The African Meeting House, tucked away on Smith Court in Boston’s Beacon Hill neaighborhood, was built in 1806 to house the first African Baptist Church of Boston (a.k.a. First Independent Baptist Church) and it is now the oldest extant black church building in America. The church was organized primarily by and for black Bostonians, with some financial cooperation and assistance from Boston’s white Baptist churches. The African Baptist Church was officially constituted on 8 August 1805 with twenty-four members, of whom fifteen were women. A building committee was organized of prominent men from the white Baptist churches; these men handled financial transactions and partially oversaw construction, but many of the people who worked to construct the church building were African American craftsmen. Cato Gardner, a native African, led the fundraising effort by personally raising $1,500, out of the $7,700 needed to build the meeting house.
In addition to serving as a spiritual center for the community, the African Meeting House was the chief cultural, educational, and political nexus of Boston’s black community. The African School held classes in a room on the first floor of the meeting house from 1808 until 1835, when it moved into the new Abiel Smith School. Classes returned to the meeting house in 1849 when most African Americans chose to withdraw their children from the Smith School in order to protest against segregated education. Adult education was regularly offered at the meeting house in the form of classes and lectures. Abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Maria Stewart, Wendell Phillips, Sarah Grimke, and Frederick Douglass all spoke at the meeting house. The Massachusetts General Colored Association, which was the first abolitionist organization in Boston, met at the African Meeting House, and in 1832 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded there. Community celebrations often occurred at the meeting house, including annual commemorations of Haitian Independence (1803) and the end of the international slave trade (1807). In 1863 the meeting house served as a recruitment post for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, which was the first official African American military regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War.
In 1898 the Baptist congregation sold their meeting house and moved to a new location in the South End. The meeting house became the Jewish Congregation Anshi Libavitz in 1904 and was acquired by the Museum of African American History in 1972.
The Meeting House exterior is Federal style and is symmetrical. The building is brick and is three stories high with a mixture of double-hung and two-story round arched windows on the upper floors. The ground floor features some blind arches, typical of the Federal style. While there is much speculation on who designed the building, many accredit Asher Benjamin, a leader in early American architecture, who wrote “The American Builder’s Companion” in 1806. It is also proposed that a contemporary of Benjamin’s, Mr. Ward Jackson, may have been responsible for the design. Jackson was aquatinted with Benjamin and they both were members of the Society of Associated Housewrights. Jackson was also probably familiar with Benjamin’s book before it’s publication. Either way, the African Meeting House stands as not only architecturally significant, but one of the most historically significant buildings in New England!