Two hundred years ago, on Dec. 6, 1806, Rev. Thomas Paul must have marveled at what he saw. The three-story brick building wasn’t much — “plain and commodious,” one writer said at the time.
But it was never just about the bricks and mortar. It was about the most basic of ideas, an idea born in the American Revolution and tested during the Civil War — that all men, black and white, were created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Built on a little patch of land on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, the building was called the African Meeting House. Inside was a church, Paul’s church.
For the next 200 years, the idea of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” breathed in the lives of those who prayed, learned and celebrated inside, including the gathering in 1833 that listened to Maria Stewart, the first American female political activist.
“It is not the color of the skin that makes the man or the woman,” Stewart explained, “but the principle formed in the soul.”
For the next year, the Museum of African American History offers an exhibit on the history of the African Meeting House. The exhibit captures all the different uses of the building, from a place of worship to a place of celebration. Black soldiers were recruited to join the 54th and 55th regiments at the Meeting House during the Civil War, and abolitionists held countless meetings there.
It starts with the church.
The African Baptist Church was officially organized on Aug. 8, 1805 with 22 members: Scipio Dalton, Abraham Fairfield, James Broomfield, Charles Bailey, Richard Winslow, John Bassett, Obediah Robbins and fifteen women whose names were unrecorded. The Rev. Thomas Paul of New Hampshire was its first minister.
Over the next year, the congregation raised money from African Americans and white supporters to construct its own building. Three white businessmen — Daniel Wild, William Bentley and Edward Stevens — purchased the land on May Court (now Smith Court) off Belknap Street (now Joy Street) from Augustin Raillion for $1,550.
The African Baptist Church appointed three of their members as principal fundraisers — Paul, Dalton and Cato Gardner. Gardner successfully led the collection of $1,500 for the building fund, almost one-fifth of the $7,691.48 total construction cost. The commemorative plaque on the building acknowledges his dedication: “Cato Gardner, first promoter of this Building 1806.”
Some black Bostonians were skilled craftsmen who joined the church construction as bricklayers, carpenters, “master builders” and masons. Abel Barbadoes, a master mason, and Boston Smith, a master builder and boat builder, led the construction effort.
On Dec. 6, 1806, the newly erected African Meeting House became the home of the First African Baptist Church under Paul’s pastoral leadership. Prior to the building of the Meeting House, Paul and his congregation had worshipped in Faneuil Hall. African Americans also attended other Boston churches such as the Old South Meeting House — the city’s largest colonial era building, attended by poet Phyllis Wheatley — and the First Baptist Church.
The organization of the African Baptist Church was prompted by the widespread marginalization of people of color in city churches. African Americans frequently were relegated to balcony pews and denied the right to vote on church matters or to join formal church committees.
Rev. Samuel Stillman of the First Baptist Church of Boston and Rev. Thomas Baldwin of the Second Baptist Church of Boston, with delegations of deacons from their churches, attended the dedication ceremonies. Ironically, at the dedication, white visitors sat on the lower level of the sanctuary, while blacks sat in the balcony.
Sixteen pastors followed Paul in the pulpit, including Rev. John T. Raymond, Rev. John Sella Martin, Rev. Peter Smith and Rev. Benjamin W. Farris. Most had been born free in New England states. At least one, Martin, was a self-emancipated man.
Longest in tenure was Paul, who established the church tradition of battling for African American civil equality and the abolition of slavery. He also started the church’s tradition of promoting social uplift and education.
Born free, Paul was educated and baptized in New Hampshire and became an “exhorter” of Scripture at religious meetings in Boston’s Faneuil Hall in 1789. Ordained a Baptist minister in Nottingham West, N.H., on May 1, 1805, Paul was installed as the first pastor of the African Baptist Church on Aug. 8, 1805, and continued until 1829, when ill health forced his resignation.
Under Paul’s legendary leadership, the African Meeting House became a gathering place for worship, abolition, celebration, education and community organizations. In addition to his pastoral duties at the African Meeting House, Paul served as Chaplain of the African Grand Lodge #459, assisted in founding New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, and traveled to England and Haiti under the auspices of the Baptist Missionary Society of Massachusetts. Paul was considered to be a “messenger,” and helped convert whites as well as blacks in revivals.
