Charles Street Meeting House (Black Heritage Trail Site 5)
The Charles Street Meeting House is the fifth stop on the Black Heritage Trail in Boston. Built in 1807 by the Third Baptist Church, the Charles Street Meeting House, then called the Charles Street Baptist Church, is significant as the location of many anti-slavery meetings in the decades prior to the Civil War. During its first decades, the church practiced racial segregation with black attendees being relegated to the gallery and generally barred from many of the privileges of full membership in the congregation. In 1836, abolitionist Timothy Gilbert was expelled from the church for inviting African Americans to sit beside him in his regular pew. In subsequent decades, the congregation took a stand against slavery and African Americans like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth delivered speeches alongside white abolitionists like Charles Sumner. White membership in the congregation dwindled and the congregation sold the building to the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1876. That congregation had been formed in 1833 and had grown to become the largest black congregation in Boston after the Civil War. The congregation sold the building in 1939 owing to the declining number of African American families in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Backstory and Context
The original congregation saw a decline in white membership and sold the building to the leading African Methodist Episcopal congregation in 1876. The First African Methodist Episcopal Church, AME for short, was the first black independent denomination in the United States. The AME saw declining membership as fewer black families lived in the neighborhood, and the congregation sold the building in 1939. The new owners, the Charles Meeting House Society, rented the building to the Albanian Orthodox, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Massachusetts Universalist Convention, the Unitarian Universalists, and other organizations over next few decades. A private owner purchased the building in 1979 and sold it to a group of historic preservationists the following year.
The Charles Street Meeting House Associates raised funds to repair and restore the building. After renovations he Charles Street Meeting House has become office space with a very modern interior but an exterior that won the American Institute of Architects Excellence in Architecture Award in 1983 for its historical integrity. While the interior is quite modern, the exterior looks much as it did when the building was home to the AME church and the property is part of Boston's Black Heritage Trail and significant as a site of abolitionist meetings and as one of the last black institutions to leave Beacon Hill.