Despite its reputation as the cradle of abolitionism, Boston — and Massachusetts — have deep historical ties to slavery. (1) Some 3,500 anti-slavery and anti-segregation petitions were sent to the Massachusetts colonial and state legislatures from the 1600s to 1870. (2) These are now housed in the state archives and are available digitally.
Abolition Acre shines a light on a long-ignored part of Boston’s history: that of the free African community that thrived on the north slope of Beacon Hill, a stone’s throw from the Massachusetts State House, in the early 19th century.
Historic neglect of the story of this vibrant community – a fulcrum of abolitionist activism and advocacy for equal rights – is rooted in racist assumptions. Many whites referred to it as “nigger hill”, in the belief that most of the 2,000-plus residents of the North Slope enclave were simply servants for wealthy white people living on the South Slope. (3)
The stories and landmarks of the North Slope community, where the Museum of African American History is appropriately located, are featured in the Black Heritage Trail, a popular walking tour led by interpretive rangers of the National Park Service Boston African American National Historic Site.
The self-guided Abolition Acre walking trail, and its audio-visual story kiosks, will further raise the profile of the North Slope community and public awareness of its critical contribution to the abolitionist struggle in Boston and beyond.
Abolition Acre is about six blocks from the North Slope community. It is roughly defined as an area that, during the 1820’s and 1830’s, was bordered by Cornhill, Franklin Avenue and Brattle Street. Brattle Street ran through what is today the center of City Hall Plaza, while Cornhill is the southern boundary of the Plaza where several retail businesses are located. Franklin Avenue runs from the Plaza to Court Street next to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans.
THE HORACE SELDON WALKING TRAIL
Abolition Acre was the brainchild of Horace Seldon, a tireless campaigner for racial justice in the Greater Boston area for more than 60 years. The Walking Trail is named in his honor. Mr. Seldon founded Beacon Hill Scholars and was the founder and long-time director of Community Change, Inc., an anti-racist education and action organization. He was also a prominent public historian, an expert on William Lloyd Garrison, and served as a National Park Service Ranger for 18 years, leading tours of the Black Heritage Trail.
1. Begin your tour of the Horace Seldon Walking Trail at 26 Court Street, one block north of the Old State House.
This is the site of the old Courthouse and Prison where the Black community organized defiance of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. The laws stipulated that all escaped slaves be returned to their masters after capture, and the 1850 law also required that officials and citizens in free states cooperate in the law’s enforcement. (4)
Black community leaders and activists, together with their white allies, decried the law and made repeated efforts to free individuals who had escaped slavery in the South, been arrested as fugitive slaves in Boston, and now faced being sent back to bondage. (4)
Such was the case with George Latimer. In 1842, he and his wife, Rebecca, escaped from a Virginia plantation and made their way to Boston. But Latimer was arrested after being recognized by a friend of his former “master” who was visiting the city. After legal advocacy failed to free him, supporters negotiated to purchase his freedom for $400.
Meanwhile, his plight had sparked a public outcry. A petition was launched that gathered 64,526 signatures and weighed 150 pounds by the time it was delivered to the State Assembly. It urged a ban on the involvement of state officials or public property in the detention or arrest of suspected fugitive slaves. A law to that effect, the 1843 Personal Liberty Act – dubbed the “Latimer Law” – was subsequently passed. (5)
A second, unsuccessful petition arising from the Latimer case, “The Great Petition to Congress”, demanded that laws be passed severing any connection between Massachusetts and slavery. After his freedom was purchased, George Latimer helped gather signatures for both petitions and he remained involved in the abolitionist cause. (6)
In February 1851, Shadrach Minkins was arrested in Boston after also escaping slavery in Virginia. During a hearing at the courthouse, some 50 Black and white members of the anti-slavery Boston Vigilance Committee – formed to prevent fugitives who had been enslaved from being kidnapped and returned to their Southern holders – wrestled Minkins from the custody of state marshals and hustled him out of the building.
Lewis Hayden, John J. Smith, and other activists helped Minkins get to Canada via safe havens on the Underground Railroad. He settled in Montreal, where he raised a family. Hayden and Robert Morris – one of the first African-American attorneys in the U.S. – were prosecuted for helping to free Minkins but acquitted by the jury. (7)
The cases of Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns galvanized the abolitionist movement. Both men had escaped slavery in the South and were arrested in Boston by bounty hunters. During Sims’ trial in April 1851, the court house was cordoned off by chains – judges and lawyers had to crawl under them to enter.
Supporters arranged for Sims to escape by leaping from a third-floor window onto a pile of mattresses, but deputies got wind of the plan and barred the windows at the last minute. The court ruled against Sims. His cause had become so celebrated that 50,000 people thronged the streets in the early hours of April 13, 1851 when, flanked by U.S. Marines, Sims was marched to the warship that returned him to Georgia. He was later sold to another slaveholder in Mississippi but escaped in 1863 and returned to Boston. (8)
Boston abolitionists were dismayed by their failure to save Sims. When a similar situation arose in 1854 with Anthony Burns, they responded more forcefully.
