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Boston: Black Heritage Trail

Boston: Black Heritage Trail
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The National Park ranger clears his throat. Across from the State House at the Shaw Memorial, under the frozen eyes of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a small semicircle of guests huddle close around him. He shouts to be heard over the trolleys and duck boats speeding by.

The story he tells is typical of Boston: one of statesmen and speeches, rebels and gunplay, revolution and war. But odds are you haven’t heard this one before. That’s because this ranger isn’t with Bunker Hill or the Constitution or any other place you visited on your sixth-grade field trip. Halfway between Faneuil Hall and the bar from Cheers, this is the Black Heritage Trail — the best tour in Boston you haven’t already been on.

The tour moves away from the crowded corner into a neighborhood you might not expect. At Joy Street, the ranger hangs a right and leads his group up the steep streets of Beacon Hill. Long before the joint forces of historic preservation and gentrification turned this neighborhood into one of the most luxurious in Boston, it was home to the largest free black population in North America and ground zero in young America’s struggle with slavery, oppression, and racism.

In Boston’s early days, the north slope of Beacon Hill reeked from the stink of rope factories and was difficult to build on. So while the Brahmins erected the State House and their mansions on the fresher side, African Americans were allowed to move in literally a stone’s throw away.

The neighborhood swelled after Massachusetts banned slavery in 1783 and residents discovered that their fortuitous location provided them with a unique soapbox. Conditions were ideal to turn this neighborhood into a political machine. Although racism still abounded, residents’ numbers bred security, and security led to organization. Prosperity sparked education, which led to acknowledgment, then outrage, then action. They raised money, opened schools, and built homes. Then, as in all great American stories, they started picking fights.

Leaning nonchalantly on private stoops, the ranger recounts the amazing battles waged by the buildings’ previous tenants. He points out the old Phillips School, which currently houses pricey condos. The now-renovated classrooms were among the first desegregated anywhere, 99 years before Brown v. Board of Education.

Around the corner and a couple of blocks from Senator John Kerry’s house, the ranger points out the home of another lawmaker,Lewis Hayden. Before serving in the state legislature, he’d been the most militant Underground Railroad conductor in New England. He kept his foyer packed with kegs of gunpowder so that when slavecatchers knocked on his door, he could answer with a lit torch in one hand, offering them a very simple choice.

The juxtaposition between the neighborhood’s current lavishness and its humble yet heroic past can be distracting, even a little humorous, at times. But the ranger’s measured words suck you in, and he sets the stage to hook you with what he’s saved for last.

He stops at a gap in an otherwise solid row of townhouses. It’s wide enough to walk, but you’d likely miss it if it weren’t pointed out to you. From the tour you’ve learned that Beacon Hill, befitting its name, was the light at the end of the tunnel for many traveling the Underground Railroad.

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