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Beacon Hill museum celebrates the neighborhood's wealth of black history

Posted by Sara Brown  February 25, 2011 04:47 PM

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(Sara Brown/

Beacon Hill's Museum of African American History.

In a 1913 speech to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, William H. Lewis, the first black American to be appointed assistant attorney general, praised Boston's role in the anti-slavery movement.

“Lincoln himself said that Boston had done more to bring on the [Civil] war than any other city,' Lewis said. "And when emancipation had been achieved he generously credited the result ‘to the logic and moral power of Garrison and the anti-slavery people.’”

Boston's role in abolition is on display at Beacon Hill's Museum of African American History. While the city played an important role in the abolition movement, most of the movement took place along the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill. The neighborhood was home to people who gave voice to the anti-slavery movement, stops on the Underground Railroad, and historic black churches, meeting houses, and schools.

A 1.6 mile Black Heritage Trail guides visitors through the neighborhood's history. The museum works with the National Park Service, which has declared the area the Boston African American National Historic Site.

Beverly Morgan-Welch, the executive director of the museum, said the existence of a rich black history in Beacon Hill is not well known. “Stories don’t include everyone: women, people of color," she said.

While some don't associate abolition with the free black community, she said, others focus on the role other historical landmarks. “Boston is very much a city of the American Revolution.”

The museum, which began in 1963, aims to publicize the history of black New Englanders from colonial times through the 19th century, though the focus is on the anti-slavery, abolition period. The museum exhibits are housed in the Abiel Smith School, where Boston's black students were educated until schools were integrated in 1855. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783.

“Abolitionists, black and white—it's a great story of people coming together and working for freedom," said Morgan-Welch.

The stories, she said, include the lives of Lewis and Harriet Hayden, whose Pinckney Street home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Hayden Home is one of Morgan-Welch’s favorite stops on the trail.

“It doesn’t get any better than Lewis and Harriet Hayden," she said, noting that one can imagine the "warm feeling" visitors must have had when the entered the home.

The couple, who escaped from slavery in Kentucky, “always had 12 chairs in order to be able to site and have a conversation,” a wonderful reality for many people who had formerly been enslaved, she said.

Their story includes great details: the entry way to their home had explosives on either side, with Lewis Hayden threatening to blow up the house rather than let a slave catcher enter. He also wrote a letter to his former enslaver—the gist of the letter, Morgan-Welch said, was “if you haven’t noticed, I’m gone.”

After her death in 1893, Harriet Hayden bequeathed between $4,000 and $5,000 to Harvard Medical School for scholarships for black students.

Among the fugitive slaves who sought safety at the Hayden Home were Ellen and William Craft. In another of Welch-Morgan’s favorite stories—there are several, she said—the light-skinned Craft dressed as a man and posed as her husband's master, saying they were going north for medical treatment.

Stories like this, she said, are enough “to make anyone really interested in history.”

In pre-Civil War Boston, the fugitive slave act led to slave catchers in Boston. “At that point, it gets very, very risky” for escaped slaves and those who harbored them, Morgan-Welch said. Helping escaped slaves was dangerous and endangered one’s life, and the life of their children, family and friends, she said.

The museum, at 46 Joy Street, tells these stories through photos, painting and collections. A current exhibit features three sculptors, Elizabeth Catlett, Edmonia Lewis, and Meta Warrick Fuller—“the 'Supremes' of black woman sculptors,” Morgan-Welch calls them. Lewis sculpted a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, while Fuller studied with Auguste Rodin.

The museum is also in the process of restoring the African Meeting House, which is said to be the oldest standing black church building in America. In the 19th century, the meeting house was a hub of activity, hosting weddings, meetings, and lectures from people like anti-slavery giants like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

The museum is restoring the meeting house to “its 1855 glory, at the height of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement is really churning at that point,” said Morgan-Welch.

The major construction work on the meeting house, which is around the corner from the museum on Smith Court,started in November 2010. It is being restored with more $4 million in federal stimulus funds, and the total cost of construction, Morgan-Welch said, will be about $10 million.

When the building is reopened and rededicated in December, Morgan-Welch said, it will include building an elevator into the building, which was built in 1806. “Beautifully carved, gorgeous staircases” lead to the building’s sanctuary, and with the addition of elevators, she said, “for the first time, anyone will have access to the sanctuary.”

The restoration is going at a fast pace to cause as little disruption as possible to the neighborhood, she added.

Looking at the visitation numbers for January, Morgan-Welch was pleasantly surprised: visitation was up 171 percent at the museum, despite several snowstorms. She said visitation numbers were holding tight through the end of 2010.

The National Parks Service gives tours year-round, and the museum hosts field trip groups and an annual teacher summer institute.

“It’s a different history," Morgan-Welch said. "We work very hard to allow people to enter the story as they can."

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