Exhibit written and curated by Brittany Costello

Introduction

Each year, millions of tourists flock to Boston to follow the Freedom Trail; a brick pathway that runs throughout the city’s most historic neighborhoods, promising its visitors the opportunity to gain a more complete understanding of Boston’s role in the American Revolution all in under 3 miles of walking. The Freedom Trail is well loved and a celebrated component of any tourist experience in Boston. However, the Freedom Trail is not Boston’s only historical “trail”. Winding its way through the north slope of Beacon Hill, the Black Heritage Trail explores sites related to Boston’s abolitionist movement. This aspect of Boston’s history, though perhaps lesser known than the city’s ties to the Revolutionary War, is both fascinating and empowering for all Americans. It is the story of how a small community of African-Americans came together to take on the institution of slavery and eventually prevailed. It is the story of, as Boston African American National Historic Site puts it, “America’s second revolution”. In recent years, this story of America’s “second revolution” has been highlighted by the NPS and the Museum of African American History in attempts to raise the profile of the Black Heritage Trail and to make more Americans, tourists, and Bostonians aware of the rich history of Boston’s early black community. While these efforts can be complicated by logistical constraints and the challenge of addressing slavery in the face of American historical myth making, they are steps in the right direction.

Origins

Boston’s Black Heritage Trail was conceived of by Sue Bailey Thurman, a well-known black civil rights activist and founder of the Museum of African American History in Boston.[i] Inspired by the success of the Freedom Trail (established 1951), she mapped out a walking route through Beacon Hill’s north slope designed to take visitors past the sites most central to the history of the black community of Boston, and especially their role in the abolitionist movement.[ii] Her original map also provided details about black history at popular Freedom Trail sites.[iii] Her 1964 map eventually grew to today’s modern Black Heritage Trail, and was central in promoting the founding of Boston African American National Historic Site in 1980.[iv] Today, the Black Heritage Trail highlights fourteen sites, ranging from the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial, recognizing the first official all-black Civil War unit and their commander, to the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House, the home of one of the city’s most radical abolitionists and a uniquely well-documented stop on the Underground Railroad.[v]

Often considered the “crown jewels” of the trail are the Abiel Smith School and the African Meeting House. The Smith School, now the home of the exhibit galleries and store for the Museum of African American history, is the first public school in the nation built for African American students.[vi] Built in 1934 and dedicated in 1835, many of Boston’s black youth received their elementary education in this building until the end of school segregation in the city in 1855.[vii] Built in 1806, the African Meeting House, now also owned by the Museum of African American history, is the oldest black church still standing in the country.[viii] The church’s sanctuary, used for both religious services and for meetings of abolitionist leaders, has been fully restored to its 1855 appearance.[ix] The Smith School and African Meeting House are the only buildings on the Black Heritage Trail open to the public for visitation; the remaining properties are private residences or are otherwise closed to the public.

 

Sue Bailey Thurman Photo
Sue Bailey Thurman Photo. Courtesy of Boston University Archives, Sue Bailey Thurman Collection.

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Heritage Trail Map
Boston African American National Historic Site (BOAF) aka The Black Heritage Trail, Courtesy of the National Park Service

 

 

 

 

The African Meeting House Photo
The African Meeting House. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Finding a Cohesive Narrative

In 1980, the sites of the Black Heritage Trail became recognized as the Boston African American National Historic Site, a national historical park separate from, but often associated with, the Boston National Historical Park. As President Carter signed the bills that created the Boston African American National Historic Site (BOAF), the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, and the center for the study of African American history in Wilberforce, Ohio, he remarked, “If the truth is to set us free, we must study and to understand our own past and how it affects the present and future...I hope the preservation of these sites and the creation of this center will provide all Americans with a new source of knowledge and inspiration at the same time they give black Americans new insights into their own roots”.[x] Thus, since its inception, BOAF has been designed to appeal to Americans of all colors and to highlight their shared history of slavery and the abolition movement. However, attendance to BOAF has traditionally been significantly less than attendance at the Boston National Historical Park.[xi] In recent years, however, there have been more initiatives to link the two parks’ histories.

