Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.1

Horace Mann

Many Americans believe education can promote equality, inspire citizenship, and impart a lasting good for society. On the surface, Boston has exemplified this tradition: Puritan settlers established Boston Latin School in 1635 and Harvard College in 1636.2 However, the question of access to quality education complicates early 19th century education advocate and reformer Horace Mann’s declaration of education as the “great equalizer.” This is particularly challenging when we examine Boston’s educational history. In the early 1800s, Boston did not require children’s attendance at “Grammar” and “Writing” schools.3 Poor families generally could not afford the private education required to prepare students for acceptance into Boston’s public schools. Furthermore, families in need sent children to work instead of school. While poorer families had these challenges in accessing education, the obstacles proved even greater for families of color in Boston.

Massachusetts gradually abolished slavery in the 1780s, ending a 150 year institution that enslaved thousands of people of African and Indigenous descent. Looking for work, housing, and stability, increasing numbers of African American families settled in Boston in the 1790s and early 1800s.4 Though no law or policy in Boston explicitly barred children of color from attending school, the economic disadvantages of slavery’s legacy and lingering racial prejudices held by White Bostonians made attendance difficult. Early Black leader Primus Hall responded to this challenge by starting his own “African School” in Boston.5 From 1798 through 1808, the “African School” operated from Primus Hall’s own home.6 It relied on donations from wealthy White benefactors and subscriptions paid by the families who sent their children.7 In 1808, the school moved to the basement of the African Meeting House. After continued activism and petitioning, the African School finally received public funds for education in 1812.8

Making meager wages in unskilled and low-paying service jobs, many African American families struggled to pay school subscriptions. As a result, the African School’s survival relied on wealthy White benefactors. Abiel Smith, a wealthy White merchant and the most prominent benefactor of the school, had assisted in paying to move the African School to the African Meeting House in 1808.9 He also helped pay for the school’s furnishings and the salary of the school’s teacher. When Smith died in 1815, he left in his will stocks and bonds for “the maintenance & support of a school or schools…for the instruction of people of color…”10

By 1818, the funds from Abiel Smith’s estate helped repair and improve the schoolroom in the African Meeting House. The fund allowed for the school to purchase textbooks, pay salaries for teachers and assistants, supply firewood for heat, and even help rent a schoolroom for children living across town in the North End neighborhood.

In 1822 a “Primary School” also opened in a neighboring room in the basement of the African Meeting House.11 Not publicly available to families in Boston until 1818, primary schools focused on educating four to seven year-olds. A city-wide campaign successfully pushed for their establishment so that children could receive early education.12 For reasons that appear to be related to funding, it took several years for the “colored” primary school to open in the African Meeting House.

For the next 14 years this arrangement continued. Similar to the early years, most of the organizing, petitioning, and activism concerning education for children of color came from the Black community itself, with the help of a few wealthy White supporters. While the City of Boston paid teacher salaries, it appears that any capital improvements and supplies came from either the community itself or the proceeds of Abiel Smith’s fund for the school.

Yet, after more than ten years in the African Meeting House, deficiencies in the school became painfully apparent. The 1833 School Commission report described the space in the African Meeting House as “low and confined.”13 Housing both a grammar and primary school in the small basement caused overcrowding and discomfort for students aged four years old to teenagers. The report complained that the rooms became “hot and stifled in the summer and cold in the winter…” “But this is not the only or greatest objection to it,” the report continued:

The obvious contrast between the accommodations of the coloured, and other children, both as to convenience and healthfulness seems to your committee to be the principal cause of this school being so thinly attended. The committee cannot but regard this distinction both as invidious and unjust.14

At last, in 1834 the city purchased land next to the African Meeting House and began construction of a new schoolhouse. On March 3, 1835, the new schoolhouse officially opened at the corner of today’s Joy Street and Smith Court.15 Named the Abiel Smith School, after the early benefactor of Black education, this schoolhouse became Boston’s first schoolhouse dedicated to the education of Black children. A ceremony marked the occasion as students moved from the basement of the African Meeting House to the new schoolhouse next door.

Though the construction of the Smith School publicly recognized the educational needs of children of color, it also set–in brick and mortar–public school segregation. Boston’s population grew rapidly in the 1830s and 40s. Boston’s African American population grew too. The Smith School quickly overcrowded and strained to meet the needs of its students. Just three years after the Smith School opened, Primus Hall and others unsuccessfully petitioned to add an additional story to the school. By 1845, with the school building just ten years old, a report said the school was “not only in an unsatisfactory, but in a deplorable condition…”16 Many parents and community leaders had enough and continued the long struggle for equal education through petitions, court cases, boycotts, and calls for legislative change. 

A graduate of the African School, William Cooper Nell led boycotts, petition campaigns, and lawsuits that argued segregated schools harmed children of color. To learn about this next chapter, visit the articles on the Sarah Roberts Case and William Cooper Nell.




Questions to Consider:

  1. Why do you think this community in 19th century Boston valued education so highly? Why do you think education is important?
  2. What do the primary source documents tell us about the building of the Abiel Smith School that we might not have known otherwise?
  3. What are your thoughts about this school for African American children being named after a White benefactor?



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Footnotes

1. Horace Mann, "Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education" (1848).

2. Payson Smith, "The Development of Education in Massachusetts, 1630-1930" The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bulletin of the Department of Education (1930).

3. Smith, "The Development of Education in Massachusetts, 1630-1930."

4. Leslie A. Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House at Boston African American National Historic Site, Boston, Massachusetts” (Lowell, Mass.: National Park Service Building Conservation Branch, 27 March 1995), 7.

5. "BOAF Historic Resource Study," Boston African American National Historic Site, (2002) 103; Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 8.

6. Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 8.

7. Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 8.

8. Barbara A. Yocum, "Smith School House Historic Structure Report," Boston African American National Historic Site (Boston, 1990), 9; "BOAF Historic Resource Study," 104; Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 8.

9. "BOAF Historic Resource Study," 104; Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 8-9.

10. Abiel Smith, "Last Will and Testament," Suffolk County Probate Court number 24791, signed and dated October 6, 1814, as quoted in Yocum, "Smith School House Historic Structure Report," 7-8.

11. "BOAF Historic Resource Study," 104.

12. Smith, "The Development of Education in Massachusetts, 1630-1930."

13. Boston School Commission Report, 1833, as quoted in Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 9.

14. Boston School Commission Report, 1833, as quoted in Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 9.

15. "BOAF Historic Resource Study," Boston African American National Historic Site, (2002) 105; Mead, “Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Smith School House," 9.

16. City Document No. 26, 1845, "Reports of the Annual Visiting Committees of the Public Schools of the City of Boston," as quoted in Yocum, "Smith School House Historic Structure Report," 20.

Related Assets

Smith Court Stories

Smith Court Stories is 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.

The creators of Smith Court Stories acknowledge that Smith Court in Beacon Hill sits on the unceded territory of the Massachusett Peoples, and their neighbors the Wampanoag and Nipmuc Peoples. We recognize these communities have stewarded this land for hundreds of generations.