Boston's Own African American History

Reporter's Notebook

BOSTON--Amidst Boston's ritzy Beacon Hill, at the corner of neatly-cobbled Joy and Smith Court Streets, sits the oldest standing black church in America, the African Meeting House.

Built in 1806, the Meeting House has alternately served as church, meeting place and synagogue.

Today it is a Boston African American National Historic Site frequented by about three school groups a day, according to Park Ranger, tour guide and Suffolk College Law School student Aaron D. Snipe, who took a break this week to discuss the church's rich history.

Children who take tours of the landmark walk upon the building's original 19th-century floor planks and enjoy puppet shows with three-feet puppets portraying escaped slaves Harriet Tubman and Lewis Hayden, all recreating the Underground Railroad.

They also wander around the Museum of African American History on the ground floor, which was created in 1972 as a showcase for African and African-American art.


Snipe said that, in contrast to Beacon Hill's Brahmin-society image, the area's north side has historically been home to less-privileged minorities, since land here was long considered undesirable.

Pinckney Street separated Beacon Hill's exclusive south side from its north, and also divided Boston's whites from its blacks during the 1900s, said Snipe, leaning against a piano in what was an empty church meeting room on a rainy Monday afternoon.

The African Meeting House has long been the site for ground-breaking movements, he added.

The Meeting House began as an alternative to white churches, which barred blacks from sitting in the front pews and taking part in church voting, according to the Black Heritage Trail Guide, a written tour of Boston's African-American landmarks published by the National Park Service.

Ironically, at the church's public dedication on Dec. 6, 1806, the floor-level pews were still reserved for those "benevolently disposed to the Africans," while black members were relegated to the balcony, says the book.

On Jan. 6, 1832, William Lloyd Garrison, famed abolitionist and editor of the influential abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here, according to the Guide.

Because blacks were not allowed in Faneuil Hall during the 19th century, the African Meeting House served as a site of congregation for Boston's black population and became known as the Black Faneuil Hall, said Snipe.

During the 1850's, the Meeting House also began performing interracial marriages, he said, an act which was not sanctioned by Southern legislatures until the 1960s.

Reflecting Diversity

At the end of the 19th century, the building inherited a new purpose.