1Historic Resource Study
Boston African American National Historic Site
31 December 2002
Janine V. da Silva
Executive Summary 3
Historic Resources 44
1: Site of David Walker House
81 Joy Street 44
2: John T. Hilton House
73 Joy Street 48
3: Robert Roberts House
71 Joy Street 51
4: George Putnam / Robert Johnson House
69 Joy Street 54
5: Site of Coffin Pitts House
67 Joy Street 58
6: James Scott / William C. Nell House
3 Smith Court 64
7: George Washington House
5 Smith Court 71
8: Joseph Scarlett Tenant House
7 Smith Court 73
9: Holmes Alley House
7A Smith Court 74
10: William Henry / Joseph Scarlett House
2 Smith Court 75
11: African Meeting House
8 Smith Court 78
12: Abiel Smith School
46 Joy Street 84
13: George Middleton / Lewis Glapion House
5 Pinckney Street 88
14: Second Site of Home for Aged Colored Women
27 Myrtle Street 92
15: Second John P. Coburn House
2 Phillips Street 94
16: Site of Henry L. W. Thacker House
5 Phillips Street 98
17: First John P. Coburn House / Coburn Court
3 Coburn Court 100
18: Site of Twelfth Baptist Church
43-47 Phillips Street 103
19: Lewis Hayden House
66 Phillips Street 106
20: Site of John Sweat Rock House
81-83 Phillips Street 115
21: Thomas Paul House
36 West Cedar Street 123
22: Site of John A. Andrew House
110 Charles Street 124
23: Charles Street Meetinghouse / Charles Street AME Church
62-76 Charles Street 126
24: John J. Smith House
86 Pinckney Street 127
25: George and Susan Hillard House
62 Pinckney Street 129
26: Charles Sumner House
20 Hancock Street 133
Suggestions for Further Research 140
Annotated Bibliography 188
Site Descriptions and Chain of Title
Maps of Boston’s West End
The research undergirding this historic resource study has been greatly aided by numerous people and institutions, but no one has been more critical to it than Michael P. Terranova, who lives on Joy Street in the John T. Hilton House. At literally a moment’s notice—at many moments’ notice—he has shared all of his research, gathered over years in tax records, deeds, and other sources about African Americans who have lived in the West End. His work is meticulous, detailed, and thoroughly documented. We can never adequately thank him for his unstinting assistance.
We also wish to thank the staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society for compiling the database Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630-1800, built largely on the 125,000 index cards Annie Haven Thwing compiled during her research for her Crooked and Narrow Streets of the Town of Boston, published in 1920. The cards listed everything Thwing found in town and church records about residents of Boston between those years. Between 1993 and 1999 the historical society converted the cards to an electronic database and added another five thousand records for spouses, children, native Americans, and African Americans. The entire CD-ROM database was copublished with the New England Historical Genealogical Society in 2001. Terranova’s work, this database, and our own work in censuses, directories, and assessors’ records made it possible to assemble fairly detailed information on many West End residents. We have attempted in this study to synthesize this primary data with what other primary and reputable secondary sources reveal as we focus on the people who owned and occupied the homes and institutions on the north slope of Beacon Hill.
Others who were extremely helpful and generous with their time were Lorna Condon and Rebecca Aaronson at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities Library and Archives, Colleen Meagher of the Boston Landmarks Commission, Kristen Swett and David Nathan at the City of Boston Archives in Hyde Park, James Capobianco at the Massachusetts Archives, and Donald Yacovone at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
This Historic Resource Study presents detailed descriptions both of properties already included within Boston African American National Historic Site (BOAF) and of properties that, on the basis of their historical and architectural significance, we have judged worthy of inclusion in BOAF. These descriptions are preceded by an examination of how the neighborhood BOAF interprets evolved and a brief discussion of the people who lived within it. There are two appendices. The first is a set of architectural descriptions of sites accompanied by photographs and a chain of title; the second is a set of map reproductions illustrating the physical development of the West End of Boston between 1722 and 1884. The Griffin M. Hopkins Map of the City of Boston, and Its Environs (1874) has been marked to show both current and recommended BOAF sites.
Two supplements to the study not included in the scope of work—biographical files of Boston’s African American population compiled from federal censuses, selected city directories, tax records, and primary or secondary sources examined in the course of this research; and a database in Microsoft Access that permits correlations of the data in the biographical files—have been completed and submitted separately.