The stories of America’s liberation from colonial rule that most people associate with Boston are familiar, patriotic and celebratory. The history of the abolitionist movement can be celebratory too, but it, of course, requires a discussion of American slavery, resistance to abolition, and racism- topics which are not as easily welcomed by merry vacationers. The troubles with discussing these difficult topics at BOAF are compounded by the park’s proximity to the Boston National Historical Park; visitors spend hours, or days, contemplating the greatness of their country only to be confronted with stories associated with some of its darkest history at BOAF.[xii] This difficulty is not a new issue for the NPS. Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park recently battled with balancing its celebratory narrative of liberty with the discovery that President Washington routinely exploited a loophole that allowed him to keep slaves at the President’s mansion, the ruins of which are just outside of what is now “Liberty Bell Center”.[xiii] In Boston, the attempt to address this issue of contradictory messages has been to try to sensitively connect the two similar, yet fundamentally different, struggles for liberation the city has seen in its history: the struggle for liberation from colonial rule, and the struggle for liberation from slavery.

In 2010, Cassius Cash was appointed superintendent of both the Boston National Historical Park and BOAF. Originally from Tennessee, Cash was rather unfamiliar with Boston and its ties to the abolitionist movement when he accepted the appointment as superintendent.[xiv] Inspired after learning of fascinating history of the early abolitionist movement in the city, he made it a major focus of his agenda to connect the messages of the two parks and to increase awareness of the abolitionist movement in Boston. One of the first steps in achieving this goal was to complete the restoration of the African Meeting House. The site had been undergoing a restoration since 2005, but lack of funding had stalled the progress and left the building closed to the public.[xv] Without this important site available for visitation, the Black Heritage Trail, the hallmark of BOAF, was less appealing to visitors. Together, Cash, the NPS, and officials at the Museum of African American History worked to secure a $4 million federal grant that allowed the project to be completed in 2011.[xvi] Now that the major draw to the Black Heritage Trail had been restored, Cash could focus on expanding awareness of the trail and uniting the messages of the Boston National Historical Park and BOAF.

This effort was well-timed, as the major visitor’s center at Boston National Historical Park, the Faneuil Hall Visitor’s Center, was undergoing a renovation as well. Cash used this opportunity to rebrand the Freedom Trail and Black Heritage Trail as “Boston’s Trails to Freedom”.[xvii] In this way, the parks become ideologically linked together as each describes a peoples’ fight for and journey to freedom. Today, visitors approach a large display with the names of both parks featured prominently.[xviii] Information about each trail is provided under the heading, “Boston’s Trails to Freedom”.[xix] While each trail is discussed separately, visitors are encouraged to “experience both the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail on free tours led by National Park Service Rangers, or as self-guided”.[xx] In a further attempt to promote equality between the trails, the Black Heritage Trail’s two public sites, the Abiel Smith School and the African Meeting House, are presented along with the list of Freedom Trail sites on the display.[xxi] Thus, visitors are encouraged to make those stops a standard part of their exploration of the city.

In addition to the changes in signage, Cash also reworked the starting point of the Black Heritage Trail. Traditionally, the ranger-led tours would step off from the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Beacon and Park Streets, but by moving the starting point to the Visitor’s Center, Cash hoped to reduce confusion and attract more visitors.[xxii] A third major change, a proposal to re-designate Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historic Site as one park, Freedom National Historical Park, was sidelined by Cash’s appointment as superintendent of Great Smokey Mountains National Park in 2015.[xxiii]

Because the NPS strictly regulates the taking of statistics and visitor satisfaction surveys, it can be difficult to measure the impact Cash’s changes have had on attendance and awareness of the Black Heritage Trail in the years since they’ve been implemented. Certainly, the changes are a step in the right direction. Traditionally, July and August have been the most popular months for visitation to the Black Heritage Trail.[xxiv] This high attendance trend correlates directly with the tour schedule, as ranger-led tours occur three times daily from July through September.[xxv] From early May through July 4, and after Labor Day until mid-October, the tours are reduced to once per week.[xxvi] In the off season, tours are available only through scheduled appointments.[xxvii] These statistics indicate that without ranger-led tours, visitors are less likely to visit the Black Heritage Trail and the Museum of African American History (with the exception of the museum’s increase in visitation in January and February as a response to Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month respectively).[xxviii]

Overall, the changes implemented by former superintendent Cassius Cash encourage visitors to either park to make connections between the narratives of each park. While this strategy can certainly be effective, if taken too far or done carelessly there can be serious consequences. The biggest concern for future programming is to go too far in equating the colonists struggle against the English government with African-Americans’ struggle against slavery. While colonists were upset about taxes and government, blacks were fighting for their very lives, for their children, and for autonomy over their own bodies. While thematically similar, the struggles for liberty were very different, and had very different stakes. However, as it is handled currently, the connections are important in conveying a cohesive narrative between Boston’s two national parks.

