Phillips School // 1824

Built in 1824 and considered one of the finest schools in Boston, the Phillips School (originally the English High School) in Beacon Hill, educated only white students until 1855. Black students attended the underfunded and overcrowded Abiel Smith School on nearby Joy Street. Although the architect of the school has not been identified, stylistic evidence suggests that it represents the mature work of Asher Benjamin. English High School was founded in 1820 for the purpose of providing an education to “lads intending to become merchants or mechanics.” The disparities in quality of buildings and size of classes between the Abiel Smith School (for Black children) and the English High School (for white children). In response to this disparity in education, Black activists and their allies launched a long and successful effort to integrate the public schools which finally occurred in 1855 through an act of the legislature. With the passage of this law, Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit public school segregation and this school became one of the first integrated schools in the city. The school was named after Wendell Phillips, a white abolitionist from Boston. The school changed names numerous times, but closed in the mid-late 1900s. In 1983, the old school was converted to condominiums, which it remains to this day. The building is now a stop on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

Glapion-Middleton House // 1787

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.

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.

William Nell & James Scott House // 1798

One of my favorite homes in Beacon Hill is tucked away on Smith Court, a small dead end alley, across from the Museum of African American History. Built by two white bricklayers, the double house is one of the older extant homes on Beacon Hill. The front of this wide but shallow two-family-home consists of yellow painted clapboarding; the back of the house is a windowless brick wall. This type of construction was typical for Boston before 1803 and especially for residences on an alley.

Starting in 1830, 3 Smith Court was rented to numerous African American men and their families. From 1830 until 1845, one side of the house was rented by bootblack and waiter George Washington; the other side was rented by the barber Andrew Telford and his wife Rachel Turner. James Scott, the longest resident of 3 Smith Court, lived there for nearly 50 years. He was a tenant from 1839 to 1865 and owned the property from 1865 until his death in 1888. Scott was born in Virginia and worked as a clothing dealer in Boston. In 1851, Scott was arrested in his shop and charged with spearheading the rescue of Shadrach Minkins from federal custody. It is not clear whether he actually participated in this rescue (he was acquitted for lack of evidence), but Scott did assist other fugitive slaves. For example, on 18 July 1856, James Scott boarded self-emancipated slave Henry Jackson and his family at 3 Smith Court. From 1850 to 1857, William Cooper Nell was also a tenant of 3 Smith Court. Nell was one of Boston’s most forceful advocates for school integration. He was the author of several histories including Colored Patriots of the American Revolution and he worked at various times for the Liberator, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and the Frederick Douglass’ Paper. He was also very active in the Boston Vigilance Committee and he sheltered or aided numerous self-emancipated slaves at 3 Smith Court.

Thanks to the National Park Service for the write-up!

7 Smith Court // c.1805

This two-story Federal home was built at the turn of the 19th century at the end of Smith Court, a short dead-end street in Beacon Hill. African American Joseph E. Scarlett owned this building from 1857 until his death in 1898. Scarlett, who lived across the street at 2 Smith Court, mostly rented 7 Smith Court to other African Americans. This practice was started as early as 1822 by 7 Smith Court’s previous owner, a white merchant Elihu Bates. Joseph Scarlett was the son of John E. Scarlett, who was a chimney sweeper, a clothing dealer, and a grocer. By the time of his death in 1898, Joseph owned fifteen different properties in Boston, Cambridge, and Charlestown. In his will, Scarlett left bequests to the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church and to the Home for Aged Colored Women on Myrtle Street. The home likely had the oriel (2nd story bay window) added by the mid-to-late 19th century, presumably to allow more light into the building on the narrow alley.

African Meeting House // 1806

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!

Abiel Smith School // 1834

The Abiel Smith School, located at 46 Joy Street, was constructed between 1834 and 1835. It was built by the City of Boston to house the African School and was one of the earliest buildings designed by architect Richard Upjohn. Starting in 1787, many black Bostonians fought tirelessly against the inequality and discrimination in public schools. At that early date, numerous community members, including Prince Hall, petitioned the state legislature claiming that it was unjust for their taxes to support the education of white children when the city had no school for black children. However, a small number of African American children did attend the city’s white schools in the early 1800s.

In 1798, sixty members of the black community organized the African School in order to educate their children. In 1815 white businessman Abiel Smith died and bequeathed $4,000 for the education of African American children in Boston. The school committee used interest from this money to fund the African School and they later used a portion of it to construct the Abiel Smith School. The school was opened on March 3, 1835, but the conditions in this school were inferior to those of the white schools in Boston and the black community continued to fight for equal opportunities in education. The school has since been acquired by the Museum of African American History.