Advisory: This story includes descriptions of abuse and oppression of Black people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
The Old South Meeting House is renowned as a gathering spot for frustrated patriots, leading to the infamous march to the Boston Harbor in 1773 to dump tea in a protest against taxation seen as the first major act of defiance against British rule.
But until 1872 it was also a church — one with a deep legacy of enslavement.
The Old South Church, which moved to Copley Square in the 1870s, has begun unpacking the history of enslavement that took place in the Meeting House. A tree-shaped display inside the church contains bronze leaves bearing the names of 73 congregation members who were enslaved “or of African descent” in the 1600s and 1700s.
Records show some pastors enslaved people in the parsonage beside the church. The Rev. Nancy Taylor, the 20th senior minister of the Meeting House, who retired in 2022, said the church has been holding an annual service of remembrance since 2015 where the names of Old South’s Black population from the 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s are read aloud. During that period, enslaved people were only allowed to sit in the highest gallery of the Meeting House, the section farthest away from the pulpit.
“One thing I would say about an institution that is 353 years old is you will find the longer you live, the more you have to atone for,” Taylor said.
Emily Ross, archivist of Old South, examined the church’s historic, handwritten records and found proof that seven of the church’s founders enslaved people. During her research, she also found Old South members, including the first Senior Pastor Thomas Thacher, collectively enslaved at least 122 people from 1670 to 1773.
The most famous enslaved church member was Phyllis Wheatley. Taken from Africa in the mid-1700s when she was around 7 years old, then purchased by the Wheatley family. She became a published poet by the time she was a teenager, and she went on to become an international celebrity. A sculpture of Wheatley stands near the entry to the Meeting House, along with a sign providing a brief description of slavery in colonial New England.
The congregation that occupied the Meeting House grappled for many generations with the institution of slavery. In 1700, church member Samuel Sewall published New England's first anti-slavery tract, called "The Selling of Joseph," which condemned the practice of enslavement. Then, in 1854, the Rev. George Washington Blagden, who became senior minister of the church in 1836, wrote a well-known text condemning the brutality of slavery in the Southern United States while rejecting the notion that slavery is inherently sinful. Blagden argued that according to the Bible, God “positively instituted a system of slavery among the Jews, which He never would have done, had it been in all cases positively and absolutely sinful.”
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.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the Old South Church moved out of the Old South Meeting House in the 1870s, and to correct that the memorial tree recognizing enslaved members is displayed in the church's Copley location, not the Meeting House.