In the 1820’s, David Walker was a leader in Boston’s Black community and the growing
abolitionist movement. What was life like for Black people living in the city at that time?
First, some background….
Slavery in Massachusetts
Boston is generally regarded as the cradle of abolitionism in the U.S. But it’s important to
remember that Massachusetts has its own history of slavery.
In 1641, under Governor John Winthrop, Massachusetts became the first colony in
North America to legalize slavery. Winthrop, famous for his vision of the colony as a
Puritan “city upon a hill”, was a slaveholder himself.
Slavery was made legal and normal in Massachusetts for the same reason it was
elsewhere: profit. White labor was in short supply, and slaves were a cheaper alternative.
The Puritan settlers, fundamentalist Protestants who considered themselves God’s
chosen people, had no moral problem with slavery. On the contrary, they believed it
was God’s will. Cotton Mather, the prominent religious leader and author, told Blacks
they were “the miserable children of Adam and Noah” and slavery was their ordained
Africans were not the only victims. During the early wars with Indigenous peoples in
New England, the colonists enslaved women and children from the Pequot and other
tribes. Captured male warriors and boys—considered too dangerous to keep in the
colony—were shipped to the West Indies to be exchanged for African slaves.
Most, if not all, of the limited 17th century New England slave trade was based in
Massachusetts. Boston merchants were the first in the region to attempt direct import
of slaves from West Africa. By 1676, they had initiated a slave trade to the island of
Madagascar. Two years later, records show, they were selling Black human beings to
colonists in Virginia.
In the early 1700’s, the number of slaves in New England grew as slaves were
increasingly used in expanding industries. Between 1708 and 1715, the Massachusetts
slave population jumped from 550 to 2,000. By mid-century that number had more than
doubled: a 1754 census listed nearly 4,500 slaves in the colony. In Boston, fully 10
percent of residents were Black.
The most prominent families in Massachusetts were also the most prominent slavers.
Cornelius Waldo, maternal great-grandfather of philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo
Emerson, was a leading slave merchant; a proud importer of “Choice Irish duck, fine
Florence wine, negro slaves and Irish butter.” Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall market was
donated to the city by wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil, whose fortune derived in part
from his uncle’s slave trade.
Racial Climate in Historic Boston
By 1770, talk of revolution was in the air among whites in Massachusetts – a desire to
gain freedom from England, their colonial “master”. Blacks argued that they, too, should
be free. Scores of slaves petitioned the governor and the courts to end slavery. They were
rejected. After the war of independence, slavery began slowly to die out. The process
was accelerated by three court cases, beginning with that of Elizabeth Freeman (c.1742 –
1829), a slave known as Mum Bett. She filed and won a “freedom suit”. The court ruled
that slavery was illegal under the new state constitution of 1780.
By 1790, the federal census recorded no slaves in the state. However, slavery was never
formally abolished in Massachusetts until Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution in 1865.
The racial climate in Boston during the first half of the 19th century was more tolerant
than in many other cities and states in the North at that time. But prejudice and
discrimination against Black people were the norm. This was reflected in economic and
social conditions: African Americans were segregated in a few highly concentrated areas
of the city. They held the worst jobs at the lowest pay. And their children were isolated in
poor quality schools.
The Black Community in Boston
In their personal lives, Blacks faced daily prejudice, humiliation, and hostility from
whites. They were compelled to stand on public buses and trains – if they were allowed
on board at all – or limited to “Negro only” sections; one Black leader recalled almost
freezing to death on a boat from New York to Boston because he was forced to stay
outside on the deck for the whole journey. Blacks were seated apart in white churches,
lecture halls, and places of entertainment. On the street they were often insulted and
sometimes physically assaulted. In fact, Blacks were not safe in certain parts of the city.
Roving bands of white youths regularly attacked Blacks on the Boston Common.
Joy Street on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, the heart of the
early 19th century Black community in Boston
Blacks mounted petitions and public demonstrations to challenge discrimination
and demand social equality. By 1840, they had forced some changes in the policies
of segregation. That year, Thomas Cole, a Black hairdresser, reported that railroad
accommodations between Boston and Newport, RI, were “tolerably good” for Blacks.
