Sunday, June 28, 2015

Museum of African American History, Boston

A few days ago in June, 2015, I visited the Museum of African American History, located near the Boston Common and only about 3 blocks from the Vilna Shul that I wrote about earlier.

After visiting the Vilna Shul and Jewish Cultural Center a few blocks away from the Museum of African American History, and hearing there of the fact that Boston was one of the few places in the U. S. where  Jews followed the African Americans into the neighborhood, I wanted to learn more about African Americans historically in Boston, so I decided to visit this museum.

I took the T Red Line to Park St., which is the stop by the Boston Common.  There were some education signs about the history of the subway transportation system of Boston.

I walked through the Common on a lovely day, so very different than the  cold and snowy day when I visited the Vilna Shul a few months ago.

Lots of birds were flying around and chirping loudly.  Two were perched on a bench as I walked by.

There is a great playground that I may take grandson Eli to some day as he loves any excuse to ride the T.

The sign on the museum is small, about 5 or 6 feet up the wall.
I then turned into an alcove and saw this next sign:

So I turned left and then found this unpretentious handicapped entrance and the door to the museum.

The fee to enter was $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors.

Unfortunately, picture taking (even without flash) is not allowed inside the museum, even in the gift shop.  I found out about the latter after I took a photo of a book.

The museum is located in what was originally the Albiel Smith School, the first school built in the US for the purpose of educating Black children. It was built in 1835. The cellar was used for primary school (children under age 7) and the main and 2nd floor were grammar school classes for girls from 7 to 16 and boys from 7 to 14. The school was named for a white businessman who donated $2000 to Boston for the education of Black children. Our guide said that up to 300 children attended the school, so classrooms must have been huge. He also said that there was just one book for the whole school and the principal was white and racist.  Because of this, many people felt justifiably that segregation of schools was definitely separate and UNequal.  A number of Blacks (led by some very strong women) began to keep their children out of this school, and eventually the doors were closed during this time.   More information the history of the school and the controversy over school desegregation from 1839 to 1855 can be found at:

The 2nd floor currently has an exhibit entitled Trace the History of Black Literature:  Freedom Rising:  Reading, Writing and Publishing Black Books, and it has quite a few books written by African-Americans.  I was fascinated by the book of poetry by Phyllis Wheatley, a "Negro servant" of John Wheatley of Boston. Books written by Blacks could not be published in the US , but an English duchess offered to publish it if the author could prove that she had written the poems. Ms. Wheatley had to go before a judge and a group of 17 white men to prove that she had written the poems. She succeeded in doing so. I found out these details because I tagged along when a group of 6th graders who were with a docent who explained this story. I would have missed out of that story if I were just going through on my own.    (Details of past exhibits can be found on the website.)

I just checked and the Seattle library has several books of her poetry and about her life including a biography written in 2011 entitled Phyllis Wheatley: a Biography of a Genius in Bondage and The Trial of Phyllis Wheatley written by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard Professor recently in the news when he got arrested for trying to get into his own home.

 The exhibits are mainly on the 2nd floor, and the third floor is mostly a meeting room where a 17-minute film is shown entitled "Building a Firm Foundation." It is narrated by a tenth-grade young woman from Roxbury. It is definitely worth watching.  The room is still used for speakers.

I then went on a 20-min. tour of the three-story African American Meeting House which was built in 1806, almost entirely by Black craftsmen. Tours are offered every hour on the hour until 3 p.m. and pictures could be taken in this area. The building served as a church as well as a community gathering place and is the oldest Black church still standing in the United States.   Unfortunately, our National Parks Service tour guide talked very fast, spewing out facts. He tried very hard but needs to learn to present better. He did say that the book "More Than Freedom" is an excellent resource. After the tour, I found excellent information on the building at:

Many famous people spoke there including Frederick Douglas in 1860 and Maria Stewart (a black woman), the first American-born woman to  speak publicly before a gender-mixed audience and the first African American woman to make public lectures.  More on her can be found at:
The building was remodeled in 1855 when the balcony was added, I believe.  The pews were "bought" by attendees, as was the custom of other churches in the area,  and the balcony seats were less expensive.

Our guide speaking near the pulpit
Seats and the balcony

At the end of the 19th century as African Americans moved out of the North End toward the South End and Roxbury, they were followed into the area by Jews, who then bought this building and used it for a synagogue.  This North End area was one of the few places in the U. S. where Jews followed Blacks in to the area to live, according to the guide that I had at the Vilna Shul.

As the Jews moved out of the area, the building fell into disrepair, and was bought by the Museum of African American History in 1972.  A major restoration was done in the 1990s to restore it to the way it looked after the 1855 remodel.
Inside wall before remodel
From Wikipedia:  "The slave population in Massachusetts was under 200 in 1676, 550 in 1708 and 2,000 by 1715. Slaves accounted for 2.2% of the total population from 1755 to 1764, their highest rate. There was a larger free black population, with about 10% of the population of Boston being black in 1752."  

Although Massachusetts was the first colony in New England to have slave ownership, by 1783 many slaves  were freed based on court cases in that decade saying that slave ownership was against Christian principles.  Boston and Massachusetts were in the forefront of the US in freeing slaves.

One can also go on the Black Heritage Trail, on a guided tour or on one's own.  Information can be found at:

Here is a link to the trail map and its 14 stops which end at the museum.

This was definitely a worthwhile visit and now I will read a few books on the topics to learn more about the history here.