Boston: John Coburn House
As we visit another home along Boston's Black Heritage Trail, we have the opportunity to see the impact that affluence can have on a worthy cause. The builder and first resident of the home at 2 Phillips Street was John P. Coburn, one of Boston's wealthiest African-American residents. A native of the city, he not only provided evidence that black men could be successful entrepreneurs, but also used his abundant resources to assist the cause of freedom.
John Coburn originally worked as a housewright - a term that included construction and repair of homes - but as a young man made a change to the clothing industry that employed many African-Americans. After his business outgrew his home, he expanded to run a pair of stores on land that is now home to Boston's City Hall, possibly assisted in this venture by his white father, also named John. By the time Coburn was in his young 30s he had become prosperous enough to hire a well-known architect by the name of Asher Benjamin to build a new home. In 1844, the property on the corner of Phillips and Irving Streets was completed, and by the 1850 census it held the third highest property value in all of Beacon Hill.
The entrepreneurial spirit that John Coburn exhibited did not stop with clothing, however, and before long he owned various real estate properties in Beacon Hill and partnered with his brother-in-law to establish a gaming house for wealthy residents. It was at this point that history shows his financial support in the effort to undermine slavery, as the Coburn Gaming House was not only a successful hot-spot for gambling, but also served as an Underground Railroad safehouse. He had a business relationship with noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, as he frequently purchased advertising space in The Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper which Garrison served as editor. Coburn would eventually serve as the treasurer for the New England Freedom Association, funding efforts to free slaves such as Shadrach Menkins...and then posting bail for those arrested (as he was) during the effort.
In 1854, John Coburn helped found the Massasoit Guards, a black militia group that sought to police his neighborhood and protect residents from kidnappers and slave catchers. The group, named for the Wampanoag leader who helped save the original Plymouth settlers from starvation, was never officially recognized by the state despite repeated petitions. John lived in the home until his death in 1873, and his adopted son Wendell inherited his businesses and properties. Today it remains a private residence under the care of the National Park Service.