The soldiers' faces are solemn, their gazes straight ahead, as they stride forward shouldering rifles and flags. From the two drummer boys in the lead to the infantrymen barely visible through the tightly packed ranks, they wear a look of unswerving determination.
Cast in bronze by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the figures represent men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment to fight in the Civil War. Those familiar with their gripping story -- popularized by the movie "Glory" -- understand why the sculptor capped the composition with an angel trailing sprays of poppies and laurels, and why, on a recent morning, two red roses were found at the soldiers' feet.
Today, in Boston, you can retrace the steps of these brave men, visit the African Meeting House where they enlisted, and walk along Beacon Street, where the regiment marched proudly in 1863, two months before distinguishing itself in combat. And you can tour the neighborhood where houses resounded with abolitionist debate or echoed the hushed voices of runaway slaves.
These sights are found along Boston's "other Freedom Trail" -- the Black Heritage Trail. This 1.6-mile walking tour explores the rich history of the free black community that was active on the north slope of Beacon Hill in the 1800s. By following signs and an informative brochure or by joining a two-hour guided tour of the 14 sites, visitors can discover the important role these African Americans played in the development of the city and the nation.
Although Africans were brought to Boston as slaves as early as 1683, a free black community took root in the next century. At the end of the Revolutionary War, free blacks outnumbered slaves in Massachusetts, which abolished slavery in 1783. The population of Beacon Hill's black community peaked at about 2,000 before the Civil War, when it struggled to protect people from the terrorism of the Fugitive Slave law and organized to bring an end to slavery in the rest of the country.
"It's a community that existed in a part of Boston people think of in a very different regard -- a part of Beacon Hill that Henry James didn't write about," says Marilyn Richardson, curator of Boston's Museum of Afro-American History. "It was the center of extraordinary activism."
Designated a National Historic Site in 1980, the Black Heritage Trail carries more than 150,000 visitors a year over the brick sidewalks of Beacon Hill. National Park Service tours gather at a corner of Boston Common, where Saint-Gaudens's monument stands across Beacon Street from the State House. Since the release of "Glory," more people recognize the sculpture's one equestrian figure as Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the white commanding officer of the 54th Regiment.
The 54th was raised in 1863. Shortly after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew's request to form a company of black soldiers in Boston was implemented. The ranks filled quickly with volunteers -- free blacks and fugitive slaves, aged 16 to 60. Shaw, son of a prominent Boston family of strong abolitionist sentiments, accepted the commission to lead the regiment, and tried to win for its men equal supplies, pay and opportunity to fight. Shaw died in the bloody battle for Fort Wagner, S.C., where soldiers of the 54th demonstrated the remarkable courage portrayed in the closing scenes of "Glory."
Will the film bring more visitors to the trail? "It already has," said Marilyn Richardson. "People are quite intrigued and curious." Richardson considers seeing "Glory" a good start, although she notes that the film is not a documentary, but "Hollywood's version of the early history of the 54th Regiment."
On the tour I joined, visitors were bubbling with questions raised by the movie. Patiently, the Park Service ranger sifted fact from fiction and provided a historical context for the story of the 54th -- first of 186,000 black troops (more than 10 percent of the Union Army) that helped turn the tide against the Confederacy.
We also heard how the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial was conceived, funded, designed and installed -- a story in itself. Among America's finest works of 19th-century public art, the bas-relief sculpture took Saint-Gaudens 14 years to complete. (An inscription on the back of its setting, designed by architect Charles F. McKim, was augmented in 1984 with the names of the black soldiers who fell at Fort Wagner.)
Despite drenching rain, thousands turned out for the monument's May 31, 1897, dedication ceremony, in which survivors of the 54th marched again through Boston, and Booker T. Washington and William James gave stirring speeches. Among the veterans present was Sgt. William H. Carney Jr., who, though wounded, saved the American flag from capture at Fort Wagner by wrapping it around his body. Sadly, Carney's bravery, for which he received the first Medal of Honor awarded to a black, went unrecognized in "Glory."
The Black Heritage Trail reveals the contributions of generations of black Bostonians overlooked by conventional histories. Two blocks from the memorial stands the home of another black military hero, George Middleton. A jockey and horse breaker, Middleton served as a colonel in the Revolutionary War, leading an all-black company called the Bucks of America. As the ranger spoke of Crispus Attucks, the black man slain in the Boston Massacre, and of Revolutionary War battles -- Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill -- in which black patriots fought, we realized how incomplete our history books had been.
Like other homes on the trail, the Middleton House is a private residence and is closed to the public, but its historic appearance is preserved. Built by blacks in 1797, this clapboard house stands on what was once commonly acknowledged as the "black side" of Pinckney Street, which divided the hill's black and white communities.
In the 19th century, Beacon Hill's African Americans often challenged the line drawn between the races. The 1824 Phillips School, at the next corner, is one of two schools on the trail that witnessed early efforts to combat racial discrimination in Boston's education system. When the state legislature outlawed separate schools in 1855, this schoolhouse became one of the first in the city where black and white students learned side by side.
Continuing along Pinckney Street, we caught a glimpse of the Charles River. Just past Louisburg Square, where Federal-period town houses face a private garden, we stopped at a house with an arched fanlight over the door.
This was the home of John J. Smith, a black man born free in Richmond in 1820. Although his 1849 trip to California's gold fields brought neither fame nor fortune, Smith made a name for himself in Boston, where his barbershop was a hub of black abolitionist activity and a rendezvous for fugitive slaves. Smith went to Washington during the Civil War to recruit men for the all-black 5th Cavalry, and later turned to a career in politics, serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Boston Common Council. And yet he met resistance when he tried to buy a home on the "white side" of Pinckney Street.
