The building that currently stands at 81 Joy Street was likely built in 1902. It replaced a three and a half story brick house, built in 1825, on what was then Belknap Street. The property is famous for a series of abolitionist tenants, the first of whom, David Walker, began living there in 1827.
Walker was born in the 1790s in North Carolina. Though his deceased father had been a slave, his mother was free, granting Walker freedom as well. He soon left the South, however, saying, “I cannot remain where I must hear slaves’ chains continually.” After extensive travel, he settled in Boston, opened a second hand clothing store, and married. During this period, he also worked for the New York newspaper Freedom’s Journal and quickly became one of Boston’s most prominent—though controversial—abolitionists. Likely while living in the house on Belknap, he penned his famous work, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829, known simply as the Appeal. Walker died very shortly after its publication.
Just before Walker’s death, however, the house was purchased by James Stewart, husband of the abolitionist and orator Maria Stewart. Both husband and wife were admirers of Walker, and it is believed that James used his shipping connections to smuggle copies of the Appeal into the South. After the deaths of both Walker and her husband, Maria felt herself called to the abolitionist cause, publishing several religious pamphlets that addressed slavery and discrimination. Though she had received little formal education, growing up as a servant in the house of a pastor, Stewart became the first female orator to address an audience of both men and women, advocating for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. She left Boston after a short career.
By 1938, the house on Belknap Street was occupied by the escaped slave Leonard Black, author of The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black, a Fugitive from Slavery, and the Reverend George H. Black. Leonard fled Maryland in 1837, seeking brothers who he believed to have settled in Boston. Arriving in the North, he was directed to a George Black in Portland, ME, though Leonard realized upon meeting him that they were not related. George nevertheless took him in, and Leonard moved with the family to Boston, eventually marrying one of George’s daughters. With his autobiography, Black hoped to reveal the horrors of slavery and bring about its abolition. After moving several times, Black died in Petersburg, Virginia in 1883.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.