Marketing to the Public

            The NPS has begun an important process in increasing visitation to the Black Heritage Trail and promoting Boston as a site to learn about the abolitionist movement as well as the American Revolution. However, they cannot do it alone. Each privately administered site on the Freedom Trail must also contribute to this integrative narrative. To do this, they must be willing to confront the connections their sites have to the institution of slavery and/or the abolitionist movement. An example of one site that has made attempts to do this is Old South Meeting House. A prominent stop on the Freedom Trail, this 18th century Puritan church and center for debate has made important efforts in bringing to life the site’s connections to slavery. Their permanent exhibit highlights Phillis Wheatley: a black poet, enslaved person, and member of the Old South congregation.[xxix] It also features information about the debates and speeches on the subject of abolition given at the site throughout its history, and admits that ministers of the church have been anti-abolitionist.[xxx] While these themes are not the museum’s sole interpretive focus, they contribute to the process of opening the visitors minds to slavery in the north and in the colonial period. As more sites on the Freedom Trail include this type of interpretation in the narratives they present, it will go a long way to contextualizing the American Revolution and the Patriot’s calls for “liberty”.

            More could be done, too, to market the Black Heritage Trail to Boston residents and more frequent visitors to the city. Critics have complained that the Freedom Trail has grown stale, as the Revolutionary narrative can become far too familiar for those who are routinely exposed to it.[xxxi] However, as many locals are unaware of the city’s ties to the abolitionist movement, there exists an opportunity to engage this audience as well. One reporter chose to submit themselves to the “Boston tourist experience” in efforts to understand the mindset of the city’s millions of visitors.[xxxii] While he was unimpressed by the majority of the “traditional” sites he saw, he noted that the Black Heritage Trail was refreshing.[xxxiii] By keeping advertisements and literature about the Black Heritage Trail at visitor’s centers, the opportunity to grab the attention of locals is lost. A campaign to reach out to Bostonians and New Englanders may prove successful in drawing more numbers to the trail.

            While the Black Heritage Trail offers a compelling and empowering history, there are certain logistical constraints that pose challenges the Freedom Trail does not face. For one, the Freedom Trail is physically marked via granite and brick in the sidewalks along the route. Because the Beacon Hill Historic District has traditionally been quite protective over the sidewalks in the area, indeed there have been two “battles for the bricks” in the neighborhood’s history, this is not an option for the route of the Black Heritage Trail.[xxxiv] Increased signage along the route in recent years has contributed to helping visitors follow the path, but a physical trail would certainly aid navigation.[xxxv] Additionally, because many sites along the Black Heritage Trail are private residences and are not open to the public, the trail relies on Rangers’ interpretive tours to give the history life. While this works out well during the summer months when tours run regularly, the tours either run once per day or are not offered at regular intervals for the majority of the year. One obvious option to remedy this situation is to increase the number of off-season tours, but due to staffing shortages this is not always possible. Audio tours are available for digital download, but are not well advertised and are only accessible to limited audiences (i.e. those with “smartphones”).[xxxvi] Efforts to raise awareness of these downloads and audio devices could be made available to make this option a more effective remedy.

            The accessibility of Beacon Hill is also a major concern for the Black Heritage Trail. The brick sidewalks are often uneven, and the streets climb slopes so steep that even the most able-bodied visitors are sometimes left winded. While the narrow streets of Beacon Hill are not friendly to traffic, BOAF has experimented with developing a driving-friendly route of the trail in the past.[xxxvii] Today, visitors are specifically warned to avoid driving the Black Heritage Trail, but options involving Segways or even golf carts could be explored to help those whose mobility issues could prevent them from enjoying the trail.[xxxviii]  

 

 

Old South Meeting House Photo
Old South Meeting House, courtesy of the National Park Service
Boston Freedom Trail Bricks
Boston Freedom Trail Bricks

