Boston’s South End neighborhood has so much history that NEEDS to be showcased. From the repetitive architecture of beautiful brick and stone bowfronts, to the history of African American activism, enterprise, and stories, the neighborhood is a gem of Boston. This building was constructed around 1865 for Thomas H. Snow (1833-1908) as his home. Snow was a wine and spirit merchant who had a store in Faneuil Hall Square. While that is interesting, Mr. Snow is not the highlight of this building, that comes later in 1899, when the building was rented to Madame Mary L. Johnson, a wig maker, scientific scalp specialist, and hair culturist. Mary Johnson and her husband, Dr. W. Alexander Johnson, were Black and ran one of just 200 Black-owned businesses in the city of Boston by the beginning of the 20th century. At their storefront, they sold hair goods at Johnson’s Hair Store. Sold all over the United States since 1900, their famous “Johnson Hair Food” was “the most scientific pomade yet discovered for growing, beautifying and softening the hair,” they claimed. In connection with their hair product outfit, Madame Johnson operated Johnson’s School of Beauty Culture, where a variety of services including manicuring, shampooing, scalp massage, facial massage, hairdressing, and scalp treatment were offered. The school provided young Black women in Boston technical training and skills, which there were limited options at the time. Mr. Johnson also was President of the Boston Negro Business League, which helped bolster Black businesses at the turn of the century.
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.
George Middleton and Louis Glapion built this two-family residence in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1787, which is now the oldest extant home on Beacon Hill. This wood structure is a typical example of late 18th century Boston homes built by African Americans. Louis Glapion worked as a hairdresser and may have been from the French West Indies. Glapion lived and ran his business out of 5 Pinckney Street until his death in 1813. His wife Lucy continued to live there until 1832. George Middleton was a “horse breaker” (horse trainer) by trade and was adored in the diverse community of Beacon Hill. Middleton was one of 5,000 African Americans to serve in the military on the Patriot side of the Revolutionary War, leading an all-Black militia called the Bucks of America. The group is believed to have guarded the property of Boston merchants during the Revolution. After the war, he became the third Grand Master of the African Lodge, later known as the Prince Hall Masons. In 1796, Middleton founded the African Benevolent Society, which helped orphans and widows through job placement and financial relief. He died in 1815, outliving his wife and apparently left no children when he died in 1815.
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.
Located on the iconic Circuit Street in Oak Bluffs, this Eclectic Victorian cottage has a storied past related to Black history on the island. Even though Oak Bluffs was a relatively safe place for African Americans to be, there were still limits on their rights. In some parts of Oak Bluffs there were laws that said that certain property could only be owned by whites. The island became a vacation spot for thousands every summer in the 19th century and seeing a lack of options for Black travelers, Mrs. Georgia O’Brien and Ms. Louisa Izett began to operate an inn for people of color. The inn was one of two such residences in Oak Bluffs and has since been listed on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. The home has since been named the Tivoli Inn and retains much of the original gingerbread trim. In recent years, Martha’s Vineyard was given the nickname, “The Black Hamptons,” due to its popularity as a place for wealthy African-Americans to vacation, it remains a very diverse island in summer months.
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!