This Historic Resource Study was constrained from covering the entire period between 1797 and 1897 by several circumstances. In any project dealing with people of African descent, it is essential from the start to establish a solid demographic understanding of the population in order to deal sensibly, first, with sources that do not identify people by race and, second, with kin and friendship networks. On the north slope, a relatively small area in physical terms and so well demarcated in topographical terms, these networks seem to gain greater significance. Because the Historic Resource Study was to be completed in one year, the authors needed to rely as much as possible on data collected by other institutions and individuals, yet the authors were unable within the crucial first seven months of the project to gain access to the three databases that had been compiled over the last three decades of people of color in Boston between 1790 and 1865.1
In the end, the authors compiled data from the federal censuses between 1790 and 1850 as well as from the city directories of 1813, 1816, 1820, 1823, 1827, 1830, 1833, 1836, 1841, 1847, and 1850. They collected data beyond these years for individual in current and recommended BOAF properties. They also compiled data from Boston city assessors’ records from 1835 to 1860 for Belknap and Southac Street properties and incorporated tax record information Michael Terranova had assembled for Belknap Street, Smith Court, and Holmes Alley properties from 1822 to 1849. This data is presented narratively under the relevant properties in this study, as well as in the biographical files in Word and WordPerfect and in the Access database. Because of the amount of demographic work that needed to be done simply to establish the contours of the African American population in the West End, this project was unable to proceed in demographic detail beyond 1860.
Sources exist that have made it possible, however, to recommend certain post-1860 sites for inclusion in BOAF, in particular the site of the Home for Aged Colored Women (site 14) and the John J. Smith House (site 24). Sarah J. Shoenfeld’s recent publication of the records of application and admission to the Home for Aged Colored Women provides an important link between the antebellum and postbellum African American community in Boston, and the fact that the home operated within the community it was created to serve is a highly significant feature of its existence.2 The John J. Smith House on Pinckney Street (site 24), in the process of being documented, is another site that bridges the half-century mark: it can be used to interpret a figure central both to the fugitive slave assistance, abolitionism, and school integration struggles of the pre-Civil War years and to the equal rights campaigns of the postwar decades.
Still, because of the study’s general focus on the antebellum decades, it tends for the most part to place BOAF’s current and recommended sites within contexts particular to that time—the development of the African American community on the north slope of Beacon Hill, the growth of its political culture in general, its activism with respect to fugitive slave assistance specifically, and its inclinations with respect to integration and separatism. This last context had ramifications along the full spectrum of life. It affected North Slope residents on a global level in the colonization movement, both as colonization was encouraged and effected by people of African descent and by whites. It influenced their more everyday existence as well in the school integration struggles, which began as early as the 1780s and culminated with the legislative mandate of 1855. The question whether there could ever be, as the Quaker William Thornton phrased it in 1786, “a sincere union between the whites and the Negroes” provoked debate among both whites and African Americans. Just as some north slope African American families decided the question by resettling in Sierra Leone and Haiti before the Civil War, others—among them John T. Hilton, Anthony F. Clark, John T. Raymond, Henry Weeden, Joshua Bowen Smith, and Isaac and Charles Snowden—decided it by moving to Cambridge, where schools were already integrated. And even as William C. Nell had many supporters as he made his case for integrated institutions, so Thomas Paul Smith (like Nell once an apprentice in the Liberator office) had followers for his argument that African American children would receive better educations in classrooms with other African American children taught by African American instructors. These arguments were not extinguished with the closing of the nineteenth century.
Almost no research has been published to date on the migration of Bostonians of African descent from the North End to the West End, and it was beyond the ability of the authors within the time frame of this study to do the primary research necessary to date or investigate the causes of this movement. Deeds and tax records make quite clear that an African American community was in place on the north slope of Beacon Hill well before 1797, and several decades before the Mount Vernon Proprietors had set out building lots for development on the south slope. Very little research also appears to have been published on the movement out of the West End to the South End, though this study has found the beginnings of migration in the early 1870s.
One of the most significant contexts in this study is the Underground Railroad, principally because the role of so many of Boston’s people of color in this effort can be so well documented. An unusual wealth of records related to the Underground Railroad in Boston—among them John White Browne’s records from the First Boston Vigilance Committee; Francis Jackson’s treasurer’s records from the second Boston Vigilance Committee; the correspondence and fugitive records of New York Vigilance Committee secretary Sydney Howard Gay, who was in constant contact with Boston abolitionists; the correspondence of Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, John A. Andrew, the Weston Sisters, William Lloyd Garrison, James Miller McKim, and others; the records of the Boston Anti-Manhunting League in the Henry Ingersoll Bowditch Papers—exist both in Boston and other repositories in the Northeast.3 We believe that these primary sources, coupled with the few reliable secondary sources that exist, would permit the development of a better understanding of how the Underground Railroad actually functioned than could be constructed anywhere in the United States.
For this study the authors consulted both sets of Boston Vigilance Committee records, the Sydney Howard Gay Papers and Gay’s “Record of Fugitives,”4 a selected group of the Sumner, Parker, Phillips, McKim, and Weston Papers, Wilbur Siebert’s Massachusetts notebooks at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and two key published sources—William Still’s 1871 The Underground Railroad, and Austin Bearse’s 1880 Reminiscences of Fugitive-Slave Law Days in Boston. Again, the time frame of the study limited the amount of time we could spend with primary sources, but the authors have been able to document the presence of fugitives at many of the BOAF sites in the study, both current and recommended.