Paul also became a general agent for “Freedom’s Journal,” the nation’s first African American newspaper.
Under Paul, The African Meeting House became a gathering place for abolition and resistance to civil inequality. African Americans heard reports of national antislavery society meetings, celebrated the courage and achievements of black and white abolitionists and encouraged one another in their promotion of civil rights for all people.
Distinguished abolitionists delivered stirring lectures there throughout the antebellum era. William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery editor of The Liberator, was a frequent speaker, as was Wendell Phillips and Stewart, the first American woman to speak before a crowd of women and men. Among the visiting lecturers were Sarah Grimke of South Carolina, Alexander Crummell and Henry Highland Garnett of New York, Frederick Douglass of Rochester, N.Y., and author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper of Philadelphia.
Abolitionist organizations met at the Meeting House to conduct elections for officers and hold regular meetings. These groups planned strategies and raised funds for aiding enslaved people in the South and for assisting self-emancipated men and women newly arrived in Boston.
The groups also took action on the important issues of the day. They voted to uphold Garrisonian abolition and its call for immediate emancipation, and to rebuff the American Colonization Society and its scheme to send freed people to Africa.
On Oct. 5, 1850, black Bostonians vigorously and eloquently opposed the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, warned its members of man-catchers, and resolved to enjoin all Boston citizens and all churches to oppose the law.
In the antebellum years, three notable abolitionist organizations existed in Boston: The Massachusetts General Colored Association, The New England Anti-Slavery Society and the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. All three had close connections with the African Meeting House.
In 1826, prominent black Bostonians — including Thomas Dalton, William Guion Nell, David Walker, Coffin Pitts and John Hilton — founded the first anti-slavery society in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts General Colored Association. The MGCA often held its meetings in the Meeting House schoolroom. The schoolroom was also the site of the founding meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, at which Garrison and eleven other white men signed the group’s preamble and constitution on Jan. 6, 1832. Many African American members of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society had ties to the Meeting House as parishioners of the church, most notably Susan Paul, teacher and daughter of Rev. Thomas Paul.
Women and men worked and learned alongside each other in the Boston Mutual Lyceum, New England Freedom Association and Paul Humane Society. The African Society for Mutual Aid and Charity, established in 1796, was the pioneering African American aid organization in Boston whose members included parishioners of the African Baptist Church.
Many community members honed their skills at debate, bookkeeping, outreach, publicity and printing because of their involvement in Boston’s societies. Members always maintained a high set of expectations for etiquette, appearance and behavior.
After all, the African Meeting House was a place for education.
The African School, located in the basement vestry of the African Meeting House, was completed in 1808. When it opened, students of all ages were welcomed into its rooms, receiving instruction in topics such as penmanship, algebra and chemistry. While the schoolroom was the site of educational activities during the day, it housed various community educational programs for men and women in the evening.
Parent and community involvement in educational matters also brought many individuals to the Meeting House for gatherings that featured school children of all ages and inspiring exhibition presentations.
In 1829, Charles A. Battiste, William C. Nell, and Nancy Woodson were recognized as Franklin Medal Scholars from the segregated African Meeting House School. Rather than receive the silver medal that white scholars received, they received a biography of Benjamin Franklin. Worse, they were not invited to attend the celebratory dinner hosted by Boston’s mayor. Nell went to the event, not as a scholar, but as a waiter.
“The impression made on my mind,” Nell later said, “by this day’s experience, deepened into a solemn vow that, God helping me, I would do my best to hasten the day when the color of the skin would be no barrier to equal school rights.” Nell became a champion of equal school rights, finally achieved in 1855.
Born in Boston, Nell was a second-generation abolitionist. His father William Guion Nell had been a leading member of the MGCA. His son became an ardent Garrisonian abolitionist, journalist and historian, earning his living by working for The Liberator and providing clerical services.
Nell’s Liberator articles on black Boston activities and achievements provide invaluable insight into the community. Nell was frequently the secretary of community meetings; his detailed minutes were later published in The Liberator. Nell provided leadership in literary, dramatic, abolitionist, Underground Railroad and equal rights organizations in Boston. He also authored the first military history of African Americans, “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution and the War of 1812.”
