Boston: Abiel Smith School

This will be the final post about Boston for a little while.  I'm putting the historic city on hiatus for a period of time to focus on something new going on in the Geographist household - as school begins for all four girls in my home (my wife will be teaching virtually, the oldest two kids are attending in person, and the youngest is homeschooling) I start a new chapter as the stay-at-home dad because my employer's local office has not reopened.  Yes, that makes me a homeschool dad!  And while Boston may have tons of history to learn, it seems important to acknowledge what a unique moment in history we're experiencing right now, and so I will attempt to document how we do things in 2020 during the coming months.

But until then, let's focus on the next stop along the Black Heritage Trail...and that is the Abiel Smith School.


We've already seen a mention of the Abiel Smith School in previous posts, as it was an important location for the education of the African American community on the North Slope of Beacon Hill.  One of the primary advocates for equal education opportunities in Boston was Prince Hall, the founder of the all-black Freemason branch which bears his name, and in the late 1700s he joined other residents in petitioning the state of Massachusetts that it was unfair to pay taxes for education if only white children were able to attend.  His son, Primus Hall, hosted a school for African American children in his home for ten years until it was moved into the first floor of the African Meeting House in 1808.  In 1812, this school was finally recognized by the Boston School Committee, which began providing partial funding.  Conditions remained poor and education opportunities were still clearly unequal when a white businessman decided to leave the city of Boston approximately $4,000 in his will for an endowment that would exclusively be used to educate black children.  At first, the Boston School Committee merely provided interest from the investment of this money to help fund the school, but in 1834 they used it to build the school building that carries that philanthropist's name.

And so the Abiel Smith School stands as the very first building ever constructed in the United States with the singular purpose to educate black children.  That fact alone would be historically significant enough to ensure its preservation, but the school's story did not end there.  The reason the story did not end is because the journey towards equal opportunity had also not been completed.  When the school opened in 1835, every black child in Boston was assigned to it.  The brand new space was instantly too small.  For a decade and a half the school pressed on until 1849 when the issue of segregated schools went to court thanks to the efforts of Benjamin Roberts on behalf of his daughter Sarah, which we discussed already when learning about the Phillips School.  When the state ruled in favor of segregation, however, a large number of parents began pulling their children out of the Abiel Smith School in protest.  It wouldn't be until 1855 that Massachusetts finally ordered integration, which would result in the closure of the city's lone black-only school.

Since no longer being used as a school, the building has served several purposes.  For a period of time it was used for storage for school furniture, and in 1887 it served as both home and headquarters for black Civil War veterans.  Today it is a National Historic Landmark and serves as the home to the Museum of African American History, including exhibits, a museum, a store, and special event space.

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