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Dec. 6, 2021




Two Boston sites—the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail—are sure to get visitors’ blood pumping, raking those steps in. Both walking trails feature locations of moments in history in similar and different ways.

The idea for the 2.5 mile long Freedom Trail was born from Old North Church member Bob Winn and journalist William Schofield in 1951, who suggested a pedestrian trail to connect local landmarks. The distinct red line was added in 1958, and in 1972, the trail was extended into Charlestown. In order to help preserve and market the trail, the Freedom Trail Foundation formed in 1964, succeeding the Freedom Trail Committee. 

It wasn’t until 1980 when the 1.6 mile long Black Heritage Trail was designated to "preserve and commemorate original buildings that housed the nineteenth-century free African-American community on Beacon Hill," according to the Guide to the National Park Areas. The historical site was put in place by the National Park Service after President Jimmy Carter signed an authorization bill.

“The two bills that I will sign today represent a three-pronged effort to preserve a vital, but long neglected, part of American heritage; the history and culture of Americans of African ancestry and their role in the history of our nation,” Carter said. 

Both trails begin at the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, located across the street from the State House. The regiment was the first Black regiment in the North, which was commanded by Shaw, a white officer who volunteered. The monument—given to Boston in 1897, but didn’t become part of the Boston African American National Historic Site until 1980—features the inscription of the regiment’s members’ names on the back, with Shaw’s notably on the front. 

From there, the trails diverge, with the exception of a few shared sites. The Freedom Trail centers many pieces of American Revolution history, including the site of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s house, and the Old South Meeting House. Most of Heritage’s spots are private properties visitors can’t enter, making the viewing experience limited. It’s also much easier to get lost while navigating the uneven, brick slopes. 

The Freedom Trail’s website says “Every step tells a story”—one that is primarily white history. Although it’s better late than never, the Heritage Trail was a 30 decade-long afterthought in recognition of the Freedom Trail’s missed details. While the stories of African Americans need to be heard, their voices should’ve been amplified from the start and didn’t need to be separated. 

The Black Heritage Trail is only open for park ranger-led tours during the summer season—which is how people get the most information—whereas Freedom offers tours year round. There is no surprise why the well-known Freedom Trail rakes in an annual four million tourists: it’s more publicized and easily accessible. 

Today, the once Black-dominated Beacon Hill residences are now an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood. Instead of trying to white-wash and make valuable, historic information somewhat discrete, the history of slavery, abolitionists, and lives of free Black residents during and after the Civil War era needs to be made a priority in contemporary times. 

In order to get a full grasp on Boston’s rich history, it’s recommended that visitors do both tours, which can ideally be done within the same day.

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