Throughout the nineteenth century, the North Slope of Beacon Hill was home to a politically vibrant and culturally rich African American community. This community played a particularly significant role in the ante-bellum radical abolition movement, which sought to end slavery and challenge racial segregation and discrimination in the Free North. The structure at 81 Joy Street, on what was then known as Belknap Street, was home to various working and middle class African-American families who attended both the African Baptist Church at the African Meeting House across the street, and Samuel Snowden’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on West Cedar Street.
In 1827, North Carolina native David Walker lived in this house with his wife, where he helped organize the Massachusetts General Colored Association, and from which he and other activists distributed the first African-American newspaper in the country, New York’s Freedom’s Journal(1827). As the first organization of its kind in the country, the Massachusetts General Colored Association helped support free African Americans across the North, and called for an immediate end to Southern Slavery. As an experienced tailor, Walker was connected to local mariners, sailors, and dockworkers with connections to the Atlantic World, including an independent mariner named James W. Stewart and his wife, Maria Stewart. When the Walkers moved from this house to another home on Bridge Street, the Stewarts moved in to the building. After James Stewart’s death in 1830, Maria Stewart remained in the house, despite losing her widow’s pension to local bureaucracy and laws that denied women their husband’s pensions. This injustice meant that even though James Stewart was a wealthy businessman and veteran of the War of 1812, Maria Stewart was denied both the pension and the inheritance that he left for her. Additionally, the experience, coupled with the Stewarts’ relationship with David Walker, helped to launch Maria Stewart’s public speaking career.
In 1829, Walker published An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, the most radical anti-slavery text of its time. The Appealdenounced the racialized nature of American slavery, particularly the anti-black writings of former President Thomas Jefferson, and called for African-Americans to use self-defense to protect themselves from “degradation” both as slaves and as free people. The pamphlet, which went through various printings and was eventually referenced by future African-American abolitionists, was so incendiary that many southern states banned its distribution. For African Americans, however, Walker’s Appealgalvanized communities across the country, particularly recently organized African Methodist Episcopal Congregations across New York, Pennsylvania, and New England. Although Walker died in 1830, the Appealwas republished during the 1840s by radical abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, and remains a foundational text within the African-American political canon.
Inspired by both Walker, and the rise of African-American women evangelists like Sojourner Truth, Jarena Lee, and others, Maria Stewart published two volumes after moving in to 81 Joy Street in 1830 – Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality(1831), and Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart(1832). Although these were not the first works published by an African-American woman, Stewart became the first woman to make a political speech before a racially integrated audience of men and women when she delivered a speech at the African Meeting House across the Street in Smith Court in 1832. She also spoke before anti-slavery gatherings at Boston’s Franklin Hall and at the African Masonic Lodge. During one of her speeches, in which she criticized African-American Masonic leaders, Stewart infuriated male critics and community leaders, and was eventually forced to end her public speaking career in Boston. By 1835, she had relocated to New York City, where she remained until moving to D.C. to work at the Freedman’s Hospital during the Civil War. Stewart’s writings, and her speeches, made her one of the most influential African-American orators of her time, and laid the foundation for nineteenth century African-American women’s political discourse.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.