10 Facts About Boston's Black History (And Where to Learn It)

Things to do and people to meet on this journey through Boston's past

How much do you know about Boston's black history? Did you know that blacks fought for America's freedom from Britain, even before they fought for their own? Have you heard about the slave girl who learned to read and write, and published a poem by the age of 15? Can you name four local blacks who were huge supporters of education? In this city, alternate histories sometimes get overlooked amongst the overabundant discourse on Sons of Liberty and midnight rides, tea parties and colonial-era skirmishes. You should know that Boston owns a very rich heritage based in its African American community, and we'd like to set the record straight with this guide to 10 impressive people and where to go to learn more. 

#1 Crispus Attucks

The New World-born son of a slave and Wampanoag Indian cast a daunting shadow over six feet tall. Today, we remember his name because he was one of the five victims of the Boston Massacre, which took place in March of 1770, when the tenuous relationship between the Colonists and the British Army reached a breaking point. As Attucks and other townspeople protesting the British-imposed Townshend Acts faced-off with the Redcoats in a skirmish, he was the first to be fatally shot. 

Where to learn: The Old State House where a circle of cobblestones marks the Boston Massacre site, and then on to Granary Burying Ground where Attucks and the other massacre victims are interred. Every February and early July, the Freedom Trail Foundation leads the 90-minute African American Patriots Public Tour walking tour, or it can be scheduled by special appointment.

#2 Prince Hall

Bostonian, 18th-century abolitionist and free black man still flies under the radar of popular history, but is recognized across Boston for progressive ideals and efforts to gain equality. As a lobbyist for public education, he helped organize a community school in the Beacon Hill home of his son when Hall's petition for equal access was denied. Ultimately, this became the Abiel Smith School, which today houses the Museum of African American History. Hall also influenced his contemporaries into becoming freemasons, a division that still bears his name: Prince Hall Freemasonry.

Where to learn: Abiel Smith School. Then over to Copp's Hill Burying Ground, where a tombstone and monument mark Hall's grave. The cemetery also serves as the final resting place for a few thousand blacks living in the North End community during the 18th-century. On Cambridge Common on the outskirts of Harvard Square, local artist Ted Clausen's Prince Hall Memorial honors the abolitionist's life and work.

#3 Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley at right in the Boston Women's Memorial (©Alexandra Molnar/MOTT)
Phillis Wheatley at right in the Boston Women's Memorial (©Alexandra Molnar/MOTT)

Phillis Wheatley is notably the first person of African descent to publish poetry in the English language—an incredible feat for the era (1750s-1780s) considering she was both a woman and a slave. Unusually, she received an education in the home of her progressive master when most slaves could neither read nor write. She began scripting poetry while she was still a young girl, publishing her first poem, “On Mssrs. Hunley and Coffin,” in 1767 at the age of 15, and then her first book "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." It's also interesting to note that the bulk shipment of the book was aboard the Dartmouth from London, the same ship carrying those chests of tea that fate would have floating in the waters of Boston Harbor.

Where to learn: Old South Meeting House where an exhibit contains a first edition of Wheatley's book.  Also visit the Boston Women's Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, where Wheatley is one of three honored. 

#4 Frederick Douglass

World famous even in his own day, this abolitionist and orator knew the power of words. He traveled across the globe speaking eloquently about his experiences as a slave in Baltimore and condemned the popular practice—a battle won when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Douglass began his career in Massachusetts, speaking first at the Massachusetts Antislavery Society’s annual meeting in Nantucket in 1841, shortly after settling in New Bedford. Two decades later, he recruited blacks across the Northeast to fight in the Civil War, even enlisting two of his sons.

Where to learn: Douglass gave his 1860 Antislavery Speech at the African Meeting House, commonly known as the Black Faneuil Hall. Today, the historic church and buildings are part of the Museum of African American History.

