African American History


The first Africans arrived in Boston in February of 1638, eight years after the city was founded. They were brought by their enslavers, purchased in Providence Isle, a Puritan colony off the coast of Central America. By the early 18th century there were more than 400 enslaved African Americans in Boston and the beginnings of a free black community in the North End. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Boston’s free African American community led the nation in the movement to end slavery and to achieve equal rights. These patriots, including William C. Nell, William Monroe Trotter, David Walker and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin established businesses, founded newspapers, and inspired generations. You can take part in their remarkable stories by visiting Boston’s Black Heritage Trail®, as well as these sites in the Boston Literary District.

1
The Colored American Magazine
5 Park Square

(Address no longer exists but would be just where the The Trolley Shop and Leather World are situated.) First monthly publication targeting an exclusively African American readership.

2
Newspaper Row
328 Washington Street

Once had the offices of the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Boston Advertiser, the Boston Post, the Boston Journal, the Boston Traveler, and the Associated Press. Look for the plaque at 1 Devonshire Place between 266 Washington Street and Devonshire Street.

3
Old South Meeting House
310 Washington Street

Members of Old South’s congregation included Samuel Adams and the young Benjamin Franklin and his family. Phillis Wheatley joined the church in 1771. Although she was an African-born slave, she became one of the best-known poets in pre-nineteenth century America.

4
Maria Stewart and David Walker
81 Joy Street

Stewart was a black abolitionist whose speeches were the first publicly delivered talks by an American woman on politics and women’s rights. Walker, in 1829, published “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” which decried slavery and racial hatred.

7
Susan Paul Residence
36 West Cedar Street

Paul (1809–1841) was an African-American abolitionist, a primary school teacher and member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1835 year she wrote the first biography of an African American published in the United States: Memoir of James Jackson.

8
The Atlantic Monthly Offices
8 Arlington Street

Created as a literary and cultural commentary magazine in 1857, The Atlantic Monthly resided at this address until it moved to Washington DC in 2006. The periodical was named Magazine of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2016.

Additional points of interest in greater Boston:

William Stanley Braithwaite (1878 – 1962): Braithwaite was born in Boston and was an African-American literary critic for the Boston Transcript.  He lived on Phillips Street in Boston’s Beacon Hill, but the address is unknown and the family appears to have lived there only briefly before they moved to Newport, RI.  

Eugene Gordon (1891 – 1972): Gordon was born in Florida and moved to Boston during the 1910s.  He fought in World War One and became a writer for the Boston Post in 1919.  In 1928, he founded The Saturday Evening Quill, a magazine of New Negro poetry, short stories, and articles by African-American writers in greater Boston, including Dorothy West and Helene Johnson, cousins who eventually joined the younger generation of Harlem Renaissance writers.  The Quill was not published in Boston but in Cambridge.

Helene Johnson / Dorothy West: The women were cousins who grew up in Boston and became famous writers during the Harlem Renaissance.  At her death in 1998, West was the last surviving writer of that Era, whose short stories were republished while she was living at her family home on Martha’s Vineyard.  West and her cousins lived at 478 Brookline Avenue in Brookline.

Maude Cuney Hare: Maude Cuney Hare (1874 – 1936): Hare’s Negro Musicians and Their Music (1936) is a considered a foundational text of African-American musicology.  Hare graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in the 1890s. She lived most of her life in Boston. Her house is located at 43 Sheridan Street in Roxbury.

Pauline Hopkins (1859 – 1930): Hopkins was the most prolific African American woman writer of her era, and she published the Colored American in Boston from 1900 to 1904.  Since the Colored American’s publishing office is located on the Literary Trail already, and since Hopkins lived in Cambridge, not Boston proper, she is included in the write-up for the Colored American Magazine.

Elijah W. Smith / William Wells Brown: Smith was a famous poet and cornetist, but he did not live in Boston; he lived in Cambridge and in Chelsea.  Brown is included in the write-up for William C. Nell’s house on Smith Court since Brown lived with Nell during the 1870s before he moved to Chelsea.