On the Trail Where Yesterday Inspires, Challenges Today

There on Beacon Street stands the Civil War monument to the first black Union troops recruited in the north, the 54th Regiment, and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Its history must include the story of the Shaw family devotion to Abolition, and the antislavery sentiments of Governor John Andrew. But it is mostly the story of black men who were claiming their right to be treated as men, the right of their enslaved brothers and sisters to be free, to claim their inclusion in the promise of the Declaration of Independence. There is a story told of a 1960’s arts festival, during which a poet saw the monument, and declared it to be “a fish-bone stuck in the throat of the city”. The monument is a bold reminder today that the promise is still more hope than fact, still a “deferred dream”.

The monument to the 54th stands with its back to the Union Club, formed by white business men in 1863, the same year these black men were recruited. That Club
reminds us of the divided motivations among its white male founders.. All agreed to preserve the Union. Some wanted to see slavery ended and believed in equality. Some wanted to see slavery ended, but did not believe in equality. Some wanted to preserve the Union, but were not ready to see slavery ended. That reluctance was rooted largely in the fact that Massachusetts was producing several million yards of cotton textiles annually! In stark contrast, the motivations of the black soldiers of the 54th were singularly focused on ending slavery, and the hope of equality.

The Monument was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1897. On the back of the monument, the names of 62 black men who died at Battery Wagner were not added until 1982! Any curious observer will wonder why it took 85 years after the dedication of the monument for those black names to be added??? Why in 1982? Who writes history? Why do they write? How do they write it? When do they write it? Any honest answer must encounter some of the “hard facts” of history to which Bell refers.

Walking from the Monument, then up Joy Street to the top, there will be opportunity to hear stories about the changing of names of that street. At Mt. Vernon Street, we remember how the two sides of the “hill” were developed, with the wealthier people on the sunny south slope, others on the north slope. In 1850 the folk on the south slope wanted to change the name of what was then Belknap Street, to Joy Street. In their petition to the city they wanted the name change to go only from Beacon Street to Mt. Vernon, at the top of the climb. The reason given: they wanted to “disassociate” from the folk on the north slope. That side of the “hill” was where about ½ of the black population of the city lived! Five years later, the name was extended all the way over the hill to Cambridge Street. That bit of history will occasion reflection on the reasons for discriminatory attitudes and actions.

At Pinckney Street’s Middleton house, we are reminded that black men in Boston had tough decisions to make about whether to support those who were loyal to England, or join the patriots. Slave owner General Washington came to Boston to form an army with untrained farmers. The Continental Congress had little power to either recruit or pay soldiers. Facing the best and largest military unit in the world, the need for men was desperate. Already at Concord and Lexington, and Bunker Hill, black men had fought; a unit of black men had formed in Rhode Island, ready for battle. An initial decision not to recruit more blacks changed after a British promise of emancipation to slaves who would join their forces. Political and military expediency dictated that blacks would be allowed in the Continental army.

What were the choices for black men in Boston? Much of the city’s population remained Loyalists, and some white families fled to Canada, taking with them their black slaves/servants. Fifteen black families went to form a commune in Canada; some individual blacks were ready to join the English forces, hoping that the promise of freedom and independence might be kept. The choice to join the Continental forces, brought only an uncertain future, even if there was independence for the colonies. The decision to fight for independence was a gamble, but many chose it. Boston patriot newspapers of the day entreated that the colony must not accept being “enslaved” to England; black people in Boston knew that metaphor was hollow. They knew long before and better than Jefferson, the full meaning of his later words in the Declaration of Independence. These were men, claiming the humanity his words only promised.

The Middleton House is named for George Middleton, a black leader of the community in the late Colonial period. Much of his prominence came as the third Grand Master of the Prince Hall Lodge of Freemasons. The founding of that Lodge is a story of black men subverting discrimination, claiming and creating equal rights. The Middleton House becomes a place to lift the names of Prince Hall, George Middleton, David Walker, and other black men, who on at least three occasions petitioned the state legislature, claiming equal rights, in what can easily be named as a beginning of Boston’s abolition movement. Those petitions also were the beginning of the claim for Equal School Rights, so central later in mid-nineteenth century Boston.