At Burns’ trial, a group of activists stormed the court house to free Burns. In the melee, a U.S. marshal was fatally stabbed. After Burns lost his case, he was escorted under heavy guard to the ship that would carry him back to slavery in Virginia. Hundreds of federal troops lined the route to the harbor to hold back the waves of protesters. The abolitionist community agreed to purchase Burns’ freedom for $1,200, and the Rev. Leonard A. Grimes of Boston’s Twelfth Street Baptist Church led the effort to raise the necessary funds.
Burns returned to Massachusetts a free man. With proceeds from the publication of his biography, combined with a scholarship, Burns attended Oberlin College in Ohio. He subsequently became a Baptist preacher in Canada before his early death from tuberculosis at aged 28. (9)
The Burns case, which attracted national publicity, fueled anti-slavery sentiments all across the North. (10)
2. To continue the tour, cross the street from the Courthouse/Prison to a narrow unmarked alleyway. This was Franklin Street. Walk down the alleyway to the edge of City Hall Plaza. (Photos: Peter Snoad).
City Hall Plaza site was once the site of several streets, including Cornhill. The offices at 21 and 25 Cornhill were the home of The Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper, and headquarters of the anti-slavery movement. Founded in 1831 by William Lloyd Garrison and his friend Isaac Knapp, The Liberator was published in Massachusetts continuously for 35 years until slavery was abolished by Constitutional amendment after the Civil War. The paper – which earned nationwide notoriety for its uncompromising advocacy of “immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves” – was sustained by the support of Black people, including many in the North Slope community: 75% of the 3,000 subscribers were African-American. (11)
The Liberator also promoted women’s rights by publishing editorials, petitions, convention calls and proceedings, speeches, legislative action, and other material advocating woman suffrage, equal property rights, and women’s educational and professional equality.
In addition to publishing The Liberator, Garrison spearheaded the organization of a new movement to demand the total abolition of slavery in the United States. By January 1832, he had attracted enough followers to organize the New-England Anti-Slavery Society which, by the following summer, had dozens of affiliates and several thousand members. In December 1833, abolitionists from 10 states founded the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Although the New England society reorganized in 1835 as the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, enabling state societies to form in the other New England states, it remained the hub of anti-slavery agitation until the Civil War. Many affiliates were organized by women who played a strong role in the abolitionist movement overall and responded to Garrison’s appeals for women to actively participate. The largest affiliate was the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, which raised funds to support The Liberator, publish anti-slavery pamphlets, and conduct anti-slavery petition drives. (12)
Brattle Street was another street that crossed what is now City Hill Plaza. A number of North Slope residents had businesses on Brattle Street, including David Walker who ran a used-clothing store at number 42.
Walker used his store as a distribution point for his anti-slavery pamphlet, David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. He bought clothes that sailors had bartered for drink and then resold them to Black seamen about to embark on ships sailing south. Copies of his Appeal were sewn into the lining of the clothes. When the sailors went ashore in Southern ports, the pamphlets went with them. They either ended up in the hands of other Black used-clothes dealers who knew what to do with them, or they were passed on personally to others by sympathetic sailors. (13)
Walker also circulated the Appeal through Black communication networks along the Atlantic coast. These included free and enslaved Black civil rights activists, laborers, Black church and revivalist networks, contacts with free Black benevolent societies, and maroon communities (self-sustaining communities of people who had escaped enslavement). This distribution effort has been called “one of the boldest and most extensive plans to empower slaves ever conceived” in the U.S. before the Civil War. (14)
The abolition of slavery had long been a cause of many free Blacks. In Boston, members of the Black community marshaled by Prince Hall (c. 1735-1807) and other leaders advocated for Black rights, petitioned for abolition, and campaigned for laws to protect free Blacks in Massachusetts from kidnapping by slave traders. By the time David Walker’s Appeal was published in 1829, more than 50 Negro abolitionist organizations already existed across the country. (15)
Walker’s call for the immediate abolition of slavery resonated strongly with many Blacks. And it influenced the thinking of leading white abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison had advocated for a more gradual approach to ending slavery, but became convinced that Walker was right in his demand for immediate emancipation (although he disagreed with him about how to achieve it). In the early issues of The Liberator, Garrison devoted substantial space to discussions of the Appeal. (16)
3. For the next stop on the tour, walk south along the edge of City Hall Plaza. Make your first right onto a broad redbricked corridor — an extension of the Plaza — that is one block long and ends at State Street. When you reach that intersection, the Old State House is directly across the street. To the right of the building is the entrance to Washington Street. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society had its offices at 46 Washington Street.
The threat posed by anti-slavery organizations and their activity drew violent reaction from slave interests in both the Southern and Northern states, with mobs breaking up anti-slavery meetings, assaulting lecturers, ransacking anti-slavery offices, burning postal sacks of anti-slavery pamphlets, and destroying anti-slavery presses. Large bounties were offered in Southern states for the capture of Garrison, “dead or alive”. (17)
On October 21, 1835, a mob of several thousand surrounded the offices of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society after hearing that the fiery British abolitionist George Thompson was due to make a speech there. Because Thompson was unable to attend, Garrison was quickly scheduled to speak in his place.
