Built in 1806, the African Meeting House served as the African Baptist Church of Boston (a.k.a. First Independent Baptist Church) and it is considered the oldest extant Black church building in America. The Reverend Thomas Paul, a native of New Hampshire, spearheaded the founding of this church and served as its minister until 1829. Officially constituted on 8 August 1805 with twenty-four members, including fifteen women, the African Baptist Church soon began plans to construct this new meeting house. Cato Gardner, a native African, led the fundraising effort by personally raising $1,500. African American craftsmen provided most of the labor.1
In addition to serving as a spiritual and religious center for the community, the African Meeting House provided an integral gathering space for the cultural, educational, and political life of Boston’s Black community. The African School held classes in a room on the first floor of the meeting house from 1808 until 1835, when it moved into the new Abiel Smith School. Classes returned to the meeting house in 1849 when many African Americans chose to withdraw their children from the Smith School to protest segregated education. Adult education classes and public lectures also took place here. Abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Maria Stewart, Wendell Phillips, Sarah Grimke, and Frederick Douglass all spoke at the meeting house. The Massachusetts General Colored Association, dedicated to ending the dual forces of slavery and discrimination across the country, met at the African Meeting House. In 1832 William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here.2 The New England Freedom Association, dedicated to assisting freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad also met here. Community celebrations often occurred at the meeting house as well, including annual commemorations of Haitian Independence and the end of the international slave trade. In 1863, the meeting house also served as a recruitment post for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment, one of the first African American regiments to fight in the Civil War.
In 1898, the Baptist congregation sold their meeting house and moved to a new location in the South End. The meeting house became the Jewish Congregation Anshi Libavitz in 1904. The Museum of African American History purchased the meeting house in 1972. The African Meeting House is a National Historic Landmark and is owned and operated by the Museum of African American History.
Smith Court Stories: a collaborative project of the Museum of African American History and Boston African American National Historic Site - a unit of the National Parks of Boston.
Additional Works Consulted
Bower, Beth Ann; Rushing, Byron. “The African Meeting House: The Center for the 19th Century Afro-American Community in Boston.” in Archeological Perspectives on Ethnicity in America. Vol. 1. New York, 1980.
Hayden, Robert C. Faith, Culture, and Leadership: A History of the Black Church in Boston. Boston: Boston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1983.
Horton, James Oliver and Horton, Lois E. Black Bostonians; Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, Revised Edition. New York:Holmes & Meier, 1999.
Levesque, George A. Black Boston: African American Life and Culture in Urban America, 1750-1860. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.
Yocum, Barbara A. The African Meeting House Historic Structure Report. Lowell, MA: Building Conservation Branch, National Park Service, 1994.
Last updated: April 13, 2021