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Mapping the Enslavement History of the Freedom Trail

Advisory: This project contains descriptions of violence and dehumanizing language to reflect the horrors that Black people and Native Americans were routinely subjected to during the era of American history when slavery was common. We recognize such language may distress some readers. Discretion is advised.

A narrow red brick path winds through the sidewalks of downtown Boston, connecting 17 historic sites tied to the city’s colonial history as the incubator of the American Revolution.

But the red line of Boston's Freedom Trail also could symbolize the blood of enslaved people who helped make that revolution possible.

Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery. The practice was systemic here in the 18th century, until slavery was abolished in the 1780s through a series of court cases brought by enslaved people.

Yet, in most cases, these connections are rarely talked about. GBH News worked with a Boston University journalism class to reveal them.

Learn how slavery was a part of each of the historic churches, graveyards and parks that make up the Freedom Trail in the interactive map below. Map not loading? Click here.

For people who use screen readers or who cannot load the map, details of the Freedom Trail sites are below.

Boston Common

There is almost no record of enslaved people traversing Boston Common, the nation’s oldest public park. But we know they were there — because Boston took steps to ban them.

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Massachusetts State House

The “new” State House was built in the late 1700s, after slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts.

Like everything else on the Freedom Trail, however, there is a strong thread of slavery that runs through the building. Charles Bulfinch, the renowned architect who designed the Massachusetts State House, continued his family's legacy of exploitation through his other work.

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Park Street Church

Park Street Church was founded in 1809, over two decades after the commonwealth of Massachusetts outlawed slavery.

But that does not mean that slavery was not part of the church's history. In fact, it was the site of high-profile activism for the national abolition movement before the Civil War.

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Granary Burying Ground

History lies here.

The burial ground just steps from Boston Common is the last resting place of some of the titans of Old Boston — and some of the enslaved people who helped them achieve that status.

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King's Chapel

The first Anglican Church in New England literally sits atop enslavers who were among its congregants. The basement crypt of the 1754 stone chapel carries the names of wealthy church members, many of whom made their money from the slave trade.

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King's Chapel Burying Ground

Stepping outside King’s Chapel into the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, which dates to approximately the same period, is like crossing through a veil of silence.

While the church has launched a massive memorial project to acknowledge its early members’ ties to slavery, the word “slave” appears nowhere in the graveyard next door, which is owned and managed by the city of Boston.

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Boston Latin School

The first public school in the United States famously graduated historic figures such as Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence. There were also enslaved people on the grounds.

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Old South Meeting House

Like King’s Chapel, its neighbor up the block, Old South Meeting House has for several years been excavating its own roots in the slave trade. And like King’s Chapel — and really all of colonial Boston — those roots run deep.

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Old Corner Bookstore

The Old Corner Bookstore, built in 1718, was originally an apothecary. Apothecaries were the pharmacies of their time, and forced labor was common practice in such shops.

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Old State House

Built in 1713, the Old State House served as the seat of government for the British rulers of the Massachusetts Colony, but also the government chambers for the Legislature and the town of Boston. This is where enslaved people petitioned for their freedom.

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Boston Massacre site

Jittery British troops fired into an angry Boston mob on March 5, 1770, killing five men who are considered the first martyrs of the American revolution. But what is not often mentioned is that retelling of history is that one of the men, Crispus Attucks, was the son of an enslaved person and a Native American, and that he himself had also been enslaved.

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Faneuil Hall

Enslaved people have returned to Faneuil Hall.

In June, the City of Boston opened an exhibit at Faneuil Hall that documents the stories of enslaved people in colonial Boston, including a full database of more than 1,300 enslaved individuals who have been identified — though in many cases their names and other details are unknown.

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Paul Revere House

Paul Revere, the hero of the Revolution for his “midnight ride” that alerted the countryside to an impending British assault, did not own slaves. But there were slaves in the Paul Revere House before Paul Revere owned it.

Revere's profession as a silversmith was intimately tied to slavery as well.

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Old North Church

The steeple of North Church is where two lanterns were raised — “one if by land, two if by sea” — to launch Paul Revere’s famous ride that began the American Revolution.

But the church has discovered that steeple was built with donations from church members who made their money from enslaved laborers.

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Copp's Hill Burying Ground

More than 1,000 free and enslaved Black people are buried in the second oldest cemetery in Boston, but their identities remain largely unknown. There are few marked graves, with one very notable exception: Prince Hall, an abolitionist leader and founder of the first Black freemason lodge in America.

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USS Constitution

The oldest boat in the U.S. Navy fleet was built with a special wood considered “impervious to rot.”

But it was harvested by enslaved people. And it is still in the boat.

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Bunker Hill Monument

A 221-foot granite obelisk stands at the site of a pivotal Revolutionary battle, with monuments to military heroes Dr. Joseph Warren and Col. William Prescott. But about 150 soldiers of color also fought in that battle, many of whom were once enslaved.

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