Abiel Smith School

46 Joy St Boston

Boston Black Heritage Trail/Abiel Smith School
Museum of African American History
Written By Museum of African American History

The Museum of African American History inspires all generations to embrace and interpret the authentic stories of New Englanders of African descent, and those who found common cause with them, in their quest for freedom and justice. Through its historic buildings, collections, and programs, the Museum expands cultural understanding and promotes dignity and respect for all.

The Abiel Smith School

Here in the first building in the nation built for the sole purpose of serving as a public school for black children. This historic site has been transformed into exhibit galleries and a museum store open to the public Monday through Saturday year around. The site is also available to be rented for meetings and special events.

Denial of education, and the workaround

In 1787, Prince Hall petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for African American access to the public school system but was denied. Eleven years later, after petitions by the black parents for separate schools were also denied, black parents organized a community school in the home of Primus Hall, Prince Hall's son, on the corner of West Cedar and Revere Streets on Beacon Hill.

A building for education

In 1808, the grammar school in the Hall home on the northeast corner of West Cedar and Revere Streets was moved to the first floor of the African Meeting House. Not until the 1820s did the city government establish two primary schools for black children. The Abiel Smith School was named after a white businessman who left an endowment of $2,000 to the city of Boston for the education of black children. Constructed in 1834 and dedicated in 1835, the Smith primary and grammar school replaced the Meeting House School to educate a great number of the black children of Boston.

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Separate and not equal

Between 1839 and 1855, Boston became embroiled in controversy over school desegregation. William C. Nell, once a young student of the Meeting House School, spearheaded a movement for "the day when color of skin would be no barrier to equal school rights." Nell's Equal School Association boycotted the Smith School. In 1848, Benjamin Roberts attempted to enroll his daughter Sarah in each of the five public schools that stood between their home and the Smith School. When Sarah was denied entrance to all of them, Roberts sued the city under an 1845 statute providing recovery of damages for any child unlawfully denied public school instruction. Abolitionists joined the case in 1849. Charles Sumner represented Sarah, and black attorney Robert Morris acted as co-counsel. The case was argued before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, one of the most influential state jurists in the country. On April 8, 1850, Shaw ruled that Sumner and Roberts had not proven that Smith School instruction was inferior to that of other public schools of Boston. Nell and his association then took their cause to the state house.

Segregation ends

A bill to end segregation in public schools failed in 1851, but a similar measure was passed by the state legislature in 1855 and signed by the governor in April. This bill outlawed segregation in Massachusetts public schools, although the only segregated system by that time was in Boston. By the fall of 1855, black children were finally permitted to attend the public schools closest to their homes. The Smith School closed. The building was subsequently used to store school furniture and, in 1887, became the headquarters for black Civil War veterans.

{Cover photo from Swampyank via Wikimedia Commons}

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