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Tracing Boston's African American Legacy

Posted by GLBoston on February 19, 2017

ShawMemorial.jpgFebruary marks the month-long celebration of African American history and culture, known as Black History Month, and though perhaps overlooked, the city of Boston has played quite a significant role in this rich history. As one of the oldest cities in the nation and a traditional hub of American culture--as well as social and political change--Boston has seen its share of major milestones in the African American narrative. From Crispus Attucksdeath in the Boston Massacre, to the fiery speeches of escaped-slave-turned-preacher (and leader of the Abolitionist Movement), Frederick Douglass, African American communities throughout the history of Boston have long been a significant part of this city. In more recent times, the city has even been home to a few diverse but iconic figures, from controversial civil rights activist Malcolm X (who once worked as a busboy at the Parker House Hotel), to famous entertainers like disco star Donna Summer and highly influential R&B supergroup, New Edition.  

800px-The_Storming_of_Ft_Wagner-lithograph_by_Kurz_and_Allison_1890.jpgFor a closer look at the roots of this fascinating part of Boston’s history, check out the Black Heritage Trail. It begins, similarly to the Freedom Trail, in the Beacon Hill neighborhood--but will give you a very unique perspective on the story of our nation. --the trail includes sites like the famous monument dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. This elegant bronze work of art, sculpted over 14 years by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was named the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial--a memorial to the fallen white colonel of that regiment, but also meant to honor the lives and bravery of very first all African American regiment to fight in the Civil War. The regiment is remembered most notably for the valiant yet tragic campaign at Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina, where hundreds of men (including Col. Shaw) lost their lives. This Beacon Hill monument, and the story of these brave men behind, were featured in 1989’s Oscar-winning film, Glory.

Also featured on the trail are refuge sites on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad(a network of sanctuary homes through which African Americans would be rescued from the shackles of captivity in the south), as well as homes of some of Boston’s Black Brahmins, a name for some of the educated class of African American socialites that took shape in Boston, towards the end of the 19th century (a lesser-known tier of Bostonian society that was central in Contending Forces, a serial novel by African-American novelist and M.I.T. stenographer, Pauline Hopkins).

800px-Crispus_Attucks.jpgAnother site central to Boston’s African American legacy is the Boston Massacre site, which sits in front of the Old State House. It was here that Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Wampanoag descent who'd fled slavery and made his home in Boston, gave his life as the (probable) first casualty during an outbreak of violence between colonists and British soldiers--an act which many saw as the acceleration of the revolutionary fight for American Independence.

In short, an investigation into Boston’s African American history and its sites is well worth your time, if you’re looking for a more in depth look at an important part of our nation’s story. Though the city has seen times of strife, including the ugly days of the busing riots during attempts to integrate Boston’s public schools, it has more often been at the vanguard of social progress, from the revolution they gave us independence, to movements such as Abolition and Civil Rights. We are proud to say that Boston’s history is a history that African Americans have always been a part of.


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