Guest Author - David O'Donnell shares some of Boston's rich history along the Black Heritage Trail.
Black History Month in Boston offers a rich and dynamic experience. From Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, prominent black leaders have left their mark on our city, and I decided that this was the month to explore the history. In doing so, I realized how unique the Boston story is within the greater tale of African-Americans in the United States.
Walking in the footsteps of Black Bostonians, I began with a stroll through Beacon Hill, home of the Black Heritage Trail and the hub of Boston’s black community in the antebellum era. Beacon Hill was a central artery of the Underground Railroad, where black leaders like Lewis Hayden sheltered fugitive slaves. A visit to the Hayden House induces a compelling and vicarious experience. As I passed over the front stoop I was told that Hayden always kept two kegs of gun powder directly below my feet; I guess nothing deters a bounty hunter like a home owner who would rather blow-up his entire house with the drop of a match than turn over a fugitive slave!
Moving along the trail to the African Meeting House, adjacent to the Smith School, the resonance of a fiery Frederick Douglass abolitionist speech in 1860 is palpable, as is the nervous excitement of a March morning in 1863 when the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first black regiments in US history, was recruited at the African Meeting House. This February the Meeting House unveils the exhibit “MLK: Signs of Freedom,” a prelude to an upcoming exhibit called “Freedom Rising,” which opens in March to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 54th Massachusetts and the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Black Heritage Trail is just the beginning of a distinctive Boston experience. Take the Freedom Trail Foundation’s African-American Patriots’ Tour, which goes beyond the familiar story of Crispus Attucks to explore the legacy of figures such as Peter Salem, Prince Hall, and Phyllis Wheatley. Rosa Parks’ life is celebrated on stage, both at the JFK Library with “Rosa’s Ride” on February 20 and with the Hibernian Hall production “Walk On: The Story of Rosa Parks” over the weekend of February 15-16. Northeastern University celebrates an artistic bent with the exhibit “Black by Popular Demand,” which blends the work of three generations of black artists and multiple styles of art.
There are lots of opportunities to reflect, remember, and realize this month. I knew that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had received his PhD from Boston University in 1955, but I never knew that he referred to Boston as his second home, or that it was here where he met a young New England Conservatory student named Coretta Scott. I never knew that if you stroll down Mass Ave in the South End you will find a plaque affixed to a brick building: “here lived Martin Luther King, Jr.”
The story is out there Boston, and in February the experience beckons.