Created by Meredith Peterson and Savita Maharaj


The African Meeting House, also known as the Belknap Street Church and the First African Baptist Church, transcended religious life, serving as a community center and hub of education, culture, and activism in early Boston. It was built in 1806 with money raised by the African American community as a response to the segregation of churches. This exhibit focuses on historical texts that communicate the African Meeting House’s integral role in Black life and Boston at large by highlighting the  three major functions of the building as a site focused on: education, politics, and culture. The African Meeting House was the manifestation of a vibrant, nuanced, and productive community, one in which the revolutionary and the everyday coincided.

"The African Baptist Church in Smith Court, Belknap Street. Birthplace of the New England Anti Slavery Society," 1892, Mass Historical Society, Photograph.


The African Meeting House’s “audience” went beyond the church’s congregation. The “Evening School” advertisement is addressed to “the young ladies of color in Boston,” suggesting not only an interest in female education but in the education of all black women in the area. The notice that “the school will be kept those evenings which will be most agreeable to the pupils” shows the community-focused nature of the endeavor, indicating that the lessons were truly meant to serve students first and foremost. Although the meeting house internally organized events and groups (such as the basement school, it also accommodated independent organizations, such as The Massachusetts Union Harmonic  Society which“unanimously” chose the “Belknap street church” as the location for their “soiree” in honor of David Ruggles. Additionally, the meeting house hosted exhibitions by the Young Men’s Literary Society and the Boston Minors’ Exhibition Society, a group of “entirely self-instructed” young men and women. The recruitment event of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, an “exterior” institution, was reported as incredibly successful and “a great meeting for the colored people.” Ultimately, the space catered to a broad and substantial audience, pointing to a high level of impact and import.

“Belknap-Street Sabbath School.” 16 July 1831, The Liberator, Boston MA.  Newspaper, 115.

This letter to the editor of the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper The Liberator,  William Lloyd Garrison refutes rumors of the Boston Sabbath School Union’s association with the Colonization

“Notice” 12 February 1831, The Liberator, Newspaper, 27.

“Notice” 12 February 1831, The Liberator, Newspaper, 27.

“A Meeting of the Free Colored Citizens of Boston.” 26 March 1831, The Liberator, Boston MA. Newspaper, 51.

A Meeting of the Free Colored Citizens of Boston.” 26 March 1831, The Liberator, Boston MA. Newspaper, 51.

These two notices both reference the “School House” on Belknap Street providing evidence for the institution’s investment in education.

Ball, L.M. and M.V. Ball. “Evening School.” 14 December 1833, The Liberator, Boston MA, Newspaper, 199.

This 1833 Liberator advertisement announces an evening school “in the school room under the Belknap-St. Church” and  includes information about subjects being taught, fees, as well as dates and times.

Democratic Organization  

These texts also suggest an institutional investment in strong, democratic organization. The speech given by Jedidiah Morse was commissioned at the request of “the Africans and their descendants in Boston” and the preceding procession was sanctioned by local government. Around 200 people were involved in the event and even if only half of them were Bostonians, this still represents almost a tenth of the city’s black population --a community mobilization feat that is respectable even today. In the letter regarding the “Belknap-Street Sabbath School,” the school not only takes a stance on a matter of racial politics but claims to have developed and delivered that stance in an egalitarian manner. The conversation is borne from teachers’ decision to “appoint … a committee to take the subject into consideration” and the letter itself is approved through a “unanimous vote.” The letter also references the “impression … among scholars and parents that [the] school is in some way connected with the Colonization Society,” an impression that has led to the “recent refusal” of scholars to “give their attendance.” There is an implied strength of parental and student involvement here, a spirit of protest and a collective voice that is taken seriously. 

Morse, Jedidiah, “A Discourse Delivered at the African Meeting House,” 1808, Boston MA, Book.

This document is a copy of a speech, given by geographer Jedidiah Morse -- a white Christian -- at the African Meeting House, which was followed by a city-sanctioned procession “in commemoration of the Abolition of Slave Trade.” The printed version of the speech provides the oration’s context, detailing that the “discourse was written, preached, and published at the request of the Africans and their descendants in Boston, amounting to about twelve hundred souls.”

Accessibility within Activism Spaces 

This collection speaks to the importance and relative equitability of the African Meeting House, the image it evokes is not entirely untroubling. Although the Africana Meeting House strives for inclusion and fairness, the lage community it serves, suchs as “Outsiders” white Bostonians) ---  the Young Men’s Literary Society exhibition mentions that “many white persons were present, not known as acting with the anti-slavery movement” --- seem to infringe upon the space sending mixed messages about inclusion.” This suggests that the African Meeting House had a cultural influence that transcended race Yet, there is something off-putting and appropriative about the idea of non-abolitionist whites enjoying the talents of their black neighbors, especially considering the historically problematic consumption of black culture in the United States. We must also consider William Lloyd Garrison references visiting the African Meeting House in the letter to his wife; Garrison is a white man in a predominantly black space is not inherently problematic (although Garrison’s dubious attitudes toward African Americans certainly affect a modern-day reading of the event). The mere fact that prominent white abolitionist would visit the African Meeting House and claim to be on familiar terms with other attendants (as Garrison does in his letter) underscores the institution’s influence and prominence. Garrison gives virtually no information about the goings-on of the meeting house, but Instead Garrison’s choice to focus on himself — the way he was greeted, how beloved he is — is patronizing, even insulting. At best, the letter serves as a reminder of just how vital it was that black Bostonians worked internally to further their community.

Garrison, William Lloyd. “Letter to Helen Benson Garrison.” 1836, Boston. Letter.

