Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning African American History through Context Boston

Prince Hall sought and received an English
charter for a black free masons group when
he was denied entry to the local white free
masons. Interestingly from an archives
perspective, the original charter for the
group he founded is currently housed
in a State Street bank vault.
I was lucky to once again have the opportunity to take a Context Boston Tour. This past winter I walked and blogged about the company's North End Tour. Last week's traipse through history began at the North End, but then took us on the Freedom Trail for a remarkable look at Boston's African American heritage. We were once again led by the knowledgeable Alex Goldfeld, who first introduced us to bits of this story on our last visit. (Here's a little plug for Alex who seems to have the low-down on all Boston history and as a North End resident, as well as President and historian of the North End Historical Society, he certainly knows the ins and outs of this area in particular. Check out his book The North End: A Brief History of Boston's Oldest Neighborhood.]

Alex began our walk through time with a version of this story:

"When Paul Revere wrote in his account of his midnight ride, 'After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains,' he was referring to a well-known local landmark along his route through Charlestown (present-day Somerville). On this site twenty years earlier a slave named Mark Codman had been hanged and his body gibbeted (suspended in chains) for murder and petit treason for killing his master, John Codman."

The story resonated with those taking the tour and immediately brought the past to life, reminding us that issues of race have run as a thread through the fabric of American society since its inception. We discussed how black men struggled in a fight for freedom, noting their servitude as incompatible with the ideals of our founding fathers, and later seeking equality in society that had more common interactions among people of different races at an earlier time than I realized.

The racial thread wound with us through the streets of Boston. We paused at the site of the Boston Massacre, in front of the old state house building. For the first time, I learned about Crispus Attucks, who is widely known as the first man killed in the American Revolution. The most memorable cultural item created as a result of the Massacre is Paul Revere's engraving of it. I recalled from my early American art history classes that there were no dark faces in the image. I surmised with my guide that perhaps in an attempt to gain widespread general support for the movement toward Independence this was a conscious bit of self censorship.  

August St. Gaudens used live models for realistic
depictions of black men serving in the Civil War in this
monument located across the street from the Massachusetts
State House. The fine details of his work remind us of their individualism.
The oldest home on Beacon Hill, the residence
of George Middleton represents a
neighborhood for free African
Americans in the 18th century.
I think more than anything else, this tour gave names and faces to those who we knew existed. The stories of men and women who fought slavery, helped others find freedom, promoted education, and valued the general ideals purported by a newly established government were revealed across the street from the Statehouse and up Beacon Hill, which had always represented Brahmin culture to me. The tour also gave us stories of specific events that demonstrated the struggle for freedom, such as the story of Elizabeth Freeman who sued for her rights. She recounted her experiences for posterity and her court records shed light on the African American experience at the time. I kept picking up on those archives connections that are so valuable for me. There was also the story of Lewis and Harriet Hayden who were leading abolitionists with a home on the underground railroad. Lewis' story is heartbreaking and still full of hope. (Go on the tour and let Alex tell it to you for full impact.)

Part of the Museum of African American history,
this building itself has a long history of use, re-use and preservation

One of our final stops was outside the Museum of African American History. To get there, we wound through back alleys that were built as shortcuts for getting around the grid layout of a very hilly area. These alleys also served as places to run along the underground railroad. We silently walked through and, to me, this was the most poignant part of the tour. There was something about winding through narrow passages that made the historical echoes of chasing freedom vibrant to me. On the other side of the passage we viewed the remodeling of the Museum, forming the culmination of our journey. It drove home the idea that saving stories is so vital to saving our heritage and made me think about my appreciation for how far we've come and how society's evolution is preserved in our cultural heritage sites.

I very much enjoyed the tour. I also enjoyed our small group of three friends who took it together. I felt that I had plenty of opportunity to ask questions and to use walking time to discuss my observations with my guide. There was a lot of walking in this tour, which may not be desirable for everyone, but I found it wonderful to explore parts of the city I had never seen before, even though I lived in Boston for four years. It was a pleasure to see another often under-recognized group highlighted in a tour dedicated to their story. Together, these multi-dimensional community stories that the Context Tours have provided me form the fabric of our heritage. While I work to ensure our documentation about this heritage is cared for, it is nice to see historians and even the travel industry taking the raw materials of history to create educational and entertaining programs.

Please also see the blog post by Evolving Critic, who accompanied me on the tour. He focuses on the architectural landmarks along our route.


  1. Melissa,

    Thank you for posting this wonderful reminder of our day in Boston. Over the course of the tour, I was reminded several times of the importance and value of history. The real stories of people who came before us really can teach us so many lessons. And in the hands of a master storyteller, it is easy to be transported through time.

    On this tour I was again reminded that our history does indeed show us how far we have come. It also shows us how far we still have to go. For me, knowing the history of a place creates a connection to that place. I will never see the North End or Beacon Hill quite the same way. And now when I walk past the Civil War Monument across from the State House, I will more fully appreciate it and the artist.

    It was a wonderful experience. My thanks to you, Anulfo and Alex for sharing it with me.

  2. I'm so glad you posted this! I have to go on this tour. African American history in New England is one of my specialty areas. I can't wait to do this.