Black Heritage Trail, Boston (Massachusetts) guide and map

Black Heritage Trail, Boston

Boston’s Black Heritage Trail takes us through the most significant landmarks of the Black Boston of the 1800s. Before the Civil War, Beacon Hill became home to immigrants and more than half of Boston’s 2,000 African Americans, just below the houses of wealthy white people.

The Black Heritage Trail explores schools, residences and churches of the free Black community that played a pivotal role in the fight for equal rights and abolition of slavery. Alongside the Freedom Trail, this is an equally important way to learn more about the precursors of the Civil War movement and history of Boston. Here’s everything you need to know about Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

Black Heritage Trail sign

Black Heritage Trail Map

The Black Heritage Trail is 1.6 miles long and takes about 1h to complete. You can take it at your own pace and it’s completely free. It starts at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial and finishes at the African Meeting House.

Your main stops are:

Black Heritage Trail stops

1. Robert Gould Shaw/54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial

This is the first stop of the Black Heritage Trail. You can find the memorial on the top edge of the Boston Common, directly across from the Massachusetts State House. In 1863, Black soldiers were finally admitted into the Union Army. As a result, the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry became the second African-American regiment to be organised in a Northern state. Its predecessor was the 1st Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry.

Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts regiment memorial

The 54th Regiment fought under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. He famously led the unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner against Confederate-held Charleston, South Carolina in July 1863. Many of the soldiers, including Robert Gould Shaw, were killed there. Sgt. William Carney, however, got wounded when he saved the saved the flag from capture. As a result, he became the first Black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor.

2. George Middleton House

The George Middleton House on 5-7 Pinckney Street is one of the oldest homes in Beacon Hill. It was built in 1787 by Louis Glapion, a hairdresser, and George Middleton, a horse coach and Revolutionary War veteran. They were both members of the African Lodge (aka Prince Hall Masons), founded by Black abolitionist Prince Hall.

George Middleton house, Boston

Middleton was an active leader of the Boston’s African American Community. During the American Revolution, he became a Colonel and led the “Bucks of America”, one of the three Black militia to fight the British. He layer organised the African Benevolent Society and continued fighting for equal school rights for Black children. He also wrote an abolitionist manifesto alongside his brother in 1808 and even became Grand Master of the African Lodge a year later!

3. Phillips School

Located on the corner of Anderson and Pinckney streets, this 19th century schoolhouse was initially a white boys school. It was named after John Phillips, the first Mayor of Boston and father of abolitionist Wendell Phillips. After the abolition of segregation with the Massachusetts Law of 1855, it became one of the first integrated schools in Boston. Before that, Black children attended school at the African Meeting House and, from 1834, at the Abiel Smith School. It’s now a private residence.

Elizabeth Smith taught here. She was the first African American to teach in an integrated school in the 1870s. Her father, abolitionist John J. Smith, is part of our next stop!

Phillips School, Boston entrance

4. John J. Smith House

Number 86 Pinckney Street was home to John J. Smith, a leading African American abolitionist, legislator and former barber! Born free in Richmond, Virginia, Smith moved to Boston in the 1840s. His barbershop there became a meeting point for abolitionist movement and Black slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, he served as a recruiting officer for the all-Black 5th Cavalry. After that, he became a three-term member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

5. Charles Street Meeting House

The Third Baptist Church of Boston erected this building in 1807. Before the Civil War era, the church served as centre of important antislavery activity. Moreover, many abolitionist leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison, spoke here. You can find the Charles Street Meeting House on the corner of Mt. Vernon and Charles Street.

During early 19th century however, the church imposed segregated seating. Church member Timothy Gilbert broke the infamous tradition by inviting Black friends to his pew. He was expelled and, as a result, founded the First Free Baptist Church (aka Tremont Temple). This became the first integrated church in the US.

After the Civil War, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church bought the building. It was the largest of Boston’s five Black churches at the time and remained here until 1939. The Charles Street AME Church (as it was thereafter known) carried on promoting political and social activism until then.

6. Lewis and Harriet Hayden House

Abolitionist leaders Lewis and Harriet Hayden escaped from slavery in Lexington, Kentucky in 1844. After settling in Boston in 1846, Lewis Hayden opened a clothing store and joined the anti-slavery movement. As a result, their home on 66 Phillips Street became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. They took care of fugitive African Americans and it’s even said they threatened slave catchers to blow up the house with two kegs of gunpowder if they entered.