On Pinckney Street you will also meet L. Maria Child, the brilliant white woman Abolitionist. There also meet George Hillard, white US Commissioner, who must have known that his wife sheltered “fugitives” in their home, in defiance of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required him to issue arrest warrants to the agents of slaveholders sent to claim blacks as former slaves. You will meet his wife who sheltered Ellen Craft from slave catchers, in defiance of that law. There also you will meet Rebecca Freeman Clark, the white woman who initiated the creation of a Home for Aged Colored Women, when already existing homes refused them entrance. You will also hear of James Freeman Clark, her son, who before coming to Boston, was a strong witness against slavery in Kentucky.

There on Pinckney Street you will also find a home in which a five year old black girl, slave child was kept, brought by her New Orleans owner, who intended to return with the slave child at the end of her stay here. A case brought before the Mass. Supreme Court in 1836, led to a decision that little “Med” should be free. That 1836 case became a precedent for other judicial trials as the nation tried to determine if a slave, coming into a free state, should become free.

It will be appropriate to raise a question about the naming of Pinckney Street. Unable to complete the necessary research, I still wonder if this name acknowledges some Boston connection to the slave-owning Pinckney family of South Carolina? Charles Sumner, later strong Abolitionist United States Senator, was born here close to many blacks. His father was Charles Pinckney Sumner; he became Deputy Sheriff of the County, a man of some importance. A quick look into his background revealed relationships during the Colonial period and Revolutionary War, which might
have included connections with the Pinckney family. Mine is pure speculation, but the kind of “wondering” which wants to inquire about evidence of Boston’s complicity with slavery. Aside from this question, northern complicity is abundantly clear.

The building which was the Phillips School, and became in 1855 the first black-white “integrated” school in Boston is there on Pinckney Street also. In December of that year those who had been at the heart of the Equal School Rights movement celebrated the legislative victory which mandated that public schools in Boston show no “distinction based on race, color, or religious opinion”. That story begins with the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, takes us through years of the black community struggling to claim the right to equal education, in a pattern of petitions, of protest, of demonstrations, of boycotts, of disappointing judicial decision, of unequal funding, which are still easily seen in many of the metropolitan school districts of the nation today. That historical struggle for education in Boston makes a lie of any attempt to say that history is a set of dead facts with no relevance for our century.

If you stop at Louisburg Square it will be important to contemplate the statue of Christopher Columbus, and to be reminded of something which has nothing to do with, but everything to do with the struggle against slavery. There you will meet De Las Casas, a follower of Columbus, who at one point owned slaves, then rebelled against the oppressive treatment of Arawaks, suggested that Spain bring Africans to the new lands, then repented, and became an eqalitarian. In Spain in the mid-sixteenth century he took part in one of the most important debates in the history of the world. Against the word of Spanish historians and Bishop Sepulveda, Las Casas argued that not only were the Spanish not superior to the Arawak people, but that all people are equal. Suddenly this old debate has everything to do with Black Heritage, and with our 2lst century!

You will see the home of Thomas Paul, first minister of the African Baptist Church. We will remember that Thomas was one of the founders of Harlem’s Abysinnian Baptist Church, and that one of his brothers was an early minister there. Rev. Paul was also a Boston agent, for Freedoms Journal, the first black newspaper.On Charles Street you will see another black church building, which becomes a story of response to discrimination in white churches, and as you walk the Black Heritage Trail, you will see where other churches were located, and be reminded of the centrality of the black church in that community.

John Smith’s last home is there on Pinckney Street also, and there you will hear the story of his barber shop, and his role in the movement of blacks from slavery to freedom. His late role in the state legislature also gave him prominence, but probably his greatest importance came as one active in the network of freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Visiting other scenes on Beacon Hill you will see the house where Lewis and Harriet Hayden sheltered people who were fleeing from slave catchers in the 1850’s. You will hear Lewis call upon the community to organize resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law which was incorporated in the Compromise of 1850. You will meet William and Ellen Craft, whose story of escape led them finally to England and the Abolition Movement there. You will know Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Commissioner Hillard, John Brown and the Secret Six who supported Brown’s efforts to organize for what became his attack at Harpers Ferry.

