19th Century

As slavery ended across New England during the late eighteenth century, African descended people from across the new American Republic migrated to Boston and its surrounding towns. By the 1780s, these migrants, including Barbados native Prince Hall, and Revolutionary War veterans George Middleton and Louis Glapion, founded black institutions that sustained the community throughout the century. Prince Hall’s African Masonic Lodge, founded in Boston in 1787, eventually spread to free black communities across the country, while Middleton and Glapion’s Free African Society (est. 1796) supported some of the first black schools and mutual aid societies. In Boston, this black community was concentrated on the North Slope of Beacon Hill and in the West End, but black communities also existed in Cambridge, Salem, New Bedford, Lynn, and other towns. By 1850, when Boston was home to five black churches, a publicly funded school, and an internationally renowned abolitionist community, the African American community supported the radicalism of David Walker and Maria Stewart, as well as the resistance of William Apess, a Pequot man who collaborated with local black Bostonians prior to the infamous Mashpee Revolt in 1833. This community also expanded its cultural and political ties to Africans across the diaspora. Through Massachusetts’ commercial ties to the global maritime and whaling industries, black people from Cape Verde, the West Indies, and South America lived, worked, and intermarried with black people from New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Virginia. By the start of the Civil War, over 10% of Boston’s African Americans were foreign born, a proportion higher than New York and New Orleans. With the collapse of slavery in the South, and the rise of Radical Reconstruction (1863 - 1877), this community elected two representatives to the State Legislature - Edwin G. Walker and Charles L. Mitchell in 1866 - and produced some of the most successful black entrepreneurs of the post-Reconstruction Era. Chelsea native, Lewis Latimer, the son of escaped slaves who fled to Boston in the 1840s, became an inventor and businessman who co-patented an improved toilet system for railroad cars. Jan Ernst Matzeliger, a native of Suriname and a resident of Lynn, patented a shoe-lasting machine in 1883 that revolutionized the industry across the country. And Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a Boston native whose family descended from a community of African and Native people in Taunton, became the first black woman editor of a national newspaper when she founded Woman’s Era, the first national newspaper by and for black women, in 1894. By 1900, when W.E.B. Du Bois, himself a Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate, compiled statistics for his paper "The Black North: A Social Study" (1901), blacks across greater Boston had the highest literacy rates in the country, and one of the highest proportions of black professionals.