Conclusion

            Overall, discussing slavery presents unique challenges in the field of public history, especially when confronting America’s ugly history appears to contradict the celebratory foundation myths many historic sites have promoted in the past. As for the Black Heritage Trail in Boston, important steps have thus far been made to connect the narratives of the Boston National Historical Park, which highlights the city’s connections to the American Revolution, and the Boston African American National Historic Site, which highlights the efforts of the city’s 18th and 19th century black population in the abolitionist movement. The Black Heritage Trail and the Freedom Trail are presented to visitors as “Boston’s Trails to Freedom” a measure which encourages visitors to conceptualize the abolitionist movement as a fight for freedom in the same way that the colonists efforts to overthrow colonial rule was a fight for freedom. These cognitive connections are essential in creating an atmosphere where visitors can accept the challenge of confronting America’s long and painful history with slavery. While the NPS has taken steps in the right direction to increase awareness of the Black Heritage Trail and promote discussions of slavery, every site along the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail must work to reinforce these connections in their exhibits and presentations. Once these connections have been made, or even, perhaps, to ensure these connections are made, Boston National Historical Park and the Boston African American National Historic Site should be joined together as one national historical park. Only then will the stories of the abolitionist movement and the Patriot’s fight for independence be understood as parts of the same story; as America’s first and second revolutions.


Works Cited

[i] “The Legacy Begins: Howard & Sue Bailey Thurman at Boston University,” The Howard Thurman & Sue Bailey Thurman Collections at Boston University, accessed April 20, 2017, http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/the-legacy-begins-howard-sue-bailey-thurman-at-boston-university.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Mrs. Howard Thurman and Daughter: Team Chart’s Boston’s Freedom Trails,” New Pittsburgh Courier (1959-1965) 5, no. 6, (1964): 1.

[iv] “The Legacy Begins: Howard & Sue Bailey Thurman at Boston University,” The Howard Thurman & Sue Bailey Thurman Collections at Boston University.

[v] See, “Black Heritage Trail,” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket, accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/trail.htm, “Site 1: Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial,” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket, accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site1.htm, and “Site 6: Lewis and Harriet Hayden House,” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket, accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site6.htm.

[vi] “Site 13: Abiel Smith School,” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket, accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site13.htm.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] “Site 14: African Meeting House,” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket, accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site14.htm.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “Carter Signs Bills for King and Boston African American Historic Sites,” Jet Magazine, November 6, 1980, 13. Accessed at https://books.google.com/books?id=4EEDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA3&source=gbs_toc&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

[xi] National Parks Service, “Boston African American National Historic Site General Management Plan Environmental Assessment (2008),” Accessed at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/showFile.cfm?projectID...BOAF%20GMP.pdf : 70-71.

[xii] A similar issue was explored by Carole Blair and Neil Michel on observing visitors reactions, or lack thereof to the Astronaut’s Memorial at Kennedy Space Center. Since these visitors had recently been to Disney World, they were not emotionally prepared to confront feelings of loss, and thus, did not engage with the memorial as researchers had expected, see Carole Blair and Neil Michel, “Commemorating in the Theme Park Zone: Reading the Astronaut’s Memorial,” in At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies, ed. Thomas Rosteck (New York: Guilford Press, 1999).

[xiii] See, Roger C. Aden, Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).

[xiv] Linda Matchan, "Blazing the Other Freedom Trail." Boston Globe, May 14, 2012.

[xv] Pamela Reynolds, “A Welcoming Renewal: The African Meeting House on Boston’s Beacon Hill is restored to its former elegance, simplicity, and warmth,” Design New England, January-Feburary 2012. Accessed http://old.maah.org/documents/DESIGNNE_AfricanMeetingHouse2012.pdf: 57.

[xvi] Matchen, “Blazing the Other Freedom Trail,”.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] National Parks Service “Boston’s Trails To Freedom,” exhibit, Faneuil Hall Visitor’s Center.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Matchen, “Blazing the Other Freedom Trail,”.

[xxiii] Janelle Nanos, “Power of Ideas: Cassius Cash,” Boston Magazine, November 2014, accessed http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/10/28/power-of-ideas-cassius-cash-superintendent-two-bostons-national-parks/.

[xxiv] National Park Service, “General Management Plan,” 15.

[xxv] “Black Heritage Trail,” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket, accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/trail.htm

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] National Park Service, “General Management Plan,” 71.

