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History Restored: The African Meeting House | Boston, MA (part 1)

by Bridgit Brown

Nicholas Powers introduced me to the African Meeting House, which is located in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. He was a classmate of mine in college. He worked as a park ranger for the Museum of African American History, which owns this meetinghouse.

The museum offers tours of the city’s Black Heritage Trail. Park rangers lead the black history tours as part of their jobs. Before meeting Nick, it was not clear to me that Frederick Douglass made his “Plea for Free Speech” in the African Meeting House. This was after Douglass was forced out of Tremont Temple in 1806. William Lloyd Garrison started the New England Anti-Slavery Society in the meetinghouse. Being a native of Boston (and it is with great shame that I write this), I had forgotten, until I met Nick, that the first free black community was formed right here in my own hometown.

You live and you learn.

When asked to do this series on the renovations of the African Meeting House I leaped at the opportunity. The process began in 2006 and was completed in July 2011. I came along on the project in February 2011. It was a chance for me to revisit Beacon Hill, picking-up where Nick and I had left off.

Diana Parcon, Director of Capital Improvements and Facility Operations at the Museum of African American History, brought me up to date. Like Nick, she was a reservoir of knowledge on Boston’s early black community.

I came along as they were loading the shotcrete into the hole, which created the foundation for the brick tower that currently houses the new elevator and stairwell that are attached to the meetinghouse. As you will see from the video, restoring this historic landmark was no simple task. Ordinary building tools could not be used. Phil, a specialist in historic renovations, explained the more technical aspects of the project while Diana gave the historical background.

Notice how the hole had to be dug with “special” tools like a mini excavator or a mini this-and-that. With a space as tight as the alleyways on the northern slope of Beacon Hill, digging that hole took up to three times the amount of time that it normally takes to dig a hole that size.

To be continued...