Lewis and Harriet Hayden House, Boston

Lewis Hayden was part of the 54th Regiment, the Boston Vigilance Committee (which fought against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) and the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Moreover, he was also Grand Master of the Prince Hall Mansions.

7. John Coburn House

Abolitionist clothing retailer John Coburn lived on 2 Phillips Street until his death in 1873. He served as a treasurer of the New England Freedom Association, aiding self-emancipated slaves on the Underground Railroad. Likewise, he was captain and co-founder of the Massasoit Guards, forerunners of the 54th Regiment.

Coburn was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Boston at the time. It’s said he also ran a gaming activities at home.

John Coburn House, Boston

8. Smith Court Residences

The Smith Court Residences served as important centre for the Black community and abolitionist movement of the 19th century. Here are the most notable residences:

  • 2 Smith Court

Right next to the African Meeting House, this was home to Joseph E. Scarlett. By the time of his death, he owned 15 properties in Boston, Cambridge and Charleston, which he rented to several individuals and families. In his will, he made bequests to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion Church and the Home for Aged Colored Woman.

  • 3 Smith Court (James Scott and William C. Nell House)

This family home used to be rented by African Americans at the time. James Scott lived here for almost 50 years, renting first and later owning the property. He’s known for actively sheltering numerous fugitive slaves. Abolitionist leader William C. Nell was also a tenant for a few years here. A member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, he wrote “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution“. As a result, William C. Nell became the first published Black historian in the US. He also worked for several newspapers including The Liberator and The Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

William C. Nell house plaque

  • 4 Smith Court

Due to the increase of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, houses in Beacon Hill were redeveloped. Consequently, number 4 is one of the cheap-housing options built to accommodate the influx of immigrants in the 20th century.

  • 5 Smith Court

The Wilcox family lived here between 1813 and 1815. They were among the group who emigrated to Sierra Leone with Black marine Paul Cuffe. Cuffe was heavily involved in the British effort to create a colony there with former slaves. Years later, the property was sold to George Washington, a deacon at the First Independent Baptist Church.

  • 7, 7A and 10 Smith Court

African American Joseph E. Scarlett, who lived across the street on number 2 Smith Court, also owned and rented these properties.

Smith Court Residences, Boston - Black Heritage Trail

9. Abiel Smith School

The National Historic Landmark on 46 Joy Street was the first public school for free African American children in 1835. It’s named after Abiel Smith, a white benefactor who destined money for Black education in his will. However, the school conditions remained inferior to white schools – with many fighting for equal rights in education.

Today, the Abiel Smith School is part of the Museum of African American History and the Boston African American National Historic Site.

Museum of Afro American History, Abiel Smith School, African Meeting House and Black Heritage Trail, Boston sign

10. African Meeting House

Built in 1806, the African Meeting House is the oldest Black building in the US. Originally, it was home to the First African Baptist Church. The African Meeting House later became the focal point of cultural and political activity for the Black community. At this time it served as the recruitment station for the 54th Regiment and many activists spoke here. Before becoming part of the Museum of African American History in 1972, it also served as a synagogue for the Jewish Community.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the important history that lies behind the Black Heritage Trail in Boston as much as I loved writing about it. Next time you find yourself in the Massachusetts capital, make sure you add the Black Heritage Trail to your itinerary. I can assure you you won’t be disappointed.

If you loved our guide to the Black Heritage Trail in Boston, please leave us a comment, pin some photos and show us some love on social media using the buttons below.

G.x


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28 comments

  1. Jane Palmen

    Loved doing this trail, happy memories. Your blog has given me lots of new information and I love the photos. Hope to return to Boston sometime x

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you Jane! I loved this trail too – so much history behind it! x

      Reply

  2. Under flowery sky

    Wow I didn’t know that exist Black trail in Boston,
    even the houses are black. I’ll check it out if I come
    to Boston..

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks for leaving a comment! It’s such an important part of the history of Boston and the US as a whole! x

      Reply

  3. Hannah

    Thanks for posting this – glad to see these sorts of things exist. Is it something that can be guided or do you just do it in your own?

