September 18, 2019

Beacon Hill, 1800 – 1855

Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.

-Early pioneer in American public education Horace Mann

Many Americans believe that education can promote equality, inspire citizenship, and impart a lasting good for society. One one hand, Boston has always exemplified this tradition: Puritan settlers established Boston Latin School in 1635, and established Harvard College in 1636. However if education is a “great equalizer,” all students need to be able to access quality education. In the early 1800s, attendance to “Grammar” and “Writing” schools in Boston was not required. Poor families generally could not afford the private education required to prepare students for acceptance into Boston’s public schools. Furthermore, if a family was in dire need, children were sent off to work rather than attend school. Access to education was difficult for all poorer families, but families that were of color were at an even greater disadvantage.

Massachusetts gradually abolished slavery in the 1780s, ending a 150 year institution that enslaved thousands of people who were of African and American Indian descent. Looking for work, housing, and stability, increasing numbers of families of color settled in Boston in the 1790s and early 1800s. Though no law or policy in Boston explicitly barred children of color from attending school, the economic disadvantages of slavery’s legacy and lingering racial prejudices held by white Bostonians made attendance very difficult. Early African American leaders such as Primus Hall responded by starting their own “African School” in Boston. From 1798 through 1808, the “African School” operated from Primus Hall’s own home. It relied on donations from wealthy white benefactors and subscriptions paid by the families who sent their children. In 1808, the school moved to the basement of the African Meeting House. It was not until 1812, by continued activism and petitioning, that the African School finally received public funds for education.

Most men and women of color in Boston worked unskilled and low paying service jobs. Subscriptions were difficult to pay when families made meager wages. Wealthy white benefactors were important to the African School’s survival. The most prominent of these benefactors was Abiel Smith. Abiel Smith assisted in paying to move the African School to the African Meeting House. He also helped pay for the school’s furnishings and the salary of the school’s teacher. When Smith died in 1815, he left in his will stocks and bonds for “the maintenance & support of a school or schools…for the instruction of people of color…”

By 1818, the funds from Abiel Smith’s estate helped repair and improve the schoolroom in the African Meeting House. The fund was used to purchase textbooks, pay salaries for teachers and assistants, supply firewood for heat, and even help rent a schoolroom for children living across town in the North End neighborhood.

In 1820 a “Primary School” also opened in a neighboring room under the African Meeting House. Primary schools focused on educating 4 to 7 year olds. These schools were not publicly available to any family in Boston until 1818. A city-wide campaign successfully pushed for their establishment so that children could receive early education. For reasons that appear to be related to funding, it took two years for a “colored” primary school to open underneath the African Meeting House.

For the next 14 years this arrangement continued. Like the early years, most of the organizing, petitioning, and activism concerning education for children of color came from the African American community itself, with the help of a few wealthy white supporters. While the City of Boston paid salaries of the teacher, it appears that any capital improvements and supplies came from either the community itself, or the proceeds of Abiel Smith’s fund for the school.

Yet, after more than ten years underneath the African Meeting House, deficiencies in the school became painfully apparent. The space under the African Meeting House was “low and confined.” It could only be imagined how cramped the school was as it attempted to house two schools (primary and grammar) with children aging from 4 years old through to teenagers. It was “hot and stifled in the summer and cold in the winter…” a report about the school in 1833 complained. “But this is not the only or greatest objection to it,” the report continued:

The obvious contrast between the accommodations of the coloured, and other children, both as to convenience and healthfulness seems to your committee to be the principal cause of this school being so thinly attended. The committee cannot but regard this distinction both as invidious and unjust.

At last, in 1834 the city purchased land next to the African Meeting House and began construction of a new schoolhouse. On March 3, 1835, the Abiel Smith School officially opened at the corner of today’s Joy Street and Smith Court. A ceremony marked the occasion as students moved from the basement of the African Meeting House to the new schoolhouse nextdoor.

The opening of the Smith School marked a shift in the education of Boston’s children of color. The City, for the first time, made a large investment in the education of these children. Upper floors housed the grammar and writing halls, while the lower level housed the primary school for younger children. Students used slate boards and slate pencils to practice spelling and arithmetic. The slate and pencils pictured here were uncovered in an archaeological dig behind the Abiel Smith School, near the privies shared with the African Meeting House.

When students advanced from practicing on slates, they eventually started writing and bookkeeping exercises with ink pens and paper. These lead inkwell casings and glass inserts held the ink students used. The inkwells sat in small holes cut into the students’ desks.

Though the construction of the Smith School publicly recognized the educational needs of children of color, it also set–in brick and mortar–public school segregation. Boston’s population grew rapidly in the 1830s and 40s. Boston’s African American population grew too. The Smith School quickly overcrowded and strained to meet the needs of its students. Just three years after the Smith School opened, Primus Hall and others unsuccessfully petitioned to add an additional story to the school. By 1845, with the school building just ten years old, a report said the school was “not only in an unsatisfactory, but in a deplorable condition…” Many parents and community leaders had enough. 

Led by a graduate of the Smith School named William Cooper Nell, boycotts, petition campaigns, and lawsuits argued that segregated schools harmed children of color. Children who lived far from Beacon Hill and Smith Court had to walk past a number of closer white schools so they could attend the segregated Smith School. The school itself lacked the facilities needed to be a successful school. Petitions in 1844, 1845, and 1846 to school committees in Boston demanded desegregation. The petitions were denied. The 1846 petition was submitted by a man named Benjamin Roberts for his daughter Sarah. The sub-committee responding to his petition overwhelmingly denied it and published their report. The minority that thought the petition should have been adopted also published. The reasoning and arguments opened a deep divide.

Related Assets

About Smith Court Stories

This online digital classroom is a collaborative project of the Museum of African American History and Boston African American National Historic Site – a unit of the National Parks of Boston.

Smith Court Stories relates a digitally curated collection of archival documents and archaeological artifacts to lived experiences of African Americans in 19th century Boston. Two historic structures in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood formed the center of this community: The African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School. The 1806  African Meeting House is the oldest extant black church in the United States of America, and the neighboring 1835 Abiel Smith School is one of the first public school buildings for African American children in the country. Both of these buildings, situated on Smith Court, served as the epicenter for a free black community that led the nation in the fight against slavery and injustice. Smith Court stories will help foster a deeper understanding of the African American experience in 19th century Boston and connect the past with students’ lived experiences.