[xxix] Old South Meeting House, “The Old South Community,” Old South Meeting House Permanent Exhibition.

[xxx] Old South Meeting House, “A House Divided,” Old South Meeting House Permanent Exhibition.

[xxxi] See, for example, Brian MacQuarrie, "Freedom Trail is Fading Consultant Says Route Past City's Historic Sites Needs Overhaul to Draw Tourists," Boston Globe (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Jan 30, 1996. http://ezproxy.neu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.neu.edu/docview/290760580?accountid=12826, and  Alfred F. Young, "THE TROUBLE WITH THE FREEDOM TRAIL," Boston Globe, Mar 21, 2004. http://ezproxy.neu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.neu.edu/docview/404881525?accountid=12826.

[xxxii] Sam Allis, "No Blast from the Past - Boston as a Tourist Destination is More Work than Fun," Boston Globe, Oct 28, 2007.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] See National Register of Historic Places, Beacon Hill Historic District, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, National Register #66000130,  49.

[xxxv] See, National Park Service, “General Management Plan,” 27.

[xxxvi] “Black Heritage Trail,” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket, accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/trail.htm.

[xxxvii] National Park Service, “General Management Plan,” 28, 74.

[xxxviii] The signage at the Faneuil Hall Visitors Center specifically states “We (the NPS) do not recommend trying to drive either the Freedom Trail or Black Heritage Trail”.


Bibliography

Aden, Roger C. Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence           National Historical Park, and Public Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press,           2014.

Allis Sam. "No Blast from the Past - Boston as a Tourist Destination is More Work than Fun.”       Boston Globe, Oct 28, 2007.

“Black Heritage Trail.” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket. Accessed     April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/trail.htm.

 Blair, Carole and Michel, Neil. “Commemorating in the Theme Park Zone: Reading the      Astronaut’s Memorial.” in At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies,           ed. Thomas Rosteck. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.

“Carter Signs Bills for King and Boston African American Historic Sites.” Jet Magazine,   November 6, 1980, 13. Accessed at https://books.google.com/books?id=4EEDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA3&source=gbs_toc&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

“The Legacy Begins: Howard & Sue Bailey Thurman at Boston University.” The Howard Thurman & Sue Bailey Thurman Collections at Boston University. Accessed April 20, 2017. http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/the-legacy-begins-howard-sue-bailey-thurman-at-boston-university.

MacQuarrie, Brian. "Freedom Trail is Fading Consultant Says Route Past City's Historic Sites        Needs Overhaul to Draw Tourists." Boston Globe (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Jan 30, 1996.      http://ezproxy.neu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.neu.edu/docview/290760580?accountid=12826.

Matchan, Linda. "Blazing the Other Freedom Trail." Boston Globe, May 14, 2012.

“Mrs. Howard Thurman and Daughter: Team Chart’s Boston’s Freedom Trails.” New Pittsburgh   Courier (1959-1965) 5, no. 6, (1964): 1-3.

 Nanos, Janelle. “Power of Ideas: Cassius Cash.” Boston Magazine, November 2014, accessed             http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/10/28/power-of-ideas-cassius-cash-superintendent-two-bostons-national-parks/.

National Parks Service. “Boston African American National Historic Site General Management      Plan Environmental Assessment (2008).” Accessed at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/showFile.cfm?projectID...BOAF%20GMP.pdf.

National Register of Historic Places, Beacon Hill Historic District, Boston, Suffolk County,            Massachusetts, National Register #66000130.

Old South Meeting House. “The Old South Community.” Old South Meeting House Permanent Exhibition.

Old South Meeting House. “A House Divided.” Old South Meeting House Permanent Exhibition.

“Site 1: Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial.” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket. Accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site1.htm.

“Site 6: Lewis and Harriet Hayden House.” Museum of African American History: Boston and       Nantucket. Accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site6.htm.

“Site 13: Abiel Smith School.” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket.         Accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site13.htm.

“Site 14: African Meeting House.” Museum of African American History: Boston and Nantucket.   Accessed April 20, 2017, http://old.maah.org/site14.htm.

Young, Alfred F. "THE TROUBLE WITH THE FREEDOM TRAIL." Boston Globe, Mar 21,      2004. http://ezproxy.neu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.neu.edu/docview/404881525?accountid=12826.