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Hi Hannah – The National Park Service offers free guided tours and these are seasonally scheduled. I believe you need to prebook in advance. I actually did it on my own when I was there, all I needed was a map! x

      Reply

  4. Nic | Nic's Adventures & Bakes

    Thanks for sharing, we did not do this trail when I went to Boston in 2018 all though the first stop is near to the hotel we stayed in, we did go on another trail that was in our guide book.

    Nic | Nic’s Adventures & Bakes

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Hi Nic – I believe you’re talking about the Freedom Trail, which is equally as amazing! Unfortunately, the Black Heritage Trail is not a heavily publicised. But I would absolutely recommend it, I had a lot of fun learning about the rich African American history when I did it! x

      Reply

  5. Savannah

    Great post! I loved learning this history. I feel like there are sooo many things about Black culture and history that I’d never know about if not for localized sources like this. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks so much Savannah! I really enjoyed walking the trail and learning so many interesting facts about African American history. I think it’s important everyone takes the time to research topics and sources like these. They really open your eyes to society and make you understand why we are where we are right now. x

      Reply

  6. Fausta

    It was very interesting to read this, i love how informative it is and now I want to visit Boston so bad!!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you Fausta! I’m really glad you liked my post about the Black Heritage Trail. Boston is a fantastic city, there’s so much history behind it! x

      Reply

  7. Johnny

    This was refreshing to see. As a black person it’s a great to see aspects of black history that rarely get discussed or acknowledged when discussing their importance to the world as a whole. For example not many talk about the black soldiers and medics who gave their lives to make the world a better and safer place. Thank you for doing this blog post

    Johnny | Johnny’s Traventures
    https://johnnystraventures.com

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you Johnny! I think it’s important we learn from the past and take time to research key facts that have built our societies. The Black Heritage Trail is a strong indicator of how hard these people fought for the rights they deserved. And how hard we still need to fight to make sure history is not repeated again. x

      Reply

  8. Lamara Travels

    I think it’s really apt that you’ve posted this with all of the strange times going on right now. It’s a brilliant way of promoting this type of tourism in the area! Unfortunately I’m nowhere near Massachusetts, but if I was I’d definitely check this out!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Lamara! So glad that you liked it! Hopefully next time you find yourself in the area, you will tick it off your list! x

      Reply

  9. Laura

    This is definitely on my bucket list for Boston, if I ever happen to be there!

    – Laura // lauraorvokki.com

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Glad it’s inspired you to explore Boston even more! Thanks for leaving a comment Laura x

      Reply

  10. Alexis Farmer

    I’m tentatively planning to go to Boston in the fall (covid pending), will definitely check this out if I go!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Hi Alexis – thank you for leaving a comment! I’m glad to hear you’ve liked the post! I hope you can make it to Boston later this year, I’m sure you’ll have a blast x

      Reply

  11. Daisy

    This looks like such an important journey people need to take! Boston has such a varied history and it’s on my bucket list to visit there one day!

    Daisy xoxo | According To Daisy

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      I’m so glad you liked it Daisy! The Black Heritage Trail was such a fun thing to do, and I learnt so much from it. I hope you can get to travel to Boston soon, it’s really beautiful up there x

      Reply

  12. Chloe Chats

    Such a great guide for the black heritage trail! I would love to visit, it sounds absolutely amazing and filled with so much history. I live very far away, but if I do decide to go on an adventure somewhere then this would definitely be something on my list. Thank you for sharing!

    Chloe xx

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Hi Chloe – thanks for the sweet comment! I’m happy to read that my post has inspired you to get to know Boston a bit better, it’s truly an awesome city to add to your list! x

      Reply

  13. Miranda Richey

    Thanks for sharing this! I haven’t been to Boston, but I’m going to put this in my pocket for when I go.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      That’s amazing, thank you so much for leaving a comment! x

      Reply

  14. L - Franglais27

    This sounds like a fascinating and informative trail. I’m pleased to see that there is that emphasis on black history and its contribution in Boston. Whilst I have only visited Boston on a day trip, I will add this trail to my list for a return visit.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you for the lovely comment! I’m glad to hear it’s inspired you to pay a little visit to Boston, hopefully soon! x

      Reply

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