At the time of the construction of the African Meeting House in 1806, black Americans faced discrimination in churches with predominantly white congregations, often relegated to balconies and denied a vote in church proceedings. In 1805, twenty-four people came together to create the African Baptist Church and began construction on what would become the African Meeting House, also known as the Belknap Church. Funds were raised by the community, with the aid of a large donation from Cato Gardner. Upon the church’s completion, the black historian William Cooper Nell wrote,
“Thank god! There are churches now in Boston where the color of the skin is no barrier to the fullest enjoyment of Christian fellowship; and such churches should be attended by colored persons, to the utter desertion of those where their rights as human beings are trampled in the dust.”
Shortly after, a school for African American children was moved into the first floor. In 1834, with money deeded from a wealthy white patron, Abiel Smith, a school building was constructed adjacent to the meetinghouse. By 1835, all black school children in the city of Boston were assigned there. Through the 1840s and until the desegregation of Boston’s educational institutions in 1855, the school was the site of protests for integration. Today, both the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School are the oldest of their kinds in the United States.
Around the turn of the century, the meetinghouse was sold, and until the early 1970s, it served as a synagogue. In 1972, it was purchased by Henry Hampton and Ruth Batson and converted the space into a museum, which was thereafter known as the Museum of African American History. Its mission statement is to “preserve, conserve, and interpret the contributions of people of African descent and those who have found common cause with them in the struggle for liberty, dignity, and justice for all Americans.” To that end, the museum has held exhibits on everything from the Civil War to Martin Luther King, Jr. to the role of black Americans in baseball. Today, the museum also owns the Abiel Smith School, as well as two sites on Nantucket.