Here at the Curiosity Desk we love Massachusetts history, and we especially love lesser-known stories and tales. And so, when we learned that Boston’s Museum of African American History was turning 50 this year, we thought it might be an opportunity to touch on a little of both.

And so, to satisfy — and perhaps rouse — your curiosity, The Curiosity Desk presents five things, some of which you might not have known, about this venerable institution on its golden anniversary.

1. Massachusetts Has A Museum Of African American History

"I think the first thing is that it's here," said Marita Rivero, the museum's executive director. "I’m tired of having people say it’s the best kept secret in Boston."

"Here," in Boston, is placid Joy Street, tucked away on the north slope of Beacon Hill. But the museum is not just a Boston institution. In addition to its spaces in the city, the museum also has a presence on Nantucket, where they present exhibits and cultural programs at two historic sites.  

2. Two Important Historic Buildings Comprise Their Boston Campus

View of the inside of Boston's African Meeting House from the pulpit.
Edgar B. Herwick III

First, there is the Abiel Smith School, which was the first building in America constructed as a public school for black children. Today it houses the museum’s exhibition space, a classroom, and the museum store. Then there’s the African Meeting House, the oldest black church edifice still standing in America. 

"I tell people if they knew nothing and walked in the door they’d understand these were people who understood beauty," said Rivero, sitting with me in a back pew. "They were wonderful craftspeople. They raised the money themselves to build this."

This space was far more than a place of worship. It was an indispensable community hub for a vibrant free black community on Beacon Hill in the 19th century. Today it’s a fully-restored national historic site, with many of its original features in-tact, including the floorboards.

3. The Titans Who Walked The Floors 

The floorboards of the African Meeting House are original.
Edgar B Herwick III/WGBH News

"We know the abolitionists walked these floors," said Rivero "This community was really focused on ending slavery." 

That included African-American pioneers like Frederick Douglass and white leaders like William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the New England Anti-slavery society here. 

During the Civil War, Douglass and others recruited young black men — including Douglass’ two sons — who walked up the aisle here to officially enlist in Massachusetts' famed 54th regiment.

Then there were the lesser-known trailblazers like Maria Stewart who, among other things, is believed to be the first woman to speak to a "mixed" audience of men and women, white and black.

"People don’t know her," said Rivero. "She was an early feminist who lived down the street. [She] spoke here [and] was passionate about liberation and freedom. I think it’s important to recognize that early feminists were black women."

4. The Museum Created The Black Heritage Trail 

The African Meeting House — as well as the homes of some of its former members — are today part of a walking tour called the Black Heritage Trail, something the museum created years ago.

"This whole area and all the houses on the Black Heritage Trail, and many beyond us, were part of groups called the Vigilance Committee," said Rivero.

That committee provided everything from shelter and funds, to transportation and legal counsel, to hundreds of slaves who had escaped the American south in the decades leading up to the Civil War.  

"To understand who these people were, men and women, to see ourselves — frankly — in this story, I think of it as a great civic engagement tale," said Rivero.

5. The Civic Engagement Tale Continues 

Today, the museum presents exhibitions throughout the year, and offers regular tours of its historic spaces, where they also hold lectures, concerts and community events. Rivero says this now 50-year-old organization is committed to making this 200-year old building — and its countless stories —  accessible to everyone. Her hope is that by remembering who we were, we might yet discover who we can become.

"We were all here," she said. "This was a seaport town. People from [China] were here. People from the Caribbean, Latin America, South America — they were all here. Eastern Europe, Western Europe — we were all here. And the more we tell those stories and acquaint all of ourselves with the idea that we’re one people, we’ve been in touch with one another over many, many years – the better we’ll be able to take on the issues of our time." 

If there is something you've been curious about, let me know. Email me at I need to get my story ideas from somewhere, why not you?