Beacon Hill is an extraordinarily vibrant and exciting place today in which extreme wealth and predominantly white-culture trends have driven its popularity. However, uncommon to most people new to Boston, Beacon Hill has important historical significance when it comes to the topic of African American heritage as well as Eastern European Jewish heritage. Therefore, the purpose of this tour is to develop an understanding of Beacon Hill’s rich cultural roots and understand how that has shaped the area. Throughout the 19th century, Beacon Hill was a hub for political and cultural activism in which African Americans such as George Middleton and Lewis Hayden – as well as many others – created organizations to battle the state to provide equal opportunity, established the first all-black public schools and created a community of African Americans. The walking tour is meant to explain how different groups of people once used the Beacon Hill area by highlighting historically significant buildings such as the Abiel Smith School, the Philips school, and more. Further, the tour allows for observation on how the area is used today, which allows people to thus compare and contrast the differences between the 19th century and the 21st century. This walking tour hopes to inspire people to take the initiative to better understand Boston’s – or other cities – historic culture and develop an understanding of how different cultures used the space in the past, and what – if any – landmarks highlight these groups and their impact to the landscape we know and observe today.
The walking tour through public spaces within Boston’s historic Beacon Hill area offers vast insight into many questions one may have about the space. Firstly, the straightforward yet significant question of What did black heritage present itself many years ago? How has that changed? This first set of questions may be simple; however, it is imperative to understand African American history within Boston and the critical role they played in developing Beacon Hill’s ‘invisible’ characteristics. During the first parts of the tour, it becomes clear that although today the area may be predominantly occupied by affluent, white families, after the American revolution and for an extended period afterward, Beacon Hill was a thriving ecosystem full of different cultures. This is highlighted through the Vilna Shul, a school and space Jewish immigrants used as a safe-haven during the initial phases of moving into Boston. Furthermore, the tour continues to highlight the presence of African American heritage through sights such as the African American History Museum, which displays in-depth exhibitions illustrating Boston’s African American presence. Moreover, stops such as George Middleton’s house offer insights to not only show that African American people played an essential part in developing Beacon Hill’s vibrant culture but allow people taking to tour to continue developing the ideas to answer the initial question phrased above.
To answer the second aspect of the question above, the tour offers various times in which observations can be made about the space today. As briefly mentioned already, the place is home to many wealthy families, as real-estate prices are some of the most expensive in the city. This was a stark difference when Beacon Hill began to develop. One of the reasons why more affluent people began to move into Beacon Hill was through the development of the State House across from the Boston Commons in 1798. With this building signifying the political hub of Boston, dominant – mainly white – people within Massachusetts’ political ecosystem started entering Beacon Hill. Another reason for this change may result from the closing of the Abiel Smith School, which drove African Americans to places such as the South End. The Abiel Smith School was the only Black-only public schools which give reason to why Beacon Hill has such strong black heritage. However, once this school closed and many families began relocating to places closer to the school, there was little reason for many to stay in Beacon Hill. Ultimately, the places visited, and the spaces walked through during the walking tour, highlights various direct and indirect answers for the above questions.
Another question the walking tour aims to answer is, How, if at all, has the Boston Common changed as the racial makeup of Beacon Hill has changed throughout the years? The Boston Common dates back all the way to the 1660s, which makes it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, city parks in the US. Moreover, throughout the time, it has been used for various things, including, but not limited to, public hangings, protests, burial grounds, army barracks, and finally, recreational space. However, as Fredrik Law Olmsted established his Emerald Necklace project, he used the Commons as an anchor for the project. Therefore, as Olmsted aimed for his parks to be used by everyone regardless of class difference or upbringing, it is interesting to understand if this is any different from the Commons. Thus, how has it changed? Comparing the park today with the 19th century where public hangings occurred, its functionality has indeed changed quite a lot – this does not happen today. However, although apparent changes such as that have occurred, a lot of its primary functions remain the same. People from all walks of life can be seen enjoying the space, whether that is relaxing, running, or performing. Something ubiquitous to happen in the Boston Common protests. Throughout the years, regardless of the racial makeup of the surrounding areas, people continue to gather at this park to make their voices heard to make a change. Thus, regarding the question, the Boston Commons has changed quite a bit since the 1600s. However, this has not been driven by the changes in racial makeup as it still acts as a place for everyone, regardless of background or race, to use for recreational activities.
Finally, a third question is highlighted from the tour, which states, what can people in Boston, or the community within Beacon Hill, do to preserve Boston’s rich African American heritage? As highlighted in various texts such as The Boston Globe series and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, there are many things people in Boston and Beacon Hill can do to preserve its cultural history. One of the main things people can do is to visit the places on the walking tour and become more familiar with the rich history Beacon Hill has to offer. Education can drive change, which emphasizes this point as going to places such as the Philips School, George Middleton’s house, and many others are eye-opening as many people are unfamiliar with Beacon Hills’ background.
Through the walking tour, a greater understanding of the invisible landscape can be obtained. Today, there is very little presence of African Americans relative to the 19th century. Thus, understanding how this space was once used and how it is used today allows us to conclude the things we no longer see present in the landscape. Being more observant about the questions highlighted in this essay will allow people to enjoy the space better, as they are more educated about the area’s cultural and historical significance. This being said, there is so much to learn about the space and how people use it today and how people interacted with it in the past. Thus, one of the most important things to do is to get out there, and experience all the different spaces Beacon Hill and the rest of Boston has to offer.