Two years before Smith moved into the house in 1878, a black congregation purchased the previously all-white Charles Street Baptist Church a few blocks away. Here, segregation in church had been contested in the 1830s. After church member Timothy Gilbert was expelled for bringing black friends into his pew, he joined with other Baptist abolitionists to found what became Tremont Temple, the nation's first integrated church.
But in 1850, the black community's struggle for social equality was suddenly overshadowed by the more immediate dangers posed by the Fugitive Slave Law. Once Southern owners had federal sanction to retrieve runaway slaves, fugitives were no longer safe on Boston streets. Beacon Hill residents reacted swiftly: Black and white abolitionists formed a secret Vigilance Committee to resist the law and conceal runaway slaves in a network of "safe houses." Trap door hinges were oiled and lookouts posted.
One of Boston's most active stations on the Underground Railroad, an unassuming brick house on Phillips Street, was the home of a man who, himself born a slave, had followed its secret route to freedom. As a youth in Kentucky, Lewis Hayden suffered the pain of seeing his family split up and sold before he escaped. Committed to bettering the lives of other blacks, Hayden became a respected leader in the abolitionist movement and a principal "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. It is said Hayden kept two kegs of gunpowder in the basement, threatening he would blow up the building before he would surrender the ex-slaves harbored there. On an 1853 visit to Boston, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," was taken to this house, where she encountered no less than 13 newly escaped slaves.
To see the nucleus of the city's post-Revolutionary black community, follow the Trail to Smith Court. Here stand the African Meeting House, the Abiel Smith School and a cluster of houses that offers a glimpse into the lives of blacks who raised their families, worked as tradespeople and established independent institutions in Boston.
Smith Court is a mix of brick and wood, of single-family houses and duplexes. A laborer and African Meeting House deacon named George Washington purchased No. 5 in 1849. The house at No. 10 was built in 1853 for a chimney sweep turned entrepreneur who owned 15 properties when he died and left bequests to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Home for Aged Colored Women. The oldest house standing in Smith Court dates to 1799; William C. Neill, America's first published black historian, boarded there in the 1850s. Neill was also a leader in the movement to integrate Boston's public schools.
In 1798, frustrated by the legislature's repeated denial of petitions to grant black access to public schools, black parents opened a community school in a private home. Classes moved to the basement of the African Meeting House in 1808 and to the Smith School in 1835.
Constructed with the legacy of white businessman Abiel Smith, this school served African American children from all over Boston. It was boycotted by Neill's Equal School Association, however, during the fight to end public school segregation. The issue erupted in the 1840s, when a black parent sued the city for unlawfully denying his daughter public school instruction. The ruling of the state's Supreme Judicial Court -- which found Smith School instruction not inferior to that in other Boston schools -- was cited more than 100 years later in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.
The centerpiece of the Black Heritage Trail is the African Meeting House, acquired in 1972 by the Museum of Afro-American History. Dedicated in 1806, this handsome brick meeting house is thought to be the oldest African American church building still standing in the United States -- a credit to the black artisans who constructed it. The facade is based on a design published by Boston architect Asher Benjamin.
The African Meeting House was the spiritual heart of Boston's 19th-century black community, a center of worship, education and political activity. The New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed here by William Lloyd Garrison in 1832. During the abolitionist period (when women's rights were also championed), the meeting house became known as the Black Faneuil Hall. The voices of Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner all rang from its podium.
Today, the meeting house reflects renovations of the mid-1850s, when its windows were elongated and entry doors were moved to accommodate a pair of stairways that spiral to the balcony. Here you'll find a long curved pew, one of two restored to its original appearance, with mustard-colored paint. A third pew remains upholstered, a reminder of the structure's years as a synagogue. (At the end of the 19th century, when blacks began migrating to other sections of the city, the meeting house was sold to a Jewish congregation.)
Before leaving, I lingered over displays that recall the days preceding the Civil War with pictures of anti-slavery leaders, a poster exhorting black Bostonians to keep "top eye out" for kidnappers and slave catchers, and a copy of a Vigilance Committee ledger that lists "an artificial leg for Johnson H. Walker, a fugitive from Maryland" and "passage from Portland to Canada" among its 1859 expenses. In the gallery below the sanctuary, the year's first exhibition focused on the 54th Regiment, mustered in the African Meeting House. Even with the notice generated by the movie "Glory," those who joined the ranks -- as well as others who fought for freedom and dignity while a part of Boston's black community -- are just beginning to receive the recognition they deserve.
Walking the Black Heritage Trail is a step in the right direction, a way of opening our eyes to their courage and commitment. Christine Gebhard is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass. WAYS & MEANS TOURS: Free guided tours of Boston's Black Heritage Trail are offered by the National Park Service. In the summer, tours are given daily at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The rest of the year, tours are by appointment only; call the Boston African-American National Historic Site, (617) 742-5415, for current schedules and reservations.
Tours meet at the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial at the upper corner of Boston Common, at Beacon and Park streets, across from the State House. The trail includes some climbs over uneven brick sidewalks; comfortable shoes are recommended.
A brochure outlining a self-guided tour of the trail is available at the Boston National Historic Park Visitor Center at 15 State St. (downtown, across from the Old State House) or at the Museum of Afro-American History, Abiel Smith School, 46 Joy St. (on Beacon Hill). HANDICAPPED ACCESS: The Shaw/54th Memorial is wheelchair accessible, but other sites have no curb cuts. Handicapped visitors may arrange to see a videotape of the trail at the Boston African-American National Historic Site; call (617) 742-5415 in advance. INFORMATION: For more information, contact the Boston African-American National Historic Site, Abiel Smith School, 46 Joy St., Boston, Mass. 02114, (617) 742-5415, or the Museum of Afro-American History at the same address, (617) 742-1854.