The mayor and police persuaded the women to leave the building, and they marched arm-in-arm up Washington Street through a gauntlet of hostility and abuse to the private home of one of the members where they held their meeting. (The action of these women abolitionists, Black and white, is celebrated each October in Boston as The Women’s March of Courage.)
Meanwhile, the pro-slavery protesters were calling for Garrison to be lynched or tarred-and-feathered. He managed to sneak out of a rear window, and hid in a carpenter’s shop. But the lynch-hungry mob found him, tore off most of his clothes, tied a rope around his neck, and dragged him towards the Boston Common. The sheriff rescued Garrison by arresting him and taking him to jail for his own protection. (18)
The incident motivated a number of prominent Bostonians to embrace the abolitionist cause, including Wendell Phillips and Desmond Quincy, son of the second mayor of Boston, as well as Harriet Martineau, an English social theorist often cited as the first female sociologist, who was visiting Boston at the time. (19)
The site of Garrison’s near-lynching was on Wilson’s Lane, which was then an extension of Devonshire Street. Devonshire begins a block down to your left.
4. Now for the final stop on the tour: Cross the street to the rear of the Old State House. A marker in the sidewalk commemorates the Boston Massacre, when British Army soldiers killed five male civilians and injured six others on March 5, 1770.
The dead included Crispus Attucks, a man of Native American (Wampanoag) and African descent, who is widely considered the first martyr of the American revolution.(19) The balcony above you was the site, on May 18, 1776, of the first public reading in Boston of the Declaration of Independence.(20) Photos: Peter Snoad.
GARRISON’S FOUR PROPOSITIONS
William Lloyd Garrison had something to say about the Declaration of Independence. In 1829, when he was 23 years old, Garrison was invited to deliver a lecture at Boston’s Park Street Church. In what is called his first public speech, Garrison gave a landmark address entitled “Dangers to the Nation”.
Garrison introduced Four Propositions:
- Above all others, slaves in America deserve “the prayers, and sympathies, and charities of the American people.”
- Non-slave-holding states are “constitutionally involved in the guilt of slavery,” and are obligated “to assist in its overthrow.”
- There is no valid legal or religious justification for the preservation of slavery.
- The “colored population” of America should be freed, given an education, and accepted as equal citizens with whites.
Referring to the words of the Declaration of Independence, Garrison declared America to be shamefully hypocritical for simultaneously celebrating the notion that “all men are born equal” while keeping two million slaves in “hopeless bondage.” He charged all Americans with the moral obligation to demand an end to the “national sin” of slavery.
“Let us, then, be up and doing,” he urged his listeners. “Sound the trumpet of alarm and plead eloquently for the rights of man.” By laying the foundation for a new drive for emancipation, Garrison turned his lecture at Park Street Church into what historian Henry Mayer calls “an epochal moment in the history of freedom.”
(1) The David Walker Memorial Project, www.davidwalkermemorial.org, referencing “Slavery in the North” website: http://slavenorth.com/massachusetts.htm; and Ten Hills Farm, the Forgotten History of Slavery in the North by C.S. Manegold, 2010, Princeton University Press.
(2) “Launch of the Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions”, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/event/2015-ma-anti-slavery-anti-segregation-petitions-digital-archive-launch
(3) Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North by James Oliver and Lois E. Horton, 1999, Holmes & Meier, New York
(4) The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 by Stanley W. Campbell, 1970, University of North Carolina Press, and other sources referenced in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fugitive_slave_laws
(5) Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North by James Oliver and Lois E. Horton, 1999, Holmes & Meier, New York; and Black Abolitionists, by Benjamin Quarles, 1969, Oxford University Press. Both are referenced in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Latimer_(escaped_slave)
(6) Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 1 by Junius P. Rodriguez, 2007, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
(7) Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen, by Gary Collison, 1998 (paperback reprint), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; and “The Ordeal of Shadrach Minkins”, Massachusetts Historical Society, retrieved April 23, 2013. Both are referenced in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadrach_Minkins
(8) The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 by Stanley W. Campbell, 1970, University of North Carolina Press, referenced in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Sims
(9) “‘Trial” of Anthony Burns”, Massachusetts Historical Society; The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston by Albert J. Von Frank, Harvard University Press, 1998, referenced in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Burns
(10) Battle Cry for Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson, 1989, Bantam Books, New York, referenced in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Burns
(11) All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery by Henry Mayer, 1998, St. Martin’s Press, New York; “The Liberator Files”, www.theliberatorfiles.com
(12) Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society by Debra Gold Hansen, 1993, University of Massachusetts Press.
(13) Encyclopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Walker)
(14) To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance, by Peter Hinks, 1997, Penn State Press; “Introduction”, David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World , by Sean Wilentz, 1995, Hill and Wang, New York.
(17) Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis, Oxford University Press, 2006, referenced in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Lloyd_Garrison;
(18) “The Journal of Bradley N. Cumings”, M.H.S. Miscellany, Number 52 (Autumn 1992) Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992, referenced in http://www.masshist.org/object-of-the-month/february-2013
(20) Theatre of Liberty: Boston’s Old State House by Sinclair and Catherine F. Hitchings