On June 18, the Massachusetts General Hospital community was treated to a virtual tour of local history as part of the hospital’s Juneteenth celebration. Amelia Benstead, from the National Parks of Boston, led the tour of the Museum of African American History and the area neighboring Mass General, on the north side of Beacon Hill.

You stand in the footsteps of historical titans when you stand on these floorboards.

Amelia Benstead

In 1783, the Massachusetts legislature outlawed slavery. Freed Blacks created a community in this neighborhood, which at the time was very affordable. In the 1850s, the neighborhood included safe houses that were part of the underground railroad, where Blacks who had escaped from slavery in other states protected one another from slave catchers.

This neighborhood is central to the history of education in our state. Benstead told the story of William Cooper Nell, who grew up on Beacon Hill. He won an award for students—but was not allowed to attend the awards dinner at Faneuil Hall because he was Black. A white school board official said it was a shame, and Nell wondered why the teacher didn’t do anything. Nell became a leader in the movement for integration. Massachusetts formally desegregated schools in 1855, 99 years before federal desegregation, although de facto segregation remained a problem. The Abiel Smith School on Beacon Hill is now part of the Museum of African American History, up the hill from Mass General.

The virtual tour ended at the African Meeting House, a church and the place of recruitment for the all-Black Massachusetts 54th Regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War. Benstead encouraged everyone to take an in-person tour of this historic site when it reopens, saying, “You stand in the footsteps of historical titans when you stand on these floorboards.”