The 1897 reunion of the 54th Regiment at the dedication of the memorial
designed by Augustus St. Gaudens.

Establishing Basic American Rights

The very cornerstone of democracy—the American Town Meeting—was invented in Boston on October 8th of 1633 when an order was passed calling on all inhabitants of Dorchester to assemble in front of the local courthouse. This first Town Meeting was the earliest instance of a regularized system of gatherings in America. Some 150 years later, in 1780, it was at a Town Meeting that the Massachusetts Constitution was ratified. Today the Massachusetts Constitution—a model for the Federal Constitution with its Bill of Rights—is widely recognized as the oldest functioning constitution in the world. It is not surprising, then, that Boston would become the setting for two of the most important human rights movements in American history.

The Founding of
the Abolitionist Movement

In 1829, the abolitionist movement was founded and nurtured in Boston, when David Walker’s antislavery pamphlet, the Walker’s Appeal was printed. His historic words were the first successful public articulation of abolitionism—and, as such, became the voice of a national movement.
The son of a slave father and a free black mother, David Walker was born in the south, but then traveled throughout the country, eventually settling in Boston and associating with prominent black activists. By 1828, he had become Boston’s leading anti-slavery spokesperson. Walker’s Appeal was arguably the most radical of all antislavery documents, since it called for slaves to revolt. The pamphlet further defied convention by opposing the Colonization movement—then the leading strain of white abolitionism—that sought black repatriation to Africa. Instead, it argued for blacks to identify the United States as a land to which they had a significant right as contributors. The Appeal ran for three editions, ending with Walker’s death in 1830. One year later, also in Boston, white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began publishing what became the nation’s most influential abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

The First Free Black Regiment
in the Union Army

Boston also became the point of origin for the first free black regiment in the Union Army, another important step in the struggle for racial equality. The
54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was founded in 1863 and led by the young white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. Among its recruits were dozens of men from Boston’s free African-American population, and hundreds from as far afield as Canada and the Caribbean.

The regiment earned its greatest fame on July 18, 1863, when Colonel
Shaw led the bold, brave charge on the Confederate stronghold at Battery Wagner, South Carolina. In this desperate attack on an impenetrable seaside fortress, Shaw was killed and hundreds of his men were slaughtered, wounded, or lost in action. That heroic charge brought the regiment accolades and boosted black recruiting. The 54th remains the most famous black regiment of the war, due in part to the popularity of the movie “Glory” and the bronze bas-relief located opposite the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill.

Women Shall Vote: Lucy Stone and her Pioneering Woman’s Journal

Like Walker’s Appeal, the Woman’s Journal, run by the noted suffragist Lucy Stone, was a singularly influential document in another seminal human rights movement. Born in West Brookfield, Massachusetts, in 1818, Lucy Stone was one of the first Massachusetts women to earn a college degree. After college, she moved to Boston and became a lecturer for the Anti-Slavery Society, but when she was not speaking out against the evils of slavery, she was actively advocating for women’s suffrage and recruiting women like Susan B. Anthony and Julia Ward Howe to the movement.

A bronze statue on the Commonwealth Avenue mall, by artist Meredith Bergmann, honors Lucy Stone.