In this letter William Lloyd Garrison writes to his wife about a visit to “the African meeting-house, Belknap-street.” It  mentions that he and a few other white abolitionists at the meeting were“beheld gladly” by “our colored friends” and offered their happiness at hearing of his newborn son.

Emilio, Luis F. History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1891, Boston, Book, 12-14.

In an excerpt from a 19th-century book on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a former Captain documents a recruitment meeting held “at the Joy Street Church” which he claims was “most memorable” and “enthusiastic and largely attended.”

“New-England Freedom Association.” 12 December 1845, The Liberator, Newspaper, 199.

This document titled, “Committee of Investigation” mentions a meeting of the New-England Freedom Association held at “the Belknap-street Church,” and  includes information about the committee itself.

Caption. Stewart, Maria. Meditations from the Pen of Ms. Maria Stewart, 1879, Library of Congress, Boston, MA Text.

This document is a copy of Stewart’s 1879 publication which was presented to the First African Church and Society of Boston and includes copies of  letters from friends and acquaintances of Stewart, including Garrison, the original publisher.

Ties to Culture 

The African Meeting House’s emphasis on non-spiritual areas of life and its support of various public groups give the impression of an inclusive space, yet, parts of the assembled texts complicate this ideal. For example, the Young Men’s Literary Society was male-only, and thus a troubling (though, admittedly, historically common) example of gender segregation within a community that fought for racial equality. The introductory text of Morse’s speech mentions that “donations to the poor” were collected during the event. This raises questions of accessibility: if attendants were expected to donate to the poor, does that mean the impoverished were not anticipated or welcomed? And if so, is it acceptable for an institution to offer itself as a “resource” to a large portion of the community it claims to serve if those resources do not include the space itself? Finally, the highly regulated structure hinted by the textscan be interpreted as overly decorous or stifling. Nell emphasizes the limits of his capacity to represent the meeting house, framing it as a singular entity and not a body of diverse patrons.What we are left with, then, is a tension between unified strength and individual importance, a not-unusual dialectic within activism communities and organizational-identity construction.

“‘Boston Minors’ Exhibition.”  21 May 1831, The Liberator, Newspaper, 83.

This notice reports on an exhibition “at the meeting-house in Belknap-street” given by the Boston Minors’ Exhibition Society where group of “colored lads and misses" recited literature with accompanying music by "the Amateur Band."

Nell, William C. “Letter to Mrs. Chapman,” 1840, Boston, MA, letter.

In a letter to a Maria Weston Chapman, from William C. Nell, an early African American Historian, and representative of the African Meeting House requests that Chapman compose a song for a celebration at the church. 

An 1845 notice in The Liberator acknowledges and supports the Young Men’s Literary Society — comprised “of the most promising colored men in the city of Boston” — and reports on their “public exhibition in the Belknap-street meeting-house.”

“David Ruggles,” Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, Print.

Another notice in The Liberator (29 June 1841, p.119) Massachusetts Union Harmonic Society’s president announces that a “Concert of Sacred Music” will be held “in connection with a Soiree” in honor of David Ruggles, a prominent black abolitionist.


In the notice of the soiree for David Ruggles, the intersection of the spiritual (sacred music performed by a choir), political (the honoring of a prominent abolitionist for his help in eliminating “the galling yoke of Southern bondage”), and social (a space where community members will mingle and celebrate) is very clear. Beyond this, the documents imply that the meeting house was a resource for the greater black community (not just its parishioners) and invested in democratic ideals.

As these documents reveal, The African Meeting House was a diverse space that supported various causes. Though the texts above have been organized by dominant area of focus they also speak to the building’s multifaceted nature. In spite of unthinkable oppression and in the midst of converging and diverging interests, this community strove to better themselves and their circumstances — and built a place where they and their goals might meet.

“African American Meeting House,” National Park Service,  Boston, MA, Photograph.


“A Meeting of the Free Colored Citizens of Boston.” The Liberator. 26 March 1831. Boston MA. Newspaper, 51.

“African American Meeting House,” National Park Service,  Boston, MA, Photograph.

Ball, L.M. and M.V. Ball. “Evening School.” The Liberator. 14 December 1833. Boston MA. Newspaper, 199.

Bassett, Benj. P. “Concert and Soiree in honor of David Ruggles.”The Liberator. Boston, MA. 29 June 1841. Newspaper, 119.

“Belknap-Street Sabbath School.” The Liberator. Boston, MA. 16 July 1831. Newspaper, 115.

‘Boston Minors’ Exhibition.” The Liberator, Boston, MA. 21 May 1831. Newspaper, 83.

“David Ruggles.” Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.Print.

Garrison, William Lloyd. “Letter to Helen Benson Garrison.” Boston. 1836 Letter.

Emilio, Luis F. History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Boston, MA. 1891. Book, 12-14.

“Exterior view of the African Meeting House.” Digital Commonwealth, Boston MA. 1885. Photograph.

“First Independent Baptist Church,” 1860, John G. Waite Associates, Boston MA. Photograph.

Morse, Jedidiah,“A Discourse Delivered at the African Meeting House.” Boston MA. 1808. Book

Nell, William C. “Letter to Mrs. Chapman.” Boston, MA. 1840. Letter.

“New-England Freedom Association,” The Liberator. 12 December 1845. Newspaper, 199.

“Notice.” The Liberator. Boston, MA. 12 February 1831. Newspaper, 27.

Stewart, Maria. Meditations from the Pen of Ms. Maria Stewart. Library of Congress. 1879. Boston, MA.

"The African Baptist Church in Smith Court, Belknap Street. Birthplace of the New England Anti Slavery Society."Mass Historical Society, Boston MA. 1892 Photograph.

“Young Men’s Literary Society.” The Liberator. Boston, MA. 2 May 1845, Newspaper, 71.