Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The North End:

A Very Short History

African Americans in Boston


1630  Boston is founded

1638  The first Africans arrive in Boston, via the West Indies.  They came aboard a ship from Salem called Desire.  They are enslaved. See Winthrop's Journal, page 260.

1641  Massachusetts accords legal status to slavery. See numbers 85-91.

1656  Sebastian Kane, a black man, owns property in Dorchester (then a separate town from Boston).

1659  Copp's Hill Burying Ground is established at the North End.  The earliest black Bostonians are buried there.

1679  The First Baptist Church in Boston builds a small church building at the edge of the Mill Pond in the North End.

1681  Maria, an enslaved black woman, and two accomplices, are convicted of burning down the home of a white man in Roxbury (then a separate town from Boston).  This was potentially a form of resistance.  Maria was burned at the stake.

1693  A group of black North Enders, mostly enslaved, forms the first black church society in Boston. Reverend Cotton Mather allows the group to use the building of the Second Church in Boston (North Square) for worship.

1696  The Royal African Company loses their slave trading monopoly, allowing all Englishmen to legally engage in the trade.

1700  Judge Samuel Sewall publishes The Selling of Joseph, which urges an end to African slavery

1701  The Selectmen of Boston urge their representatives in the government of Massachusetts to encourage the expansion of white servitude and “to put a Period to negros being Slaves.”

1703-1707  The Massachusetts government passes a series of laws designed to "regulate" free black people in the province, including a curfew; punishing interracial marriages; placing high duties on the importation of black servants while paying a bonus for the importation of white servants; and stopping people of color in Massachusetts from aiding fugitive slaves.

1706  Reverend Cotton Mather publishes The Negro Christianized, which is a guide for white people about educating enslaved black people on Christianity.  Among other unfortunate things, the book encourages black people to think of their enslavers in the same way they would Jesus Christ.

1708  Under a recently passed provincial law, the Selectmen of Boston begin calling free black men to perform public works for the town at no pay.

1712  Enslaved Africans riot, destroy property, and murder white people in New York City. Small and large acts of resistance preceded and followed this event throughout the colonies, including Cato's Rebellion in South Carolina (1739)

1718  Reverend Cotton Mather opens a school for Africans and Native Americans at the North End.

1721  Onesimus Mather confirms what Reverend Cotton Mather has read about smallpox inoculation in the Middle East, thus allowing the procedure to be performed successfully during an outbreak in Boston that year.

1722  Boston's population is slightly more than 10,500, with approximately 17% being African-American.

1723  Christ Church opens in Boston (known today as the Old North Church).  By 1727 there are 32 enslaved Africans worshiping there, two of whom are baptized in the church.

1755 Phillis, Phoebe, and Mark Codman kill John Codman, their enslaver, in Charlestown (then a separate town from Boston).  When Paul Revere tells of his famous ride to Lexington in 1775, he remembers riding past "where Mark was hung in chains."(See 8th line from bottom.)

1770 Crispus Attucks, an African American from Framingham, was the first person to die Rev Warin the Boston Massacre.  Three African Americans testify at the trials of the officer and the soldiers who committed the Boston Massacre.

1773 Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is published in London.

1773-1775 African Americans sent no fewer than 5 petitions to the Massachusetts government requesting the abolition of slavery.

1775-1783 American Revolutionary War.  5,000 African Americans serve in the military forces of our emerging nation.

1783 Slavery is abolished in Massachusetts with the activism of Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker and their white allies.

1786 Colonel George Middleton purchases land on the north slope of Beacon Hill.  His home, built shortly thereafter, still stands as the oldest structure in the neighborhood and the oldest African-American home in Boston.

1784 The first African-American Masonic Order is granted a charter from London.  Prince Hall had been leading the unincorporated organization since 1775.  The organization is still headquartered in Boston today and is known as the Prince Hall Masons.

1787 Prince Hall petitions the Massachusetts legislature to grant African-American children access to public schools.  His request was denied.

1791 The Bill of Rights, including guarantees for the freedom of the press, freedom of BillofRIghtsspeech, and the right to freely assemble, is adopted.

1796 The African Society is founded in Boston to aid and uplift members of the African-American community.  George Middleton, a Prince Hall Mason and a veteran, was a founder of the society.

1798 The African School opens in the home of Primus Hall near the corner of today’s Phillips and West Cedar Streets on Beacon Hill.  The school was founded and funded by Boston’s black community.

1800 Gabriel Prosser leads an unsuccessful uprising of enslaved people in Richmond, Virginia.

1806 The African Meeting House is dedicated.  It still stands today and is the oldest surviving black church building in the United States.

1808 The African School moves to the African Meeting House schoolroom.

1812-1815 War of 1812. Hundreds of African Americans serve in the American Navy.

1815 Abiel Smith passes away leaving over $4,000 in investments and securities to Boston’s government for the education of African-American children.  Prince Saunders, one of the African School teachers, had encouraged Abiel Smith to donate the money. See the Town Records, page 160.

1822 Denmark Vesey planned an uprising in Charleston, South Carolina, but was betrayed.

1826 The Massachusetts General Colored Association was formed in Boston as the first massGeneralColoredAssoc.avowedly abolitionist organization in the city.  Its leadership and membership is entirely African-American.

1829 David Walker publishes the first edition of his Appeal to African Americans; exhorting them to rise up and overthrow the institution of slavery.

