African Meeting House

46 Joy St Boston

Boston Black Heritage Trail/African Meeting House
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.

Meet, admire, and enjoy

The African Meeting House on Beacon Hill was built in 1806 in what once was the heart of Boston's 19th century free black community. Today, it is a showcase of architecture and African American community organization in the formative years of the new republic, and a preeminent National Historic Landmark.

Notable events

The Meeting House was host to giants in the Abolitionist Movement who were responsible for monumental historical events that changed this nation, including: -The founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society by William Lloyd Garrison in 1832; - The 1833 farewell address of Maria Stewart, a black woman and the first American born woman to speak publicly before a gender-mixed audience; - An 1860 anti-slavery speech by Frederick Douglass given after being run out of Tremont Temple; - The 1863 recruitment to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

From balconies to pews and back again

The African Meeting House is the oldest black church edifice still standing in the United States. Before 1805, although black Bostonians could attend white churches, they generally faced discrimination. They were assigned seats only in the balconies and were not given voting privileges.

Thomas Paul, an African American preacher from New Hampshire, led worship meetings for blacks at Faneuil Hall. Mr. Paul, with twenty of his members, officially formed the First African Baptist Church on August 8, 1805. In the same year, land was purchased for a building in the West End. The African Meeting House, as it came to be commonly called, was completed the next year. Ironically, at the public dedication on December 6, 1806, the floor level pews were reserved for all those "benevolently disposed to the Africans," while the black members sat in the balcony of their new meeting house.

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Birth of a meeting house

The African Meeting House was constructed almost entirely with black labor. Funds for the project were raised in both the white and black communities. Cato Gardner, a native of Africa, was responsible for raising more than $1,500 toward the total $7,700 to complete the meeting house. A commemorative inscription above the front door reads: "Cato Gardner, first Promoter of this Building 1806." The facade of the African Meeting House is an adaptation of a design for a townhouse published by Boston architect Asher Benjamin. In addition to its religious and educational activities, the meeting house became a place for celebrations and political and anti-slavery meetings. On January 6, 1832, William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here. In the larger community this building was referred to as the Black Faneuil Hall. The African Meeting House was remodeled by the congregation in the 1850s.

The African Meeting House today

At the end of the 19th century, when the black community began to migrate from the West End to the South End and Roxbury, the building was sold to a Jewish congregation. It served as a synagogue until it was acquired by the Museum of African American History in 1972. The $9.5-million-dollar historic restoration, complete with new elevator and stair tower making it accessible for all, has returned the African Meeting House to its 1855 appearance, with elegantly curved pews and pulpit, period wainscoting and wall finishes, cast-iron posts and golden chandelier. This National Historic Landmark, now open to the public after being closed six years, welcomes visitors with Words Spoken at the Meeting House etched on granite panels towering in the new courtyard entryway.

{Cover photo from Swampyank via Wikimedia Commons}

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