In 1835, the Abiel Smith School opened its doors next door to the African Meeting House as the first building in the country erected solely for the purpose of housing a black public school. In 1844, William C. Nell, John T. Hilton and Jonas Clark began to strategize how to open neighborhood schools to all Boston children.
In 1849, printer Benjamin Roberts sued the City of Boston to allow his five-year-old daughter Sarah to attend a school near her home and not a distant segregated school. Equal school rights lawyers Charles Sumner and Robert Morris eloquently argued Sarah’s case before Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, but Shaw rejected their arguments. Shaw agreed that Sarah was entitled to equal rights in education, but maintained that such rights could be achieved in the segregated primary school on Beacon Hill. Sarah Roberts’ landmark case introduced the concept of “separate and equal” to maintain racially segregated educational facilities.
Given the seriousness of the racial issues, it’s amazing that African Americans found the time to celebrate their progress.
Black Bostonians had a keen awareness of history and of the importance of celebrating important events and achievements in the effort to abolish slavery. They frequently gathered at the African Meeting House to commemorate landmark dates and to pay tribute to individuals’ contributions to antislavery efforts, both within and beyond the United States. Organizations promoting social uplift also celebrated their achievements in the Meeting House throughout the antebellum era.
For many years the black Boston community celebrated three landmark events: Haitian independence in 1803, the abolition of the overseas slave trade by Great Britain, the United States and Denmark in 1807 and West Indian emancipation in 1833.
First of August celebrations, which marked the day England abolished slavery in the West Indies, was a highpoint of the summer. On one occasion, a soiree in the Infant School room of the church was followed by a procession through downtown Boston to the Chardon Street Chapel for services. On other occasions, services continued at other well-known Boston site such as Tremont Temple.
These celebratory events featured speeches and sermons by ministers and community leaders, and were often reported in Boston newspapers. The church also hosted somber gatherings to remember those who suffered in bondage. The individuals that attended services advertised as a “Day of Fasting and Prayer for the Enslaved” participated in important acts of solidarity and activism.
The black Boston community also paid tribute to notable abolitionists and their contributions to the antislavery movement. Community members came together to memorialize William Wilberforce and American journalist Benjamin Lundy. They celebrated the work of antislavery activists William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner, Cassius M. Clay, George Thompson and Rev. Theodore Parker.
Members of organizations concerned with social uplift commemorated their anniversaries and often held their annual meetings at the Meeting House. Over the years, the organizations included the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston, the First Independent Baptist Female Society, Colored Temperance Societies, Boston Young Men’s Debating Society, the Paul Humane Society, the Garrison Juvenile Society, the African Abolition Freehold Society, the Garrison Association and the Thompson Social Harmonic Society.
On May 3, 1847 at the African Meeting House, Frederick Douglass was welcomed home after two years on the abolitionist circuit in England. While there, British friends had purchased his freedom from Hugh Auld for $711.66. William C. Nell was president of the celebration. Robert Morris and Jonas W. Clark were vice-presidents. Nell reported in The Liberator that William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips introduced Douglass. During the evening, Douglass, Garrison, Phillips and Henry Bibb spoke from the pulpit. Isaac Snowden introduced resolutions of welcome. The celebration continued until 11:30 p.m., when “the crowded assembly adjourned, and after uniting in three welcome shouts for Frederick Douglass.”
|(Top) Built in 1806, the African Meeting House still stands and is the oldest black church building in the U.S. It served as a meeting place for community members and those involved in the abolition movement. (Photo courtesy of Historic New England)
(Center) Rev. Thomas Paul (c. 1825) was the first pastor of the African Baptist Church. (Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)
(Above) William Wells Brown helped 69 people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. (Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)
|(Top) The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first black regiment recruited in the north. (Photo courtesy of Mass. Historical Society)
(Center) Lt. James Monroe Trotter enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and rose in the ranks to become one of the regiment’s four African American commissioned officers. (Photo courtesy of Music Dept., Boston Public Library)
(Above) William Cooper Nell was a second-generation abolitionist and worked for The Liberator, writing about black activities and achievements in Boston and around the community. (Photo courtesy of Mass. Historical Society)