1830s Charles Lenox Remond, a free African American from Salem, becomes one of the first paid, full-time anti-slavery speakers.

1831 William Lloyd Garrison begins publication the Liberator. See "The Liberator Files."

1831 Nat Turner organized an unsuccessful uprising in Virginia.

1832 The New England Anti-Slavery Society is formed in the African Meeting House.  The Massachusetts General Colored Association merges with the New England Anti-Slavery Society the following year.

1833 Maria Stewart is the first American woman to publicly speak on politics and race relations.  She addresses her fellow African Americans at the African Meeting House.

1835 The Abiel Smith School opens.  Legally segregated schooling in Boston was then firmly established.

1840s Conditions at the Abiel Smith School grow worse due to cruel teachers, inadequate funding, and overcrowding.  In 1844, Black Bostonians led by William Cooper Nell and John T. Hilton urge parents to withdraw their children from the Abiel Smith School “at whatever inconvenience or expense.”

1840 Charles L. Remond is a delegate from the American Anti-Slavery Society to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (along with William L. Garrison and others).

1841 Frederick Douglass speaks on Nantucket about his experiences in slavery.

1842 George Latimer is arrested for self-emancipating himself from slavery in Virginia.  A mass meeting was held at the African Meeting House to protest and plan Latimer’s defense.  His freedom was purchased.

1842 The African-American community in Boston forms the Freedom Association explicitly to assist self-emancipated individuals.  The Freedom Association later merges with the Vigilance Committee thus forming an interracial action group.

1843 Organization in the Latimer case leads to the passing of the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act.  Massachusetts officials and facilities could no longer be used for the apprehension of self-emancipated individuals like Latimer or Douglass.

1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is published.

1849 “Great School Rights Meeting” is held at the African Meeting House. Petitions propose the closing of the Abiel Smith School or replacing the white headmaster with a person of color.  Thomas Paul Jr., the son of Reverend Thomas Paul, was subsequently appointed headmaster of the Abiel Smith School.

1849-1850 The Legality of separate schools is tried in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in the case of Roberts v. The City of Boston.  Charles Sumner and Robert Morris, a black attorney, represent Sarah Roberts.  The decision in the case upholds legally segregated schooling.

1850 The U.S. Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act which seriously erodes the rights and freedoms of African Americans in Massachusetts and other free states.

1850 William and Ellen Craft are protected by Lewis Hayden in the West End after successfully emancipating themselves from slavery in Macon, Georgia.

1851 Lewis Hayden and other members of the Vigilance Committee successfully rescue Shadrach Minkins from federal custody.  Minkins was accused of being a fugitive slave from Norfolk, Virginia.

1851 The attempted rescue in Boston of Thomas Sims of Savannah, Georgia, is unsuccessful.

1851 Sojourner Truth gives her famous Ain’t I a Woman? speech at a women’s rights convention in Ohio.

1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published.UncleTomsCabinCover

1852 Frederick Douglass gives his famous What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? speech in Rochester, New York.

1853 Washington McQuerry’s attempted rescue in Boston is unsuccessful.

1854 Vigilance Committee members clash with federal marshals over the imprisonment of Anthony Burns of Alexandria, Virginia.  One marshal was killed, 13 people were arrested, and Burns was returned to Virginia.  His freedom is purchased the following year by Reverend Leonard Grimes of the Twelfth Baptist Church in the West End.

1855 Segregated schools are outlawed in Massachusetts after several years of organization and protest.  The Abiel Smith School ceases to be a black-only school after 20 years.  William Cooper Nell is celebrated for his efforts at the African Meeting House in December.  The Abiel Smith School became an integrated school and later the building served as a veteran’s hall -- for 100 years.  Today the building is a museum and a showcase of black history.

1856 Charlotte Forten becomes the first African-American teacher to teach white students in Salem.

1857 The decision in Dred Scott’s lawsuit states that African Americans are not American citizens, are “inferior,” and have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

1858 Dr. John Rock makes his I Will Sink or Swim with My Race speech at Faneuil Hall.

1859 John Brown leads an unsuccessful uprising at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

1861 April The Rebellion begins.

1862 Charlotte Forten travels to South Carolina to teach newly-emancipated African Americans, all of whom had been legally barred from any sort of education.

1862 Governor John Andrew dined at the home of Lewis and Harriet Hayden where he was urged to ask the Lincoln administration for the approval to raise African-American regiments.

1863 The Emancipation Proclamation frees enslaved people only in the rebel states that had not yet been retaken by the United States military.  The Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment was recruited at several locations including the African Meeting House.  They trained and went to war as the first African-American regiment from the northern states.

1863 Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and many of his soldiers in the Massachusetts 54th perish as they assault Fort Wagner on the coast of South Carolina.  A monument was dedicated in their honor on Boston Common in 1897.

1865 The Civil War ends.  Nearly 200,000 African Americans served their country and fought for universal freedom in the Army and Navy.

1865 The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified.  It outlaws slavery in the United States.  William Lloyd Garrison stops publishing the Liberator.

1868 The 14th amendment is ratified.  It overturns the Dred Scott decision and returns citizenship to African Americans.  In addition, individual states could no longer curb the citizenship rights of people living within their jurisdictions.

1870 The 15th amendment is ratified.  It guarantees the right to vote to all Americans regardless of race, color, or former enslavement.