is that it said you cannot imagine what is happening atop Beacon Hill. The colored community is building itself a meeting house,” said Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of Boston’s Museum of African American History, which is housed in the African Meeting House. “That statement was not followed by anything. It was a clarion call that these folks have gotten organized, they had purpose, they were going to have a place to gather where no one else would be allowed.”

Morgan-Welch said there were rehearsals for upcoming operas held at the location, as well as writing lessons for recently self-emancipated slaves from other colonies.

“It was obviously about uplift. It was about saying, first of all, we’ve got to end slavery, absolutely, but it was also saying we’ve got to educate ourselves, we’ve got to have businesses, we’ve got to work together,” Morgan-Welch said. “They were up against incredible prejudices and fears.”

Garrison, the abolitionist, worked closely with the African Meeting House, and many of the writers in his Liberator were black as were many of his early funders. In 1860, after being run out of a nearby temple, Fredrick Douglass gave an anti-slavery speech there.

The Meeting House recently underwent a $9.5 million dollar restoration that returned the building to its 1855 likeness, replete with some original pews that crest around a raised pulpit, and original floor boards--rustic planks that have supported the feet of many great men and women, black and white alike.

On a recent, rainy afternoon, Morgan-Welch sat at one of the front pews with her feet planted firmly on those old planks. As she spoke, her voice filled the chamber as the voices of so many others likely had over the centuries.

“The people who had to step out on freedom and devise a plan and make their way are infinitely courageous in their ability to exact their own liberation,” she said.

This is part of’s “Road Trip ” series, which has reporters traveling across the country to profile movements that sparked change in America. For more, click here.