African American Patriots Tour Celebrates Black History Month

By Megan Turchi
BU News Service

BOSTON – “Pick up your feet.  I don’t want to hear a footfall,” Jean Gordon quietly told her nine followers.  It was broad daylight, but the passageway, behind the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill, was dark.  A wrong step, a cough, a loud breath, could attract unwanted attention.  Gordon, a spy for her neighbor Paul Revere, was no longer a slave – she bought her freedom and learned to read and write.  Her nine followers hoped to soon have a similar fate.  The small passageway was a part of the Underground Railroad, leading to the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill.

However, Gordon’s nine followers were not runaway slaves, but tourists on Boston’s African American Patriots Tour, run by the Freedom Trail Commission.  Gordon, whose real name is Kathryn Woods, is a tour guide.

There were two families on the recent tour: An African American family from Columbia, Md., consisting of a mother, Terry Harwood, and father, Eric Harwood, who were in Boston dropping off their daughter, Kenneisha, at a work training course in Braintree, Mass.  The second was a white family of five, from Iowa, visiting family on Cape Cod.

“Follow me,” Gordon said before she turned to lead them.  The tourists walked as quietly as they could, trying to avoid the cracks and unevenness in the road.  No one said a word, until there was light at the end of the tunnel.

Dressed as Gordon, an African American woman, Woods wore a white bonnet, a floral shirt, a cape-like jacket, a long flowing skirt, white stockings and simple black shoes.  She stood outside of the Boston Common Visitors Center before the tour began.

“I once had a father and a middle-school girl on a tour and she didn’t want to get her nose out of her book,” she said.  “So, I told her, if you take your nose out of the book, once you put it back in you will actually see the characters.”

There would be 10 main stops along the 90-minute route starting on the Boston Common, winding through Beacon Hill, ending at Faneuil Hall.

Gordon led the way as the group trudged up the hill with the State House in the distance.  The first stop was the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial.

“Forward 54th!” Gordon bellowed as the group stood in front of the monument with deep carved reliefs of Robert Gould Shaw, a white officer, leading a troop of black soldiers in the Civil War.

According to the National Park Service, 74 enlisted men and 3 officers in the regiment died in a battle at Fort Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863.

“Shaw died instantly with a bullet to his head and was buried in a mass grave,” Gordon said as she faced the group.  “They threw Gould’s body in first because he was still leading the troops.”

Gordon lingered as the tourists stared up at the monument.  She turned and began walking toward Beacon Hill.

Guide dressed as Jean Gordon leads an African American Patriots Tour. (Megan Turchi/BUNS)
Guide dressed as Jean Gordon leads an African American Patriots Tour. (Megan Turchi/BUNS)

The next stop was George Middleton’s home – the first home owned by a black man in Boston.  The outside of the house is flat with gray shutters, eight rectangular windows, and a sloped roof.  According to the NPS, it is the oldest standing home on Beacon Hill today.  Gordon did not lead the tour into the house because it is a private residence.

“He co-owned the home with a hair dresser from the French West Indies,” Gordon told the group.  “He was head of the black militia which protected the merchants of Boston.”

According to the NPS, Middleton was one of the earliest African American activists living on Beacon Hill.

Beacon Hill residents carried grocery bags, road bikes, and took a slow paced morning stroll, as the group followed Gordon to the next stop.

“Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land,” Gordon said as she stopped the group on one of the narrow Beacon Hill streets. “This song was forbidden, because in some places it meant someone was going to get on the Underground Railroad.”

The group quickly and quietly followed Gordon through the narrow passageway that was once the road to freedom.

The first building on the other side was the African Meeting House, a rectangular building with a simple pointed roof, constructed out of brick with three arched windows in front.

“It was a place to worship the way they liked to worship,” Gordon said.  “It was a refuge to people on the Underground Railroad.”

But, it served as more than just that.

It was here classes for black children were held from 1808 to 1835 before the first public school for black children, Abiel Smith School, opened 200 years after the first public school opened for white children in Boston.

Gordon then moved the group a few blocks down the road to the separate residences of Rebecca Lee Crumple, David Walker and Mariah Stewart.  All of which are now private homes with small, metal plaques in front as reminders of the past.

“Does anyone know who Rebecca Lee Crumple is?” Gordon asked the nine people on the tour.

Everyone stared back, fidgeting slightly.

“She was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree,” Gordon said after waiting a few seconds to see if her tour knew the answer.  “Her house even had a clinic so her patients could stay with her.”

David Walker, yet another name that was seemingly unknown, lived a few steps away.  Gordon looked down at her notebook filled with pages that had been turned many times.

“Had you rather not be killed than be a slave to a tyrant?” she read, reciting the words Walker spoke in his famous Appeal, a radical antislavery document from 1829.

Walker, who ran a clothing shop, would, according to Gordon, line the clothes he sold with pages of his Appeal, hoping they would reach the south and inspire slaves.

The tourists looked at Gordon with wide eyes, reacting with surprise at every story she told.

The last Beacon Hill stop was Mariah Stewart’s residence, Walker’s neighbor.  Stewart, a self-taught woman, was a defender of African American education and carried on Walker’s legacy after his death in 1830.

“Mom, we should try to learn something new about history every single day,” Kenneisha Harwood said to her mother, Terry, as Gordon led the group from Beacon Hill to the courthouse.

Outside of the courthouse, Gordon told the story of Anthony Burns, a famous preacher who was eventually caught and put in the courthouse jail for being a fugitive slave.  He was eventually released when a black church raised $1,300 to obtain his freedom.

The cold winter wind was beginning to howl as Gordon led the group closer to the Old State House.

“Crispus Attucks was the first to fall,” she said in front of the site of the Boston Massacre plaque embedded in the ground in front of the State House.  “But, at the Granary Burial Ground, he is listed fourth on the list of five at the Boston Massacre grave.”

Gordon crossed the street and headed toward the last stop on the trail – Faneuil Hall.

“Does anyone know who Phillis Wheatley is?” Jean asked the group at the last spot in front of Faneuil Hall.

“A poet?” Kenneisha responded hesitantly.

“Yes, you are correct,” Jean said.

“I finally knew something,” Kenneisha said with a smile.

Though there were none on this specific tour, teachers and professors utilize these types of interactive educational experiences to help students understand that history does not have to be boring.

“It brings history alive,” said Boston University African American Studies and History professor Linda Heywood.  “It provides cross communication and debate and issues that are not being brought to the surface.  Anything that can advance that, bring it on!”

Though she has never specifically been on the African American Patriots Tour, Prof. Heywood takes her African American History classes on a similar tour run by the Museum of Afro American History on Beacon Hill.

“Getting to see this first hand helps you visualize,” said Max Gonzalez a Boston University sophomore and one of Heywood’s former students.  “I feel connected to history already, so it is not an issue for me, but a lot of people find history boring.  This could help them find it interesting.”

Heywood believes that history should be celebrated daily – black history should not just be separated into the month of February and forgotten about the rest of the year.

Throughout the tour, Gordon asked questions that no one in the group could answer. “This was good because I thought I knew everything, as I did a lot of research to teach my kids and now it makes me want to go back and look,” Terry Harwood said after the tour was over.  “Schools should teach more black history.”

“It was interactive and opened your eyes,” Kenneisha Harwood said after the tour.  “It was as great way to start Black History Month.  It inspired me to do better and have power.  The greatness is in me.”

The African American Patriots Tour runs every Saturday and Sunday in February at 12:45 pm, departing from the Boston Common Visitor Information Center.  Tickets are $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and students, and $7 for children.

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