The Museum of African American History is dedicated to preserving, conserving and accurately interpreting the contributions of African Americans in New England from the colonial period through the 19th century.



Image: Experience the newly restored African Meeting House - click on image to learn more about this historic restoration.

Image: Abiel Smith School

Site 13
Abiel Smith School
Museum of African American History
46 Joy Street, Beacon Hill

Image: Smith School LogoThis historic space commemorates the history of African Americans from slavery through the abolitionist movement, with a focus on the quest for educational equality.

Here in the first building in the nation built for the sole purpose of serving as a public school for black children. This historic site has been transformed into
exhibit galleries and a museum store open to the public Monday through Saturday year around. The site is also available to be rented for meetings and special events.

In 1787, Prince Hall petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for African American access to the public school system but was denied. Eleven years later, after petitions by the black parents for separate schools were also denied, black parents organized a community school in the home of Primus Hall, Prince Hall's son, on the corner of West Cedar and Revere Streets on Beacon Hill.

In 1808, the grammar school in the Hall home on the northeast corner of West Cedar and Revere Streets was moved to the first floor of the African Meeting House. Not until the 1820s did the city government establish two primary schools for black children.

The Abiel Smith School was named after a white businessman who left an endowment of $2,000 to the city of Boston for the education of black children. Constructed in 1834 and dedicated in 1835, the Smith primary and grammar school replaced the Meeting House School to educate a great number of the black children of Boston.

Between 1839 and 1855, Boston became embroiled in controversy over school desegregation. William C. Nell, once a young student of the Meeting House School, spearheaded a movement for "the day when color of skin would be no barrier to equal school rights." Nell's Equal School Association boycotted the Smith School.

In 1848, Benjamin Roberts attempted to enroll his daughter Sarah in each of the five public schools that stood between their home and the Smith School. When Sarah was denied entrance to all of them, Roberts sued the city under an 1845 statute providing recovery of damages for any child unlawfully denied public school instruction. Abolitionists joined the case in 1849.

Charles Sumner represented Sarah, and black attorney Robert Morris acted as co-counsel. The case was argued before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, one of the most influential state jurists in the country. On April 8, 1850, Shaw ruled that Sumner and Roberts had not proven that Smith School instruction was inferior to that of other public schools of Boston. Nell and his association then took their cause to the state house.

A bill to end segregation in public schools failed in 1851, but a similar measure was passed by the state legislature in 1855 and signed by the governor in April. This bill outlawed segregation in Massachusetts public schools, although the only segregated system by that time was in Boston. By the fall of 1855, black children were finally permitted to attend the public schools closest to their homes. The Smith School closed. The building was subsequently used to store school furniture and, in 1887, became the headquarters for black Civil War veterans.


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