PATH IV: African-American Neighborhood and Community History of Beacon Hill and the West End in 1850 (Spring 2003)
Our focus in PATH IV was on African-Americans in Beacon Hill and the West End in antebellum Boston. The work of these PATH students eventually evolved to become the African-Americans in Antebellum Boston project, which was formally dedicated on February 9, 2004 at the Downtown Harvard Club in Boston overlooking the Beacon Hill neighborhood. The original class was in the spring of 2003.
While much is known about key figures in the abolitionist movement (such as William Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips) and the Underground Railroad, there has been considerably less written about individuals in the community of African-Americans living in what is now Beacon Hill and the West End. It was in these neighborhoods where escaped slaves from the south hid in the time of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Voluntary associations concerned with the abolition of slavery, (such as the Boston Vigilance Committee), were comprised of members from various social and economic strata in the community. Given the resources available at the Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts Historical Society, the State House Library Special Collections,
and the Boston African-American National Historic Site, it became evident that we could potentially compile information about every African-American living in these boundaries. This, combined with probate records and an extensive survey of articles in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, would be useful not only for the purposes of our own research, but could provide scholars with an invaluable and unique resource.
Our initial question was: what was the civic engagement of African-Americans living in antebellum Boston? What could The Liberator tell us of membership in voluntary associations? What sources were there for demographic information? We began by visiting the Boston Athenaeum and the Boston African-American National Historic Site to conduct our research. We also visited the State House Library Special Collections, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Massachusetts State Archives.
African-Americans in Antebellum Boston consists of a student developed database of around 1900 Beacon Hill/West End African-Americans from 1848-1855, using city directories, the 1850 federal census, and Boston city tax records. We then linked the names of many of these citizens with almost 500 sources from The Liberator which we have catalogued and digitized. We have also digitized many useful documents from the Athenaeum, Massachusetts Historical Society, State House Special Collections and Massachusetts State Archives. Included in the web project are a sampling of research papers that students have written using these resources.
Students worked on weekends and through the summer on their research. We hope that their findings will serve as building blocks for additional attention to an under-researched topic.
This project was a collaboration in which the Athenaeum allowed students to do guided research on Saturdays throughout the spring of 2003 under the watchful eye of Stephen
The Massachusetts Historical Society was also extremely helpful. Originally the project was a collaborative effort between PATH, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Bernadette Williams and the Boston African American National Historic Site. The tragic loss of Bernadette’s son Waymond Pearson kept her from seeing the project come to fruition. We have dedicated the project his memory.
This project is designed to be a catalyst for more research on the topic. Hopefully we have made this goal somewhat more attainable in that researchers will have access to sources not easily found.
For more on the development of this project, please refer to the project webpage:
African-Americans in Antebellum Boston