The Free Black Community in Boston – A freedman was free…until he wasn’t.
By 1790, there is no federal census record of buying and selling of slaves in Massachusetts. But, if someone came to the state with a slave or two in their household, no one necessarily objected. Slaves just couldn’t be bought and sold.
Boston had a thriving Free Black community even though there was strict segregation including separate seating apart from whites in churches, lecture halls, transportation and other public areas. Some improvements in segregation policies came in the 1840s, especially in the area of public schools.
Due to discrimination, mistreatment and public ridicule by white students and teachers, few Free Black children attended school before 1800. In 1806, in the basement of the newly built African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, classes were held with the support of parents and the Free Black community. Later, a gift to the city was made by a white merchant, Abiel Smith, to benefit Free Black education and the city established two public Free Black primary schools. Disappointed that these schools failed to achieve equal educational opportunities with the all-White schools, the Free Black community leaders organized a campaign to integrate all Boston public schools in 1846. It took them nine years to achieve their goal, culminating in a law passed by the Massachusetts state legislature.
Free Black churches and their ministers were an important asset to the community, providing strength and widespread organization for protests and various campaigns along with the message of Christianity. Several Free Black churches were tireless in their efforts to support the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to the North.
Beacon Hill’s Free Black community was culturally diverse and rich in its aid and charity organizations including The African Society, The African Masonic Lodge #459, and The Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA). Notably, Free Black women were leaders in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society when only men were allowed to participate in the other societies.
With all of this “progress” it is easy to think that life was better for the Free Blacks. But, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a dark cloud of injustice swirled just outside of the safety of Boston’s city life and it was the mantra to all Free Blacks – mostly men but some women – “Don’t go near the waterfront.”
The Fugitive Slave Act allowed bounty hunters to retrieve fugitive or “runaway” slaves for owners in the South. It was along the Boston wharf and shady places in that neighborhood where bounty hunters lurked, waiting to attack a black man by surprise and drag him into slavery. A Free Black had no defense and, in many cases, had never been a slave at all. It was a lucrative business and bounty hunters employed tactics that kept the victim from any defense until they had been transported beyond their home.
Even in a free state like Massachusetts, an abolitionist city like Boston and in a thriving Free Black community like Beacon Hill, it wasn’t until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment passed that any member of the Free Black community could breathe a sigh of relief.
Source: www.davidwalkermemorial.org Black Boston