The scope of work for this Historic Resource Study raised several questions that needed resolution.
• This study found that no published source and no individual architectural historian has been able to document an earlier African American church structure in the United States than the 1806 African Meeting House on Smith Court. The first black Baptist congregation was founded in Savannah, Georgia, in 1779, and there were African American congregations in Petersburg, Richmond, and Williamsburg, Virginia, before 1785. But none of the original church structures of these congregations have survived (see site 11).
• This study consulted architectural historians and historians in cities with early African American populations on the question whether a public school for children of color existed before 1812, when the school in the African Meeting House began to receive a subsidy from the city of Boston. No one was able to document an earlier school or to guide us to a published or primary source that addresses the question. The authors regard this question as still an open one (site 12).
• This study uncovered no reliable documentation for the claim that John P. Coburn used either 3 Coburn Court (site 17) or 2 Phillips Street (site 15) as a gaming house.
• John J. Smith’s wife, Georgiana O. Smith, was active in the efforts to desegregate Boston’s schools as well as in the postwar Freedmen’s Aid Society. Their daughter Elizabeth is claimed to have been the first African American teacher in the integrated Boston public schools, and their son Hamilton was a lawyer, dentist, and accomplished avocational photographer (site 24).
The Historic Resource Study has made several new findings:
• While several scholars, most notably Albert J. Von Frank, had revealed that the fugitive Anthony Burns had stayed with Coffin Pitts, the site of Coffin Pitts house had not been pinpointed. This study has done so; see site 5.
• This study has found that sailors’ shipping agent James Stewart and his wife, the African American lecturer and activist Maria W. Stewart, lived at 8 Belknap Street, the house black activist and author David Walker had just vacated. Stewart’s likely role in distributing Walker’s Appeal cannot be overlooked. Michael P. Terranova and Horace Seldon had previously identified originally 8 (later 4 ) Belknap Street, now 81 Joy Street, as one of Walker’s Boston homes.
• The architect Richard Upjohn, far better known for his church designs, prepared the plans for the Abiel Smith School; it was his first commission for a public building.
• Asher Benjamin designed 2 Phillips Street for John P. Coburn, and the plan may well have been the architect’s last commission before his death.
• Peter Wilcox, one of five African American families from Boston who settled in Sierra Leone with Paul Cuffe in 1815, probably lived on the site of 5 Smith Court (site 7).
For interpretive purposes, this study recommends the addition of thirteen structures and sites of structures to Boston African American National Historic Site. Seven are nineteenth-century homes owned and/or occupied by men and women significant to African American society, politics, and culture of the time; four are the sites of homes of such historically significant persons; and two are the sites of important African American institutions. Two—site 17, the first John P. Coburn House, and site 20, the site of the John Sweat Rock House—are part of enclaves of African American settlement. Like other communities within cities, the north slope of Beacon Hill was not simply a collection of dwellings and institutions; the connections between people in these houses and institutions formed small neighborhoods within a larger neighborhood or subcommunity. Holmes Alley was certainly one such neighborhood; the authors suggest that Coburn Court (site 17) and the area around the homes of Lewis Hayden and William Riley near and on Southac Court (site 20) and Wilberforce Place were probably others. In future research BOAF may wish to construe its interpretation so as to embrace neighborhoods. This study’s recommendations for additional sites are presented here by site number with brief arguments for and against including them within BOAF’s interpretive reach.
• 1 • Site of David Walker House
The David Walker House should be added to BOAF for numerous reasons. First, it was occupied between 1827 and 1829 by the most articulate and radical man of color of his time. Just as the Massachusetts General Colored Association preceded the white-founded Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Association, David Walker emerged before William Lloyd Garrison in his recognition that it was only through the press and such publications as his own Walker’s Appeal that people of color, great numbers of them isolated on disparate plantations throughout the South, could come to unite themselves for their own betterment. Second, it was later occupied by other important figures in the north slope community. One was a great admirer of Walker, the early African American orator Maria W. Stewart, and her husband James, a shipper of sailors who could have been involved in distributing Walker’s Appeal. Later tenants, including the fugitive Leonard Black, were important in the history of the African Meeting House. Finally, its site represents the northernmost range of African American habitation on Joy Street. With Smith Court at the southern end, these two Joy Street landmarks anchor what was once a thriving, politically active African American community.
Mitigating against including the Walker House is its extensive alteration since the time Walker, the Stewarts, and Leonard and George Black occupied it. Only the north and south walls and the foundation of the 1825 structure remain, and only the north wall is now visible. It may also be difficult to interpret Walker’s importance to general audiences.
