Lewis and Harriet Hayden House // 1833

Lewis Hayden was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1811, as one of a family of 25. Hayden was first owned by a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Adam Rankin. He sold off Lewis’ brothers and sisters in preparation for moving to Pennsylvania, and he traded 10-year-old Hayden for two carriage horses to a man who traveled the state selling clocks. In the mid-1830s, Hayden married Esther Harvey, also a slave. She and their son were sold to U.S. Senator Henry Clay, who sold them both to the Deep South, and Hayden never saw them again. By 1842, Hayden married a second time, to Harriet Bell, who was also enslaved, and he cared for her son Joseph as his stepson. After this marriage, Hayden began making plans to escape to the North, as he feared his second family might be split up like the first. In 1844, he and his family escaped with assistance of abolitionists all the way to Canada. From Canada, the Haydens moved in 1845 to Detroit in the free state of Michigan, and the next year, they moved to Boston, at the center of anti-slavery activity with the city’s strong abolitionist base. In Boston, Hayden became a lecturer and ran a clothing shop, acquiring enough money to live in this large home in Beacon Hill. The Haydens routinely cared for fugitive slaves at their home, which served as a boarding house. Guests included Ellen and William Craft, who escaped from slavery in 1848. Hayden prevented slave catchers from taking the Crafts by threatening to blow up his home with gunpowder if they tried to reclaim the pair. Hayden died in 1889, outliving the abolishment of slavery. Harriet died in 1894 and left $5,000, the entirety of their estate, to the Harvard University for scholarships for African American medical students. It was believed to have been the first, and perhaps only, endowment to a university by a former slave. Their former home remains a stop on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

John Coburn House // 1844

Located on Beacon Hill, this house, built in 1843 some of the richest history. The home was built for John P. Coburn (1811–1873), a 19th-century African-American abolitionist, civil rights activist, tailor and clothier, and was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Boston of his time. This house is believed to have been the last commission of renowned architect Asher Benjamin and is an excellent example of a brick Greek Revival townhouse in Boston. Coburn sold cashmere clothing, doeskins, tweeds and vestings in two shops in downtown Boston, the area which was razed in the 1960s with Urban Renewal. Limited evidence suggests that Coburn may have ran a gaming house for wealthy Bostonians in his house; however, his community activism is far better documented.Coburn served as the treasurer of the New England Freedom Association, an organization dedicated to assisting freedom seekers who escaped slavery and came to Boston on the Underground Railroad. Formed in the early 1840s, this group sought “to extend a helping hand to all who may bid adieu to whips and chains, and by the welcome light of the North Star, reach a haven where they can be protected from the grasp of the man-stealer.” In 1854, after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act , Coburn founded the Massasoit Guards, a black military company, to police Beacon Hill and protect residents from slave catchers. He served as the company’s captain. Coburn died in 1873 and left most of his belongings to his son Wendell Coburn, including the family home. The house is privately owned today and is a stop on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

John J. Smith House // c.1840

Born free in Richmond, Virginia, John J. Smith (1820–1906) moved to Boston in the 1840s. Upon his arrival in Boston, he found the city was much more accepting of African Americans than the South, where slavery was still rampant. He opened a barbershop on the north slope of Beacon Hill, which at the time, had become a diverse neighborhood of free blacks and wealthy abolitionists. His shop became a gathering place for abolitionist activity. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Smith sheltered refugees and helped with their escape plans. The Fugitive Slave Act was drafted by Senator James Mason of Virginia, and allowed slave catchers to travel north to bring escaped slaves back to chains. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine (over $30,000 in today’s dollars). During the Civil War, Smith recruited for the Black Massachusetts regiments and 5th Calvary, helping bolster the fight against slavery and confederacy. After the War, he became the third African American to sit on the Massachusetts legislature when he was elected to represent Ward 6 in the state house of representatives. He was re-elected in 1869 and 1872, making him the first black legislator to serve more than one term in Massachusetts. In 1878, Smith was elected to the Boston Common (City) Council, where he served for “a number of years” as one of its first African-American members, the same year he moved into this house in Beacon Hill. During his first year on the council, Smith was responsible for the hiring of Horatio J. Homer, the Boston Police Department’s first black officer. Smith lived at this house until 1893 before moving to Jamaica Plain and Dorchester where he died at the age of 86.