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History Restored: The African Meeting House | Boston, MA (part 2)

by Bridgit Brown

Even though the black community of Boston transitioned out of Beacon Hill and into the South End by the 1930s, they left behind two lasting structures that boldly declare who they were and how they lived back then.

Black residents of Beacon Hill built the Abiel Smith School in1835. This was when it was unlawful for black children and white children to share the same classroom. Currently occupied by the Museum of African American History, the Smith School building is the epicenter for the history of Boston’s free black community.

The other structure, the African Meeting House, built in 1806, sits perpendicular to the school. Also called the first African Baptist Church, this was the monumental place of worship, gatherings, and special events for the community then.

Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, and many others spoke from the pulpit of this meetinghouse. It was also used as the recruitment post for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment.

The builders of this meetinghouse were entirely black, and as Diana Parcon surmises in this webisode, they might have even been shipwrights. They built the meetinghouse to serve multiple purposes in the community then. Primus Hall, whose father was Prince Hall, the legendary founder of the black Masonic Lodge, helped to organize the Abiel Smith School in 1798. The school held its classes in Primus’ house. When the African Meeting House was built, it held its classes there. The African Meeting House also served as a residency for a black caterer named Domingo Williams who lived in its basement from 1819-1830.

The upper part of the meetinghouse remained a place of worship, gatherings, and social celebrations until it was sold in 1904 to Congregation Anshe Libavitz, a sect of Orthodox Judaism.

In 1964, Dr. Howard Thurman, the first black dean of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University, founded the Museum of African American History. The Museum was originally located in the Charles Street Meeting House on Beacon Hill.

One of the Museum’s first major acquisitions was the African Meeting house. In 1971, Congregation Anshe Libavitz put the structure up for sale for $40,000. The Museum bought the building and hired its first full time staff, State Representative Byron Rushing.

To be continued...

Click here for part one of the series.