$4m US grant to help restore the African Meeting House

The restored African Meeting House on Joy Street is expected to open in 2011. The restored African Meeting House on Joy Street is expected to open in 2011. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By L. Finch
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2010

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Renovations to the historic African Meeting House on Beacon Hill have received a boost in the form of a multimillion dollar federal grant, museum officials announced yesterday.

The $4 million in federal stimulus funds will allow curators to finish restoring the building on Joy Street, designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, to its original 19th-century state, according to officials of the Museum of African American History, which owns the building.

The 1,500-square-foot meeting house, which officials describe as the oldest existing building of its kind in the nation, has been closed for four years while undergoing renovations.

“This is a place where black and white people worked together to end slavery,’’ said executive director Beverly Morgan-Welch. “It was a beacon of hope for what was possible. . . . This is a fabulous opportunity for the museum to bring this important National Historic Landmark back to its original beauty and purpose.

The funding, which museum officials applied for last year, will help restore the interior of the three-story brick building to its condition in 1855 at the height of the New England abolitionist movement, Morgan-Welch said. Cast-iron posts, lamps, pews, wall finishes, and various other features will be replaced or restored.

An external elevator and stairwell will be added to make the upper floors handicap-accessible, and the electrical, heating, cooling, and fire-suppression systems will be replaced.

The National Park Service approved the funding, with the support of Governor Deval Patrick.

“A primary goal of [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009] is getting people back to work,’’ Patrick said in a statement. He expressed gratitude to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and National Park Service officials “who saw the merit in providing funding that not only stimulates the economy through construction and tourism, but will also preserve a building so very important to the history of the Commonwealth and the nation.’’

The African Meeting House, built in 1806, served as a church, school, and meeting place for the black community in Eastern Massachusetts for much of the 1800s. The prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society there in 1832, and it served as a recruiting center for the North’s first black regiment during the Civil War.

It was sold to a Jewish congregation at the turn of the century and converted into a synagogue, and in 1972 it was purchased by the Museum of African American History.

The funding is critical to the project, Morgan-Welch said. Numerous private and public grants and donations fueled the beginning of the renovations, but fund-raising became difficult after the economy soured, she said.

“We need to know and understand our American history, and [the abolitionist movement] is a really brilliant and beautiful and triumphant and difficult time in our history,’’ Morgan-Welch said. “We will use the building in the same way, for education. Take this history and make it current.’’

The entire project will cost about $8 million, she said. Officials expect the meeting house to reopen by the end of next year.

L. Finch can be reached at

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