If you listen carefully you may hear the voice of John S. Rock, extolling the virtues of “blackness”, with the logic and eloquence which enabled him to become the first black person to gain the right to practice law before the United States Supreme Court. With him you may find Charles Sumner, white United States Senator, whose uncompromising antislavery views, had an origin in that north slope community of black people where he was born. It was Sumner who presented Rock to the Supreme Court, on February 1, 1865, the day after the Congress had passed the 13th amendment. Then think about the Justices who sat on that Court, led by Salmon Chase. Three of those men were
also the Court in 1857 and had voted with Justice Taney, holding that blacks were not citizens and had no rights which the Constitution respected! Ponder what might have been in their hearts and minds, eight years later, as this black man appeared before them, and they granted him the right to become a member of the Supreme Court Bar!

The story of the struggle for education for black children will be revived at Primus Avenue. It is named for Primus Hall, who, when the Boston school department denied numerous requests for a school for black children, began that school in his attic. Walking back among the buildings on Primus Avenue, there you might find the location of that first school for black children. Prejudice and dis-respect in the white schools, led the black community to a determination for a separate school where its children would learn and be treated with the respect due them. Primus had seen the example of his Father, Prince Hall, who had created a separate black Lodge for Masons, when blacks had been denied entrance into the white Lodges. Like Father, like Son.

David Walker, black man who really began the Abolition Movement, walked the streets of Beacon Hill, for the few years he was in Boston, prior to his death. He may have been selling copies of Freedom’s Journal, for which he was agent in Boston. He may have been organizing the General Colored Association. He may have been preaching the call to resistance which finally appeared in his remarkable Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, surely the strongest antislavery document ever written. Walker called on his people to reject their treatment as brutes, to claim their humanity. He knew the power of the black population, wondered why and how it had ever been kept powerless, and called its people to use that power to claim their destiny as free and human. To white people he promised a collaborative future if they would only treat black people as human beings; if they would not cease their oppressive ways, Walker called for God’s judgment on them. He might easily have written to Baldwin’s nephew the same words which James Baldwin used two centuries later.

With David Walker you might find black Maria Stewart and her husband James. Maria was the first woman in the United States, of any race, to speak publicly on a political issue such as slavery, and that she did at great personal risk. Risk and controversy did not give her hesitation as she echoed Walker’s call for black men to reject treatment as any but fully human beings. Close to David again you will meet L. Maria Child, writing her Appeal on Behalf of that Group of Citizens Called Coloured. She marshaled her talent as one of the recognized finest literary figures of the day, to call for an end to oppression. When she spoke too loudly, the classy Athenaeum Library canceled her membership! These were people who dared to stand for the truth they knew.
Leonard Grimes will meet you at one corner, close to the church he served, which was often known as the “Church of the Fugitives”, because of his life of helping slaves escape, in Washington, prior to his outstanding leadership in Boston. He had been imprisoned in Washington, had been in New Bedford, and when he joined Boston’s struggle for Abolition, he became one of its gifted leaders. He knew well the costs of acting out his convictions.

You can no more escape William Lloyd Garrison than could countless hundreds of others who wished he were not an ever-present figure in Boston, and who found his Liberator newspaper an offense. You will find him at the African Meeting House, and with him a score of people including the “everywhere” Weston sisters. The spirits of Tubman and the Grimke sisters will greet and perhaps haunt your conscience. The aspirations of many hundreds of people who gathered at the Meeting House for worship, for lectures, for concerts, for organizing are there today, and just as they strove to lift their lives to greatness, so too they will lift yours. You have only to let them in!

What a story there is there on what is sometimes called the “back” of Beacon Hill! Not just a “story”! Living truth! People who believed and who lived what they believed! Their lives were in daily “dis-ease”! They knew that the history by which white people assigned them to a degraded inhuman state, was also a trap from which whites needed liberation! They knew that racism projected a life-long future! BUT !

Langston Hughes refers me to the BUT that guided those who preceded him in the struggle! Relevant words come from two of his poems:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged Oh, yes
Bird that cannot fly I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath …
America will be!
An ever-lasting seed,
Its dream
Lies deep in the heart of me.

So, here am I, Horace
So, here am I, a simple, relatively untalented man.
A white man who understands enough of the history
to be liberated from it
Knowing that racism will be here longer than I
Feeling alien in a land which regulates human life by
a white racist script
With a “dis-ease” which prods for a remedy
To make the dream live
The remedy is a good, steady dose of action
Telling the truth even when no one listens
Standing against the day which is night
Determined that with the last breath
There also will be energy to shake a clenched fist!

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