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Black Heritage Trail

46 Joy St Boston, Massachusetts

TYPE: Landmark Landmark
AGE: All Ages

Many tourists don't realize that Boston has not one but two Freedom Trails -- the Revolutionary War trail, and the Black Heritage Trail, which celebrates Boston's antislavery movement. The latter runs 1.6 miles, through Beacon Hill, the center of the free black community in the years leading up to the Civil War. Walking around this neighborhood, you get a sense of how a close-knit black community developed, gradually cultivating political savvy and spreading radical new ideas. The seeds of the Emancipation Proclamation were sown here on Beacon Hill. Walking the Trail is a great way to explore an era of American history that all too often takes a back seat in Revolutionary War–obsessed New England.

The 15 marked points on the trail start at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Beacon Street across from the State House. Shaw was the white officer who led the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the Union's first black regiment, celebrated in the 1989 film Glory, and this bas-relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is incredibly affecting. Other buildings you'll pass include the homes of George Middleton, an African-American Revolutionary War soldier; successful barber John J. Smith, a free black who hosted antislavery debates both at his shop and in his home; and Lewis Hayden, a freed slave whose boardinghouse was an early Underground Railroad stop. You'll see the Baptist church where church desegregation efforts began in the 1830s (years later, after the Civil War, the same church building became Boston's first African Methodist Episcopal church).

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, National Park Service rangers lead free 2-hour guided tours daily along the route; the rest of the year, contact the Park Service to arrange a tour. To go at your own pace without the commentary, pick up a brochure outlining the tour at the Boston Common and State Street visitor kiosks, or from the Museum of African American History, 46 Joy St. (tel. 617/725-0022; www.afroammuseum.org), which is where the Trail ends. The museum's site occupies the restored Abiel Smith School (1834), the first American public grammar school for African-American children, and the African Meeting House (1806), the oldest standing black church in the United States. William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in this building, where Frederick Douglass made some of his great abolitionist speeches. Once known as the "Black Faneuil Hall," it also schedules lectures, concerts, and church meetings. The museum's displays employ art, artifacts, documents, historic photographs, and other objects -- including many family heirlooms. Children enjoy the interactive touch-screen displays and multimedia presentations, and the patient, enthusiastic staff helps them put the exhibits in context.

Nearest Airport: Boston Logan International.

Where to Stay: $$ DoubleTree Suites by Hilton, 400 Soldiers Field Rd. (tel. 800/222-TREE [8733] or 617/783-0090; www.doubletree.com). $ The Midtown Hotel, 220 Huntington Ave. (tel. 800/343-1177 or 617/262-1000; www.midtownhotel.com).

Telephone: 617/742-5415

Website: www.nps.gov/boaf
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Destination Guide: Boston