Boston: Smith Court Residences

This week, as we approach the end of the Black Heritage Trail in Boston, we come to a group of houses.  Unlike some of the previous homes that we have studied, and that have merited enough attention to be placed under the care of the National Park Service, these locations are much less a story of person and much more a study of place and time.  The various developments that occupy Smith Court, in fact, reflect the changes that occurred in Boston through three centuries of growth and migration within the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Five historic homes stand along the small, dead-end road that cuts off of Joy St. and while they all represent life for residents in this part of town during the 19th century, they nevertheless vary quite a bit by age.  In fact, walking the street that is less than 150' long will take you through nearly that many years as the oldest surviving home was built in the late 18th century, and the apartments on the corner weren't completed until well into the 20th century.  The oldest home, sitting at 3 Smith Court, was constructed by a pair of bricklayers in 1798 shortly after the completion of the nearby Massachusetts State House.  A typical alleyway double house (similar to a duplex, it has a communal wall in the center but two separate living areas on either side), it is especially thin with a boarded front and a windowless brick wall in the rear.  It wasn't until 1830 that either side of the home saw a black tenant, but by 1839 the home's longest-tenured resident had settled in.  James Scott was an African-American clothier who lived here for nearly 50 years, eventually owning the property from 1865 until his death in 1888.  Like others we've already met from that profession he also participated in the Underground Railroad and was arrested as part of the effort to free Shadrach Menkins from custody.  From 1850-1857, the tenant who lived next to Scott was William C. Nell, himself an abolitionist and America's first published black historian.

The clapboard construction of 5 Smith Court came roughly a decade later.  The home changed hands between both black and white owners several times until a man named George Washington purchased it in 1849.  A former resident of the house next door, Washington and his family of 10 lived upstairs and rented out the first floor to both black and white tenants.  It remained in his family for 68 years.  The home at 7 Smith Court at the end of the small road was built as an income property for a local lawyer in the early 19th century.  As early as 1822, white owner Elihu Bates began renting almost exclusively to black tenants, a practice which was followed by Joseph E. Scarlett, a black man who purchased the home in 1859.  Scarlett would eventually also own over a dozen other properties in the area including those at 2, 10, and 7A Smith Court, the last of which is an older structure that existed along the exceptionally narrow Holmes Alley (just 8' wide) just behind the 7 Smith Court residence.  Completed just before the start of the 19th century, this three-story home is the only remaining example of the skinny buildings that lined the alley where only backyards (and one basketball court) exist today. 

The buildings at 2 and 4 Smith Court stand apart from the previous homes.  Brick structures standing three and four stories, respectively, they were not erected until later in the 19th century.  At this time, the demographics of Beacon Hill had begun to change.  The African-American community started to leave for neighborhoods farther south, and they were replaced by an influx of European immigrants.  Cheap housing was in high demand in such densely populated parts of town, and in a small city like Boston the answer was often to build up rather than out.  Many wooden homes were torn down and replaced with taller brick structures like these, and then later by the modern condos and apartments that have sprung up ever since.  The preservation of Smith Court remains important as it presents one of the most informative remaining glimpses into the steady march of history for Boston's residents and neighborhoods.


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