Boston, like many ports in antebellum America, was full of maritime activity. As such, seaman needed places to stay ashore. The most common lodging for seaman was in the boardinghouse.
In antebellum Boston the free black population was mostly concentrated in the North End and Beacon Hill neighborhoods. Job opportunities for free urban blacks at this time were mostly restricted to house servants and laborers. They could also serve aboard sailing vessels, primarily as stewards and cooks, although some had other jobs. For African-Americans in antebellum America, seafaring jobs offered a great deal of freedom compared to jobs on land.
Like his white counterparts, the African-American seaman rarely had time to spend with his family. In nineteenth century society only about five percent of seaman both black and white lived at home for at least four months of the year.  Most seaman did, however, take responsibility for their families at home. In many cases the boardinghouse essentially served as home.
The process of finding a boardinghouse was simple for seamen. They literally could step off the sailing vessel and find lodging. Boardinghouse keepers hired runners to corral sailors right from the docks. Typically sailors had plenty of money, and drank nothing stronger than coffee or bad ale. The runners would entice the men with offers of good food, plenty of good drink, and some even offered “willing women”. Every seaport had “low houses” which black sailors resorted to. However, unlike most ports in the antebellum world, Boston’s boarding houses were, for the most part, respectable compared to that of New York or London.
Most of Boston’s black boardinghouses were in neighborhoods that had significant black populations, such as Beacon Hill on Sun Court, Washington Street, Wilson Lane, and Southac Street, and in the North End on Ann Street.
Genteel boardinghouse keepers advertised through publications that African-American seaman might read, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper. Boardinghouse keepers such as Charles A. Batiste ran advertisements in Garrison’s paper. Some advertisements offered black seamen the option of lodging in a “temperance boarding house”, in which alcohol could not be purchased or consumed. The temperance movement found a voice in publications of the antebellum abolitionist. Garrison and his followers believed that alcohol was yet another form of slavery.
Who were the boardinghouse keepers of antebellum Boston? Research concludes that most boardinghouse keepers lived at their boardinghouses. This was probably due to common sense on the keeper’s part for keeping everyone in line and being of service to all who needed it. All of the boardinghouse keepers in 1850 Beacon Hill and the West End were literate. Not all were Massachusetts native. John Harris, aged 34 years, who was the boardinghouse keeper at 153 Ann Street, was black, and was born in New York. A black woman named Susan Burroughs was listed as the boardinghouse keeper at 41 Southac in the 1850 census. Curiously, even though she is listed as married, her husband is not listed as living at that address. Burroughs is the only female in charge of a boardinghouse in the data from the Beacon Hill and West End neighborhoods.
Even though Boston was in a sense the Mecca of the abolitionist society, colored seaman were not considered first-class citizens. As in most of antebellum America, there was still evidence of racial inequality. There were racially-based incidents occurred in and around the community of colored seamen in boardinghouses.
On August 30, 1843, what later was described as a race riot occurred on Ann Street in the North End , at a genteel boardinghouse run by Henry Foreman. Two white men, one from Ohio and the other from Cutter, Hamilton, were walking down the sidewalk, when they came to 157 Ann Street. The sidewalk was crowded with African-American boarders. The white men “very politely asked the colored men if they intended to block the sidewalk and to force the white men to walk into the street.” At that point one of the white men made a “powerful movement” toward the group. One of the African-American men grasped the white man’s shirt and, in an instant, the white man fell to the ground. He was then dragged into the boardinghouse. A group of white sailors came to the scene when they heard shouting. They were heard yelling “down with the Negroes.” A riot ensued, involving over 1,000 men, one who died. The two original white men, both boatswain mates, had charges filed against them for disturbing the peace and causing a riot. The charges were later dropped  .
This is not to say that boarding houses were solely breeding grounds for race riots or social injustice. Boardinghouses offered food, drink, and shelter much more homely that that of the sailing vessels of the antebellum world.
African-American seamen also found shelter and support through voluntary associations such as the Boston Port and Seaman’s Aid Society. This association, founded by Father Edward Thompson in 1829, provided religious and educational services, and helped seamen who were out of work find job placement on different vessels. Another voluntary association that provided aid and support was the Seaman’s Friend Society, founded by Rev. Lyman Beecher, which provided religious and financial support for seamen.
Boston was one of America’s largest ports in the antebellum period. The boardinghouses of the time attracted seamen for all over the world. Many boardinghouses adhered to the values of abolitionist Boston by promoting themselves on the docks and in the pages of black newspapers of the day.