The city of Boston is known for many things: the Red Sox, their seafood, and their history. Nestled in the bustling metropolis of the Beacon Hill neighborhood, along the Black Heritage Trail, sits a small, unassuming brick building. Set in the middle of a residential neighborhood, unknowing visitors walk past the historic site, oblivious to the treasures and stories inside.
Located at 46 Joy Street, the Museum of African American History, Boston Campus houses rotating exhibits of black history. The museum is in the former Abiel Smith School for black children, and the African Meeting house, located next door, features educational programs. Both buildings are historic in their own right as the Abiel Smith School is the oldest public school for black children, and the African Meeting House, otherwise known as the First African Baptist Church, is the oldest black church in the United States. The proximity of these two buildings immerses visitors in history before stepping foot inside.
A ticket to the museum provides access to both buildings and begins with the school, where guests enter into what used to be the basement. Now the ticket booth and museum store, the first floor of the three-story narrow brick building helps set the stage for what the museum plans to offer.
During my visit in July of 2021, the museum had two main displays: a spotlight on the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and the evolution of jazz around Boston. After climbing a narrow set of wooden steps, the second floor contains the exhibit on the Massachusetts 54th. The quiet room is bright and welcoming as it shares the story of the unit of black soldiers led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw during the Civil War. There are uniforms, letters, original pictures of the unit members, and articles from William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Peppered throughout the artifacts, the museum provides a narrative of who made up the all-black regiment and how they fought for the union, sharing stories of the young black men who served their country to gain full rights as citizens. One of the most stunning items on display is a bronze bust of the infamous Frederick Douglass. Set on a simple post, the bust appears larger than life and I wondered if this was not an intentional design element by the artist.
Continuing the climb through another set of stairs, visitors reach the third floor where the museum takes a lighter approach in subject matter with a focus on the evolution of jazz throughout the city. Contrasted by the bright overhead lights of the second floor, the third floor relies on natural light and is much darker by comparison. The display shares the background of well-known and local musicians as well infamous jazz haunts and music halls, perfectly blending pop culture and history. The exhibit has no artifacts but instead relies on photographs, maps, and replicas of old concert announcements to orient visitors with the impacts of the musical movement.
After visiting both floors, guests are instructed to meet back in the basement to hear a historical talk. Museum staff share a brief chronicle of the Abiel Smith Schoolhouse, including the backstory to the former school and its evolution to becoming a museum. Visitors learn how black parents had been petitioning the government to provide a school for their children and were consistently denied. Finally, in the 1820s, the city government provided two schools for black children, and the Abiel Smith School was constructed using the endowment by a white businessman who the school is named after. After Boston legally desegregated their school system in 1855, the schoolhouse closed and later became a headquarters for black veterans of the Civil War before becoming the museum in 2000.
Staff continue with providing a history of the city of Boston and highlight the contributions of historical black figures who are believed to have walked the hallowed halls of the school and meeting house. Throughout the roof of the first-floor basement are names of important figures throughout black history such as Phyllis Wheatly and Harriet Tubman. Guides center their narrative of Boston in the black experience, sharing stories of the fight for school integration in the city and anecdotes about the bustling black neighborhood.
From there, visitors are taken to the African Meeting House located next door. In another multi-level building, visitors hear about some of the infamous Black Americans who spoke on-site, including Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart. Again climbing a set of narrow steps, you enter the reconstructed church hall and are immediately transported back in time, imagining the sermons and speeches given by the thought leaders of the past. One great artifact remains in the meeting house - an original pew from the nineteenth century. Guests are invited to sit where some of the greatest historical figures sat and put themselves in their shoes. It is the one place in the museum where photography is allowed and the attention to detail helps transport visitors back in time.
One of the smaller museums around, the Museum of African American History is truly a hidden gem deserving of more attention. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm. Due to the pandemic, tickets must be reserved online ahead of your visit, and access to the museum is time-limited. When I visited, I had about thirty minutes to explore the exhibits in the school before the history chat and a short walk to the African Meeting House. Luckily, the museum is fairly small and the thirty-minute time limit did not negatively impact my experience.
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, and free for museum members and children under the age of 12. As the site is located in the heart of Beacon Hill, there is no onsite parking available. If possible, I would recommend using public transportation to get close and walk the distance to the museum. The museum’s website provides directions and information regarding a parking lot around the corner.
When finished with the museum, continue the learning experience by enjoying the Black Heritage Trail. Like the Freedom Trail, the Black Heritage Trail is a 1.6-mile walk along the historic black neighborhoods of Boston highlighting important monuments and homes of those who fought for black equality.
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Alycia holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History and believes the study of history can be fun and exciting. She tries to bring history to the masses in bite sized pieces through her weekly history podcast, Civics and Coffee. Find Civics and Coffee wherever you get your podcasts and follow the pod on Instagram or Twitter. You can also reach her through her website at www.civicsandcoffee.com