African Meeting House • Boston (Beacon Hill)
Archaeology, Education & Outreach, Rehabilitation & Restoration
Located at the core of Boston's 19th-century African American community on Beacon Hill, the African Meeting House was constructed in 1806 as the First Independent Baptist Church, and in 1808 housed the city's first school for black children. In the mid-19th century, the flourishing congregation set the stage for many nationally significant events: William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here in 1832; the pulpit and meeting space gave voice to famous abolitionists and activists, including Frederick Douglass; and during the Civil War, the first black regiments were raised here. At the end of the 19th century, when the black community began to leave Beacon Hill, the building was sold to a Jewish congregation for use as a synagogue. The Museum of African American History acquired the building in 1972. After a fire destroyed the roof in 1973, the museum reconstructed it, rehabilitated the second-floor sanctuary, and provided contemporary exhibit space and visitor amenities on the ground floor.
Two centuries of continuous use took their toll on the building. Beginning in 2004, and aided by federal stimulus funds, the meetinghouse underwent a painstaking seven-year rehabilitation and restoration. Brick masonry was repointed and repaired, original wood sash and floorboards were restored. Reconstructed wood cornices reflect the building's ca. 1855 appearance. Curved pews were re-created using remnants of the 1855 pews and scribe marks on the floor. Architects designed a new, period-appropriate raised platform and lectern. The project also aimed to ensure the building's continued use as a place of public assembly and exhibition by meeting modern accessibility, safety, and building code requirements. New fire stairs and an elevator were constructed outside the building envelope, and modern systems were installed in an underground vault to avoid compromising the building's historic integrity. Archaeological excavations in the rear yard uncovered more than 38,000 artifacts, revealing much about free blacks' lives on Beacon Hill in the 19th century: one artifact in particular, a light fixture fragment, served as the basis for reproduction chandeliers for the building. Today, the African Meeting House, a National Historic Landmark, part of the Beacon Hill National Historic District, and a component of the Boston African American National Historic Site, is the centerpiece of the Museum's programs.