Boston: Black Heritage Trail
The ranger explains that Holmes Alley was once one of countless hidden paths used to smuggle self-emancipated souls to freedom. As you walk down it, the story you spent the last hour listening to suddenly becomes very real. You find yourself running your hands along the alley walls, picking out the memories embedded there, or focusing on the weight of your own feet and marveling at the courage of those who walked here before you.
Fittingly, the alley spills out at the foot of the African Meeting House. Built in the shadow of the Golden Dome, it served as the minority rebuttal to the American status quo. In this intimate space, great orators and average men once shared the pulpit to plan actions, celebrate victories, and find the faith to keep fighting.
As the ranger reads from some of their speeches and sermons, it’s easy to imagine Frederick Douglass towering over the lectern. With his massive frame, his Twain-like wit, and his position of inscrutable moral superiority, he was easily one of the most intimidating Americans of his time.
The words he bellowed there shook the rafters and reverberated through the very core of the nation: “From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, ‘Now or never.’ Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.’ ‘Better even die free, than to live slaves.’”
The ideas born in the African Meeting House seeped into the parlor rooms of wealthy abolitionists on the other side of the hill. They were repeated by clergy and statesmen and echoed through the halls of the governor’s mansion. Eventually they fell from the lips of Lincoln himself as he announced the Emancipation Proclamation and called for the formation of the first black volunteer regiments.
At the African Meeting House, the men of the neighborhood turned out in droves to fill the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts. And as they marched in lockstep down Beacon Street (the moment enshrined in the Shaw Memorial at the beginning of the tour) to fight and die in Southern forests and on Southern shores, the battle African Americans had fought against slavery for so long finally ceased to be a defensive one.
The tour concludes next door at the Museum of African American History. Its simple displays are a much-needed catharsis. Slowly the drama and heartbreak drift away, you stop at the gift shop to buy the DVD of Glory, and you’re once again in the savvy, swanky center of metro Boston.
But as you go off to dine or shop, you’ll find that the story sticks with you. And as you walk by the Frog Pond (just down the street), you may take a moment to appreciate the rainbow hues of the children playing there and find one more reason to be proud of the city you love — the City of Firsts, the City of Freedom, the City of Boston.