Monday, September 26, 2011

Preserving African American History in Boston

From the Boston Globe, by Brian R. Ballou, on September 23, 2007: Peeling back the layers of years from the walls of the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill and restoring it to circa 1855 has been a slow, painstaking process. Doorknobs, cast-iron posts, and even the bricks used back then need to be exactly the same, and they are not exactly easy to find these days.

"All those kinds of things that we rebuild have to be authentic," said Beverly Morgan-Welch, director of the Museum of African-American History in Boston, which cares for the meeting house, originally a church built in 1806. The bricks that will be used to rebuild the walls will be fired in a kiln the same way they were in the 1850s, she said.

The rebuilding effort at the meeting house, as well as renovations that continue at the Old State House, roughly a minute's walk away, are the focus of "Revolution in Boston," a special segment produced by the History Channel as part of their Emmy Award-winning series, "Save our History."

Yesterday evening, Morgan-Welch and about a score of others gathered at the meeting house and watched a screening of the segment.

"There are a number of people or organizations that have begun to understand the importance of what is being done, including the History Channel," Morgan-Welch said.

The African Meeting House is the nation's oldest standing church built and used by blacks. It was a gathering place for black abolitionists, for free blacks who escaped from slavery, and for Boston's intellectual elite, who forged ideas that would help end slavery.

William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society there in 1832, and Frederick Douglass gave an antislavery speech there in 1860. For years, it served as a beacon of black accomplishment.

Renovations to the meeting house started 15 months ago, but they are on hiatus while fund-raising takes center stage. About $3 million has been raised, but another $5 million is needed to complete the reconstruction, the major work of which remains to be done. So far, most of the work has involved excavating and preparing the site for construction. Beacon Hill, with its narrow busy roads and tight alleys, is not ideal for construction. "Boston is a city on a hill, a trimount city, and we're on the rockiest, most difficult trimount," Morgan Welch said.

Blueprints were recreated and architects from John G. Waite and Associates have also been relying on photographs taken when the meeting house was transformed into a synagogue, from the early 1900s to 1972, when the museum acquired it. "It will be absolutely accurate," Morgan-Welch said. "We hired the best historic architects in the country."

The Old State House, built in 1713, accommodated the government offices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, when fervor to oppose the British crown was stirred, hosted speeches and stirring debates by patriots. In July 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first announced to the residents of Boston from the building's balcony. Today, the building is owned by the city and operated by the Bostonian Society, perhaps the city's top historical group.

Restoration of the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill includes new windows. Work began about 15 months ago. (ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

The History Channel program takes a detailed look at the rebuilding efforts while explaining the role the two buildings had in the nation's fight for independence and equality. The show examines the work done on the northeast corner and the attic of the Old State House, said Brian Le May, Bostonian Society's executive director. "I've seen rough footage . . . and it promises to be interesting."

And it certainly won't hurt tourism in town, he added. (source: The Boston Globe)

Preserving African American History in Boston

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