One of the most spectacular Black-sponsored protest drives was aimed at integrating
Boston’s public schools (see below).
The Black Community
In 1830, there were about 1,900 Black residents of Boston. Together, they made up just
over 3% of the city’s population. A third of them lived on the lower slopes of Beacon
Hill, in the shadow of the Massachusetts Statehouse. The fashionable houses at the top
of the hill, just a few blocks away, were occupied by prominent wealthy families. Many
of these families had become rich by manufacturing textiles in Massachusetts from
cotton grown and harvested by slaves in the South. They were opposed to the abolition of
slavery and the drive for racial equality.
There were two other important Black neighborhoods in the city. One was a short distance from Beacon Hill, immediately to the north. The other was located near the
wharves of the North End. It was there that David Walker ran his used clothing store.
Boston’s Black community was diverse. On the streets and in the shops, many different
dialects and accents could be heard. By 1850, over 65% of Black Bostonians had been
born in the North, although less than half in Massachusetts itself. About 17 per cent
were born in the South. This was in contrast to cities in the Midwest like Cincinnati and
Detroit, where fully half the Black population was Southern-born.
Life in Black Boston was hard. Families struggled to survive; many African American
babies died in their first year because of poverty, disease, and poor housing conditions.
It was common for families to take in boarders—a source of badly needed extra income.
This was also a social necessity because Blacks, including new arrivals looking for
work, had few options for places to live. They were banned from the city’s hotels
and from most white boardinghouses. Some found lodging in one of the few Black
boardinghouses; most rented rooms in Black homes.
Domestic work was the most common job for Blacks in Boston in the first half of
the 19th century. Indeed, Black women who cooked and cleaned in the homes of the
wealthy provided crucial income for their families. This was in addition to running
their own households and often doing another paid job on the side, like taking in
laundry. Most Black men earned very low pay as day laborers and seamen. Less than
a third were skilled workers or small shopkeepers. Blacks who were hairdressers,
barbers, blacksmiths, or used-clothing dealers – the most widespread trade and business
occupations for Blacks – enjoyed relatively high standing in the community. There were
very few Black professionals, such as doctors, ministers, teachers, and lawyers.
The first public school for free Blacks
Boston’s educational system was not officially segregated, but few Black children
attended school before 1800. Those who did had to endure discrimination, mistreatment,
and public ridicule from white students and teachers. In response, Blacks petitioned
for the establishment of a separate Black school. They were unsuccessful. They then
organized the private African School in 1798. By 1806, classes were being taught in the
basement of the newly built African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. Financial support
was provided by parents and the Black community and later also by a white merchant Abiel Smith
who made a gift to the city for Black education. In 1820 and 1831, the city established
two public Black primary schools. But the quality of the facilities, the curriculum, and
the teaching fell far short of the standards for white schools. The Black schools were
also poorly located for many families. To achieve equal educational opportunity for
all, Black community leaders organized a campaign to abolish city-supported Black
schools and integrate all Boston public schools. That was in 1846. Nine years later, after
several petitions to the school committee and a failed lawsuit, the campaigners achieved
their goal through a law passed by the Massachusetts state legislature. The victory was
celebrated with great joy in the Black community.
Churches and Community Life
The history of Black Americans is closely bound up with the history of the Black church.
Religion provided comfort and hope in the face of continuing oppression and harassment,
and the church stood as a haven for the Black community. It served as a training ground
for leaders, a place for educating young people, a source of contacts for jobs and aid, and
a center of entertainment and social life. It functioned also as a forum for sharing political
and social ideas, free from the pressures of white society.
The Black church arose in Boston in part because of the discrimination faced by Blacks
in white churches. They were restricted to seats in the balconies and denied voting
Some Blacks challenged these conditions. In the early 1800’s, blacksmith John Easton
and his family were forcibly ejected from the Orthodox Church after refusing to sit in the
Black section. They later purchased a pew in a Baptist church. Angry white members of
that church tried – and failed – to cancel the purchase. They then covered the pew with
tar so it couldn’t be used. The Eastons responded by sitting in the aisle. Repeated insults
finally drove the family from the church.
