Despite Boston’s Bad Racial History, the African Meeting House Was Its Bright Light

A view from the podium inside the African Meeting House in Boston. Josh Reynolds/AP
A view from the podium inside the African Meeting House in Boston. Josh Reynolds/AP

The city’s bad reputation for race relations has been well-earned. In the mid-1970s, when Massachusetts moved to desegregate its public schools through a busing program, white Bostonians erupted in violent protests and riots. The Boston Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to integrate. And Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in New England and played a central role in America’s early slave trade.

But there’s another side to the racial history of this much-maligned city. It played a historic role in the abolition of slavery and helped shape the lives of many of the important historical figures of the time.

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison founded his Liberator Newspaper in Boston which called for “the immediate and complete emancipation” of all slaves in the United States. Prince Hall, a black abolitionist, stalwart defender of equality and the father of black Freemasonry, was a pillar of Boston’s black community and used the city as a launching pad to feed the national abolitionist movement.

But perhaps the brightest specter of Boston’s history is the African Meeting House. Built in 1806, it is the oldest, still-standing black church in the United States. Located in the historic Beacon Hill neighborhood, the African Meeting House was built by free blacks after congregants were discriminated against at white churches.

The Meeting House, located at 46 Joy Street, served as a church, a school for black children and a safe space for abolitionist and black residents to communicate and commiserate. Many of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War with the famed all-black 54th Massachusetts were recruited from the halls of this 5,364 square-foot building.

“The newspapers of the time carried stories about the building of the African Meeting House and one of the sentences that always strikes me is that it said you cannot imagine what is happening atop Beacon Hill. The colored community is building itself a meeting house,” said Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of Boston’s Museum of African American History, which is housed in the African Meeting House. “That statement was not followed by anything. It was a clarion call that these folks have gotten organized, they had purpose, they were going to have a place to gather where no one else would be allowed.”

Morgan-Welch said there were rehearsals for upcoming operas held at the location, as well as writing lessons for recently self-emancipated slaves from other colonies.

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SOURCE: MSNBC -Trymaine Lee