September 11, 2017 African American Meetinghouses- From Community Centers to Preserved, Historic Treasures
Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1790 and Bostonians formed the most outspoken members of the American abolitionists of Southern slavery in the mid-19th century, but Northern African Americans did not necessarily experience equal treatment in their communities. In many cities, Boston included, the African American community was kept separate from, and less empowered than white communities. Settled on the north slope of Beacon Hill, a thriving African American community of over 1,000 lived and worshiped together during the 19th century.
Though living and worshiping with working class, white Bostonians, the African American community did not have a vote in many churches and were relegated to segregated seating. To establish a voice of their own, African American Bostonians purchased a 49 foot by 50 foot lot on Belknap (present day Joy Street) Street in 1805 where they would construct “the first structure in North America built largely by and entirely for the cultural needs of a burgeoning early African American community.” Originally called the First Baptist Church of Boston, the simple yet elegant brick building was built through monies raised by both black and white communities, and was constructed predominately by African American builders, though there is a chance white builders and suppliers were involved. Upon completion, the church had 24 members and an African school was established, being one of the only places black students could be educated in Boston. The community continued to grow and became known as the “Black Faneuil Hall”, while across Nantucket Sound, on the island of Nantucket, a burgeoning African American fishing and whaling community built another meeting house serving that group.
Both meeting houses are now owned by the Museum of African American History and have been delicately preserved or are in the process of being restored to reflect the history they hold. In Nantucket, the meetinghouse has been restored, and additional buildings on the lot, are currently undergoing renovations. The barn will be an education center for visiting scholars, the cottage will be a visitor’s center, and the chicken coop will become public restrooms. In 2010, the Boston African American meetinghouse completed extensive preservation efforts, which originally began in 2005 and halted temporarily due to finances. Shawmut Construction and John G. Waite Associates completed the project, considering every detail of the restoration from the historic glass used in the windows, to restoration of the natural pine floors, pews that were reconstructed for modern physique and even the bricks of the exterior. Both meetinghouses offer rich insight into the early history of African Americans in New England and continue to be valued resources for students and visitors today.