#5 The 54th Regiment

Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial (©www.gobostoncard.com)
Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial (©www.gobostoncard.com)

Despite the fact that an estimated 5,000 blacks fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, it was not until 1863 that the U.S. government officially accepted them into service. Why? During the Civil War, the Union was losing badly and was, consequently, desperate for more men on the battlefield. The North's first all-black volunteer infantry, the 54th Regiment, headed out from Boston under the leadership of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a 20-something white commander. Hundreds of soldiers of the 54th, including Shaw, were fatally wounded at South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, but all proved their patriotism to their countrymen by fighting with valor and bravery.

Where to learn: The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, made in bronze relief by artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It is the first stop on Boston's Black Heritage Trail

#6 William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois

Writer, teacher and activist, DuBois devoted his life to inspiring his race, which isn’t surprising given that his lifetime began just after the eradication of slavery and ended during the era of the 1960s civil rights battles. The prolific Great Barrington, Mass., native attended Harvard and became the first African American to earn a Harvard PhD. He also gained recognition for his 1903 book "The Souls of Black Folk" and went on to cofound the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Where to learn: 20 Flagg St., Cambridge, where a plaque marks his former residence and the start of the Cambridge Historical Commission's self-guided African-American Heritage Trail.

#7 Melnea Cass

In 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed and women earned the right to vote in 1920, 24-year-old Cass organized black women to register and encouraged them to express their views. The social activist rallied for racial justice, protesting publicly, working for groups like the NAACP and founding organizations locally like the Freedom House, which took efforts to keep her Roxbury neighborhood clean and safe. From 1962-64, the “First Lady of Roxbury” served as the president of the Boston branch of the NAACP and was also actively involved in the desegregation of Boston schools.

Where to learn: Boston's Roxbury neighborhood where her influence lives on at places that honor her, like Melnea Cass Boulevard. 

#8 Elma Lewis

The arts were so important to Lewis that she founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts during the 1950s and welcomed black youths to enroll in theater, dance, music and visual arts classes. Two decades later, with a mission to make the arts widely accessible to Boston’s black community, Lewis created The National Center of Afro-American Artists, a complex that joined her school with a newly formed art museum, still in existence today. For her dedication to her heritage, Lewis was awarded 30 honorary doctoral degrees, a Presidential Medal for Art, and was named a MacArthur Fellow as well as a Visionary Elder by the National Visionary Leadership Project.

Where to learnThe National Center of Afro-American Artists

#9 Bill Russell

Acclaimed as the driving force behind the greatest dynasty in National Basketball Association history, he led the Boston Celtics to 11 championship wins in just 13 seasons. Drafted out of the University of San Francisco by legendary coach Red Auerbach, Russell joined the Celts in 1957 and played with the team until he retired in 1969, having earned 12 NBA All-Star nods and five NBA Most Valuable Player titles. As well as being one of the first African Americans to play professionally, Russell became the NBA’s first black head coach, running both the parquet and playbook from 1967-69. Most notably, he brought intensity to the court and is credited with changing the game of basketball from one of predominately offensive tactics to defensive strategy.

Where to learn: Head for the TD Boston Garden where The Sports Museum honors Russell. If you've got time, trip out to Springfield's Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, into which Russell was inducted in 1975.

#10 Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick (©MOTT)
Deval Patrick (©MOTT)

In 2007, Patrick made headlines as the Commonwealth’s first black governor and only the nation’s second. His inauguration was so historic an event that the Adams National Historic Park loaned the Mendi Bible—the Bible presented to John Quincy Adams who defended the African slaves of the famous Amistad case—out for Patrick’s oath of office. From a childhood of poverty in Chicago’s South Side to college years at Harvard University to a Clinton-appointed post in civil rights work for the Justice Department, the two-term governor was a big supporter of education and became the first to legalize same-sex marriage.

Where to learn: The Massachusetts State House for a free tour that sheds light on 20th and 21st legislation as well as the landmark's gubernatorial history.