• 2 • John T. Hilton House
Built in 1825-26 for the black hairdresser and musician George B. Holmes, the Hilton House remained in African American ownership for half a century. Occupied briefly by John Telemachus Hilton, one of the most politically active of all Boston’s men of color, the house was associated for a longer time with the brothers Anthony F. and Jonas W. Clark. Anthony Clark lived in the house, while Jonas Clark used it as a rental property. It was the site of one of at least four of the boardinghouses of John R. Taylor, cited in several primary sources as a fugitive assistant. Most significant, though, is this house in its landscape. With the two dwelling just south of it (see 3 and 4), also extant, it forms a rare survival, a cluster of brick homes like those that lined the east side of antebellum Joy Street; this group somehow escaped the rebuilding of the northern part of the street that took place about 1900.
Interpreting the Hilton House provides an opportunity to talk about Hilton’s life as well as to continue the story of Leonard Black, who most likely stayed here when he first came to Boston. It also provides a site at which to discuss the lives of the Clarks, who deserve more research. The house was owned by people of color for half a century (1825-75).
In view of John T. Hilton’s limited connection with the house, BOAF might consider renaming this property for Anthony F. and/or Jonas W. Clark or for George B. Holmes, the dwelling’s original owner.
• 3 • Robert Roberts House
The Roberts House should be included in BOAF because of the integrity of its relation to the Hilton and Putnam / Johnson Houses (see 2 and 4), because of the property’s long history of African American ownership (1823-78), and because of the significance of Roberts’s life and his family history. Roberts married into the Easton family, one of the most prosperous and politically aware families of color in the commonwealth, as well as into the large Paul family of Exeter, New Hampshire. In relative terms, a good deal is known about his early life, and his seminal House Servant’s Directory sheds light on the world of domestic service in early national Boston. Moreover, the experiences of Roberts’s son Benjamin in the school desegregation struggles of the 1840s and 1850s as well as in printing and on the antislavery lecture circuit are well worth interpreting. This house, though never Benjamin’s, is probably as appropriate a place as any extant dwelling to begin to tell his story: Benjamin Roberts’s own home, on the north side of Cambridge Street, has not survived. The connection of the Freeman family to the property is also worth interpreting, related as they are to the Lews of Boston and Dracut; as do the Pauls, both the Freemans and the Lews illustrate the stream of migration from rural northern New England to Boston, a pattern common among both blacks and whites.
The only argument against including the site in BOAF is the lack of long-term tenancy before 1859; however, Robert Roberts owned the property between 1824 and 1859, and some of the tenants were significant persons in the community and can be interpreted in their own right.
• 4 • George Putnam / Robert Johnson House
Built in 1826-27, the Putnam / Johnson House is the third member of the intact cluster of African American dwellings on Joy Street. The structure should be included within BOAF’s interpretive purview for other reasons as well. It was owned and occupied by two significant families of color for seventy-eight years, from its construction until 1904. The first, that of George Putnam, actively worked to realize the tenets of Garrisonian abolitionism and fought for school desegregation. The second, that of Robert Johnson, was born in slavery. Johnson himself was a fugitive, and the purchase of his wife, mother-in-law, and other relatives is well documented in the papers of Charles Sumner. The papers of John A. Andrew need to be researched as well for more information on the case of Seth Bott, a fugitive who married the sister of Johnson’s second wife, Evelina Bell. The extent of information available on both Putnam and Johnson, and of known and probable documentation of the Bott case (involving persons associated with three sites recommended for inclusion in BOAF) argues strongly for its inclusion. So, too, does the fact that Johnson was a fugitive who came to Boston at a relatively early point and chose to settle in the city rather than in Canada or England.
• 5 • Site of Coffin Pitts House
Owned for sixty-five years by the family of black abolitionist Coffin Pitts, the structure now on this site may encompass a brick house on the site when Pitts purchased the property in 1835. Exactly analogous to the site of the David Walker House, it took preserves the north wall of the earlier structure in the current dwelling on the site. This site deserves inclusion in BOAF because of Pitts’s connection with the well-known fugitive Anthony Burns, whom Pitts sheltered on this site and for whom Pitts found work. Pitts’s career in church and antislavery reform is also relatively well documented. Other aspects of his life may be interpreted here: he was among the many black activists who worked as used clothing dealers in Boston, a connection that calls for detailed examination; and, like Robert Roberts and Robert Johnson, he had been born in the South and was a relatively early migrant to Boston. His status, free or fugitive, is not known.
The chief obstacle confronting inclusion of the site of the Pitts House is the extent of alteration of the existing dwelling from the house in which Pitts lived and Burns stayed. However, its antebellum appearance should not be difficult for visitors to imagine, given the existence of the 1835 plan and the house’s immediate juxtaposition to the Putnam / Johnson House, built at roughly the same time and of the same materials.
• 14 •