Massachusetts was the first state to declare slavery illegal, in 1783 – partly as a result of black participation in the Revolutionary War – and a large community of free blacks and escaped slaves swiftly grew in the North End and on Beacon Hill. The Black Heritage Trail traces the neighbourhood’s key role in local and national black history and is the most important historical site in America devoted to pre-Civil War African American history and culture.
Pick up the trail at 46 Joy St, where the Abiel Smith School – the first public building in the country established for the purpose of educating black children – contains a Museum of African American History (Mon–Sat 10am–4pm; $5; 617 725 0022, afroammuseum.org). Adjacent, the African Meeting House was built in 1806 as the country’s first African American church; Frederick Douglass issued his call here for all blacks to take up arms in the Civil War. The trail continues around Beacon Hill, including a glimpse of the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House. Once a stop on the famous “Underground Railroad”, the home was owned by the Haydens who sheltered legions of runaway slaves from bounty hunters in pursuit.
The best way to experience the trail is by taking a ninety-minute National Park Service walking tour (late May to early Sept Mon–Sat 10am, noon & 2pm; mid-Sept to Nov 2pm only; free; 617 742 5415, nps.gov/boaf; Park St T).