Advisory: This story includes descriptions of abuse and oppression of Black people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.

The first Anglican Church in New England literally sits atop the bodies of enslavers who were among its early congregants. The basement crypt of the King's Chapel carries the names of wealthy church members, many of whom made their money from the slave trade. Among those was Charles Apthorp, one of the most active slave traders in colonial Boston.

Recently, King’s Chapel has undertaken a major effort to uncover its own ties to slavery.

A marble memorial written in Latin and topped with a sculpture of a weeping child commemorates the life of Charles Apthorp.
Inside King's Chapel, the walls are lined with plaques and monuments commemorating early members of the congregation, many of whom were involved in the slave trade. This momument celebrates Charles Apthorp who was one of the most active slave traders in colonial Boston
Paul Singer GBH News

The church’s history program has discovered that at least 68% of the funds raised to construct the current King’s Chapel building came from people with economic ties to slavery. Nearly 10% of the construction funds came from known slave traffickers.

“This beautiful building, and ways in which we worship every Sunday that is so meaningful to us, would not be here but for the slave trade,” said Joy Fallon, the chapel’s minister.

The chapel has documented 219 enslaved people who were connected to the church either through baptism, marriage, burial, or through enslavement by church members. About three dozen of those enslaved people connected to King's Chapel were not named in the church's historical records.

At least 26 enslaved people were given to King’s Chapel for burial between 1724 and 1774. But the chapel has no records of where they were buried.

For baptisms of enslaved people, King's Chapel used language approved by the Church of England that explicitly stated they would not be freed:

"I declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that I do not ask for Holy Baptism out of any design to free myself from the duty and obedience I owe to my master while I live, but merely for the good of my soul, and partake of the grace and the blessings promised to the members of the Church of Christ."
Report: Slavery and King's Chapel

King's Chapel was not unique in this approach. Slave owners' fears that baptism would promise freedom prompted legislation in multiple colonies.

Many churches also segregated services, including King's Chapel, which ruled in 1754 that Black people only worship from the gallery. The church's records suggest segregated seating remained through the 1920s.

The congregation recently approved a $2 million transformation of the building to create a memorial to its roots in enslavement. That will include an installation circling the chapel with a woman opening cages to free 219 birds — one to represent every enslaved person known to be connected to the church.

This story is part of the project Enslavement History of the Freedom Trail, a collaborative effort between GBH News and Boston University students to detail the mostly hidden history behind some of Boston's most well-known sites.