This is a “site report” of the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, for the “Digital Space and Place” course I took in the Spring of 2020. The purpose was to become familiar with the area as we mapped its historic identity as the African-American hub of Boston in the nineteenth century.
When I intended to visit Beacon Hill on Wednesday, February 5, 2020, I at first walked in the opposite direction. I went down School Street, where the historic King’s Chapel is located, only to realize that I fell outside the actual boundaries of Beacon Hill. I inadvertently assumed that a historic church down the street from the State House would reside in the confines of my site visit, but in fact it sat on the border of Beacon Hill. Though I’m from Massachusetts, Beacon Hill existed more in my mind as an ill-defined place than as a geographically obvious space. I went back up the street, took a right behind the State House, and fortunately found a building that had “Beacon Hill” in the very name of a business.
It felt good walking through an area that had history (as every place does, yet the history that feels monumental). But the clanging construction, the honking cars, and the heavy exhaust fumes weighed on my ability to concentrate and take in the scenery. Still I made some observations and walked primarily down Joy Street (pictured below in the map).
I was meandering around Beacon Hill as if the past would fall into my hands, and it kind of did when I reached Joy Street. I found the place markers representing where important figures of black history lived, such as David Walker (the abolitionist who wrote the “Appeal”) and Maria Stewart (the abolitionist who wrote “The Limits of True Womanhood”). Coincidentally, they both lived in the same house, at different moments, on Joy Street (then Belknap Street). David and his wife Eliza Walker relocated to Bridge Street before Maria Stewart and her husband James moved in (Source: NPS).
The plaques above were designed by The Heritage Guild, Inc., founded by Dr. Adelaide Cromwell and fourteen other black women in 1975. Their objective was to raise awareness of African-American history in Boston where attention to it was lacking. Dr. Cromwell was given a Historic Preservation Award from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 2015, in recognition of this contribution to the space of Boston.
I wonder how many people walk up and down this street and pay attention to the plaques in the same way that I did. I had no knowledge of The Heritage Guild prior to my visit, and my aim was only to walk around attentively, not to seek out official markers. Consequently, these plaques were a goldmine for the sense of place that I could appreciate from Beacon Hill. The neighborhood is profoundly different today (older, whiter, and richer), and the history of how that condition sits with us – today – needs to be unearthed.
On my way out of the neighborhood and back to Boston Common, I saw a monument that contrasted significantly with the plaques I was reading. It was the “Founders’ Memorial,” which romanticized the Pilgrims’ arrival and founding of Boston in 1630, with Native Americans as pacified onlookers. It was jarring that Boston had a monument to the founding of a “free government” when David Walker and Maria Stewart were still fighting for freedom two centuries later.