On August 8, 1805, the first Black church in Boston, the African Baptist Church, was
officially formed under the leadership of Thomas Paul, an African American preacher
from New Hampshire. Land was purchased on which to build the new church. And the
following year, The African Meeting House, as it came to be commonly called, was
completed. The building was constructed almost entirely with black labor, demonstrating
the growing sense of Black identity and pride. Funds for the project were raised in both
the Black and white communities.
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.
Located on Beacon Hill, in the heart of the Black community of that time, the African
Meeting House is the oldest Black church edifice still standing in the U.S. It has been
the scene of many famous events and speeches in the anti-slavery struggle. Today, as
part of the Museum of African American History, it is a showcase of black community
organization in the formative years of the new republic.
Before 1830, the Black church was the strongest and most widespread organization
among Blacks in the North. Black ministers were important community as well as
religious leaders. They filled a variety of roles, from offering the opening prayer at
protest meetings to leading the campaign to free an individual slave. They brought the
message of Christianity to the people, stressing its social and political concerns and its
affirmation of human freedom and justice.
Several Black churches in Boston were stops on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to the North. One of these was the African Methodist Episcopal Church on May
Street on Beacon Hill. Its minister, the Rev. Samuel Snowdon, was a tireless campaigner
against slavery and for efforts to improve the lives of Blacks. David Walker was a
member of Snowden’s congregation and a personal friend of the outspoken minister.
Organizations and Associations
In addition to the church, Black Bostonians established formal and informal groups to
provide for community services, to protest discrimination, and to lobby for social and
political change. They included:
The African Society
This mutual aid and charity organization, founded in 1796,
supported its members and their families with financial aid and help in finding
jobs. It also assisted widows, orphans, and the sick. The Society administered
wills, provided for burials, and, together with the church, attended to members’
spiritual needs. It reflected community values typical of 19th century American
society: moral living, temperance (not drinking alcohol), self-improvement, and
The African Masonic Lodge #459
Linked to the ancient order of freemasons,
this was one of several Black fraternal organizations that also did important
community service work. The founder was Prince Hall, a Methodist minister and
fiery crusader for Black equality. He had served with the colonial army in the
American revolutionary war. After the war, he applied to the American Masons
for permission to establish a black lodge – or independent branch – in Boston.
His request was denied. He therefore established the African Lodge in 1787 with
the backing of the English freemasons. It became an important part of Black
social and economic life and was later renamed the Prince Hall Lodge. Many
community leaders and activists, including David Walker, were members in the
The Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA):
Walker also belonged
to this association. While the MGCA promoted the interests of local Blacks,
its primary focus was national and frankly political: it encouraged African
Americans from across the country to unite in one body to abolish slavery and
promote their own intellectual and moral improvement. This was a radical new
development. It reflected the growing confidence of Blacks in the North in their
ability to achieve change. The MGCA’s most famous statement was made by
David Walker in a speech in 1828 calling for a nationally organized movement
to defeat slavery. Begun in 1826 or 1828, the organization merged with the New
England Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
Most known community activists in Black Boston before the Civil War were men.
(It’s worth noting that, at that time, Black fraternal organizations – like their white
counterparts – only accepted men as members.) However, between a quarter and a third
of social activists were women. They played leadership roles in community work –
particularly in fundraising through the church and independent bazaars and fairs. They
were active in the abolitionist movement; many Black women leaders belonged to the
Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. And they participated in rescuing fugitives from
attempts to return them to slavery in the South. In one successful rescue in 1836, a group
6 women rushed into the state Supreme Court, took Eliza Small and Polly Ann Bates,
fugitives from Baltimore, from their captors, and hustled them out of the building and to
a safe haven in the Black community.
Culture and Entertainment
The Black community may have been economically poor, but it was culturally rich. The
oral tradition in particular was strong. Young children often learned about the world and
their place in it through the stories told by the senior members of the community. Music,
dance, drama and other forms of artistic expression were an integral part of life. The
Black church often served as concert hall and practice center for musical performances.
Groups like the Adelphic Union Library Association, formed in 1838, offered encouraged
intellectual debate and hosted lectures.
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