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The Black Heritage Trail

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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. Very few African Americans live in either place today, but the Black Heritage Trail traces Beacon Hill’s key role in local and national black history – perhaps 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 contains a Museum of African American History (Mon–Sat 10am–4pm; $5), and rotates a number of well-tailored exhibits centred on abolitionism and African-American history. Built in 1806 as the country’s first African-American church, this became known as “Black Faneuil Hall” during the abolitionist campaign; Frederick Douglass issued his call here for all blacks to take up arms in the Civil War. Among those who responded were the volunteers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, commemorated by a monument at the edge of Boston Common, opposite the State House, which depicts their farewell march down Beacon Street. Robert Lowell won a Pulitzer Prize for his poem, “For the Union Dead”, about this monument, and the regiment’s tragic end at Fort Wagner was depicted in the movie Glory.

From the monument, the Trail winds around Beacon Hill, and includes a stop at the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House. Once a stop on the famous “Underground Railroad”, the Haydens sheltered hundreds of runaway slaves from bounty-hunters in pursuit.

While it’s easy enough to traverse it on your own, the best way to experience the Trail is by taking a National Park Service walking tour (June–Aug Mon–Sat 10am, noon & 2pm, rest of year Mon–Sat 2pm; free; call to reserve t 617/742-5415 or t 617/720-2991, w http://www.nps.gov/boaf).

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