National Parks, Black Heritage Trail

Maybe I am late to the party, but I am loving the National Parks Service app on my phone. I just started using it this winter. Last weekend, I used it to do a self-guided tour of the Black Heritage Trail through Beacon Hill.

When I went on vacation this winter, I met with a friend who lives for a few weeks, every winter, in a destination place. It’s a working vacation for her, so she was looking for friends to give her an excuse to do some touring. We happily acted as excuse. When we got home, I committed to seeking out more of Boston, sans a tourist to show around. That is how I found myself on the Black Heritage Trail last weekend.

Almost everyone I know who lives in metro Boston has walked some part of the Freedom Trail. No one I know claims to have done it all. A surprising number of white people (including me) have not taken an afternoon to do any of the Black Heritage Trail, except maybe stopping by the 54th Regiment monument. Now I have.

What I learned on the Black Heritage Trail

There were Black landowners in Beacon Hill before the Civil War. Two prominent abolitionist leaders were barbers. There were Black schools. Several free Blacks came here from Virginia. There was an active underground railroad in Boston. (I knew that from my real estate work, but I saw another site on this tour.) There were two attempts to free people imprisoned under the Fugitive Slave Act (one succeeded, one failed).

The history that I learned in school named white people as abolitionists. That’s B.S. The tour I listened to – from the National Park Service – makes it clear that Blacks were well established in Boston and worked to secure rights for their fellow Blacks throughout the country. That included the struggle for good schools, abolition of slavery, underground railroad, thwarting the fugitive slave act, and later, recruiting to fight in the Civil War. Whites were allies. Whites did not do all the heavy lifting. I have been reading about the big names of Black liberation, like Marcus Garvey, and Boston-linked Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. This walk, however, gave the context of the working folk who dedicated themselves to the movement, without publishing or public speaking.

Change of perspective:

Barber shops were the center of abolitionist activity — a communication hub for abolitionist work. It makes sense. I thought of them as the center of gossip. If I don’t blame myself, I would I blame the cartoon Curtis with Gunther, the barber. That cartoon played on the stereotype of the barber as unofficial mayor and made it silly. Rather, the barbershop was a natural meeting place where people could congregate and share information, and apparently, do convert communication in service to the underground railroad and community organizing against oppression.

It is just so easy for me to stay in my bubble and think that Black people were wholly disenfranchised and depended on white people to end slavery. It was good for me to walk the streets, see the real estate, and imagine the lives.

I recommend it. We spent about an hour and a half at it, and we still have the Museum to visit.


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