For nearly a century the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill was what Robert Hayden calls the, “political, social, educational, and religious epicenter” of the black community in Boston. It is the oldest black church that still stands to this day in the United States. Built because blacks in the Boston area had to sit in the back of churches, could not vote on matters relating to church and could only participate in baptisms, funerals, and weddings, African-Americans decided that the only way they could become equal in a church was to form their own.
Cato Gardner, a former slave, was one of the founders of the African Meeting House. Gardner collected money to build this all-black church from both black and whites in the Boston and other parts of Massachusetts. The rest of the necessary money was collected after the church was built from its congregation.
The African Meeting House served three purposes: school, church, and meetinghouse. In the basement was a school for black children. A large room upstairs served as a place of worship as well as a room in which various organizations met. There was also an apartment for the pastor of the church.
Although the church was dedicated on December 6, 1806, the congregation could not raise enough money to finish the schoolroom in time so it was opened at a later date. The first minister of the church was Thomas Paul of New Hampshire, who served from 1806-1829.
The church held meetings that ranged from Real Estate sales , to “Great Public Meetings of the Colored Citizens of Boston” , and concerts. The Meeting House was a central gathering place for the African-Americans of Boston. All who attended meetings there were either blacks or whites that supported the black cause. The majority of the meetings that took place in the Meeting House were focused abolishing slavery and prejudicial practices in Boston. “Freedom Associations” who helped run away slaves reach freedom, and literary societies, who helped improve the education of the black population of Boston, met frequently. The association that sponsored the run-away slaves was the New England Freedom Association, which was founded a the African Meeting House by Henry Weeden.
During the years that the African Meeting house served as a church it went through many name changes. It was called “The First African Baptist Church”, “Abolition Church”, “The African Society”, “The First Independent Baptist Church”, “Black Faneuil Hall”, “Belknap Street Church” and later “Joy Street Church” (after Belknap Street became Joy Street). The second minister was Washington Christian who served just one year. Samuel Gooch started his tenure in 1832 and served two years. John Given then took over the pastoral duties until 1835 when Armstrong Archer arrived only to leave the church a year later. George Black took over after Archer left and served for three years until 1841 followed by J.T. Raymond, who remained until 1843. At that time the size of the congregation had risen to 158 members. 
In 1840, 46 church members left the congregation at the African Meeting House to form a new church in Roxbury on Warren Street. It was named the Twelfth Baptist Church, but it was also referred to as the second African Meeting House. Despite the loss of some of its members, the church located in the African Meeting House managed to survive and continued to thrive. During the Civil War, the African Meeting House served as a recruitment center for blacks who wished to serve in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment consisted of all blacks with the exception of a commanding officer who was white.
By the late 1890’s the church membership rose to nearly 400 and had outgrown the church located in the African Meeting House. Around this time many members of the community started to move to Lower Roxbury, where there was a growing black population.
The African Meeting house sponsored musical events such as a concert called the “Children of Jerusalem”, and holding a concert featuring the St. Paul’s church choir . The Meeting House also held a soiree in honor of David Ruggles, who was the editor of the Mirror of Liberty while also fighting for the end of slavery in the South. There were also other social gatherings based upon music such as the Evening of the first of August . These musical events show how the African Meeting House served more than just a religious purpose.
Literary Societies met frequently during the time leading up to the Civil War. The Young Men’s Literary Society met many times at the Meeting House, which also held a colloquy[sic] in the church. An evening school in the basement of the Meeting House taught spelling, math and writing skills. Within the church the Adelphic Union , held meetings as well as lectures. The mission of this literary society to better the blacks of Boston. William C. Nell formed the society.
Nell, born in Boston in 1816, attended the school in the basement of the African Meeting House. While attending school he won the prestigious Franklin medal for his academic achievements. However, he could not attend the awards dinner because he was black, and the group that awarded him that medal did not realize this fact. He attended the dinner, but as a busboy. After graduating from school, Nell became a leading abolitionist while also writing articles for The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper. In 1850 Nell founded the Equal Schools Rights Committee in the Meeting House, which was aimed at ending the segregation of schools. Five years later, the Smith School, an all Black school adjacent to the African Meeting house, was closed due to legislation that ended segregated schools.
The Abiel Smith School was an all-black school located directly next to the African Meeting House. Abiel Smith was a white businessman who donated money in order to build a school for black children in Boston. There was a need for a black school because until 1855, Boston schools were segregated, and the only black school in the area was the lone schoolroom in the basement of the African Meeting House. The Smith school was built in 1835. It also served multiple purposes like the African Meeting House such as being the location of meetings for “Colored Citizens” which would discuss the proceedings of larger meetings such as the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York . The Smith School also held meetings for the Adelphic Union, which held lectures on topics such as emigration to England. Not all blacks in Boston wanted to desegregate the schools of Boston. Some people felt that all “black interests were together” and the “colored schools are institutions, when properly conducted, of great advantage to the colored people.” Regardless of how certain members of the Black society felt, the majority were for desegregating Boston schools. In 1855 they were granted their wish.
The African Meeting House was sold in 1898 to a Jewish congregation and in 1904 became a Jewish Synagogue. The congregation Libawitz was located in the African Meeting house from 1898 to 1972. During this time the balcony was used for the women of the church who attended the temple. The Jewish congregation made little changes to the interior of the Meeting House. In 1972, Sue Bailey Thurman and her husband Howard purchased the Meeting House from the people of the temple. Later it became part of the Black Heritage Trail and a National Historic Site. 
The African Meeting House served many purposes for the black population of Boston. It was as a religious center as well as a school and a hall for meetings and lectures. The Meeting House created an environment in which blacks felt comfortable supporting their causes. From the time the Meeting House opened up until today it has given the black population of Boston joy in knowing that their culture was and is recognized.
 Roy E. Finklenbine, Churches in Boston (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993) 175.
 Hayden, Robert C. The African Meeting House in Boston: A Celebration of History (Boston: Companion Press Book, 1987) 38.