The Abiel Smith School is one of the oldest buildings constructed solely for the education of African American children. Its establishment was the result of years of concerted efforts from activists and parents in the Boston community. After several decades of petitions, the Boston School Committee agreed to provide partial funding for the African School that had been established in 1798. At the time, the African School was being held on the first floor of the African Meeting House, but the school was in poor condition. Funding for the Abiel Smith School came from the will of a white businessman and the school’s namesake, Abiel Smith, and the school was opened in 1835. While its construction marked a huge step forward for African American education, the Abiel Smith School eventually came to exemplify the inequality in Boston's school system.
As early as 1787, black Bostonians began to protest against discrimination in public schools. They started to petition the state legislature, claiming it was unconstitutional for the government to use their tax money for the education of white children when it provided no similar service for the black community. In 1798, members of the black community organized the African School which was first located in the home of Primus Hall. Mr. Hall had spent time as a servant for Col. Timothy Pickering who served as the 3rd Secretary of State. The school moved to the African Meeting House in 1808.
In 1812, the Boston School Committee responded to years of petitions and agreed to provide partial funding for the school. Three years later a white businessman, Abiel Smith died and left $4000 in his will for the education of African American children in Boston. Initially, the interest from this donation was used to help fund the school, but later it was used to build the Abiel Smith School which opened in 1835. The school gave the opportunity of education to children who had been denied it for so long. Many saw this school as a beacon of hope for the black children of Boston and applauded its construction.
Unfortunately, beginning around 1839 the Abiel Smith School became the center of controversy as an example of the inequality between white and black schools. In 1849, the organization Nell's Equal School Association led a boycott movement to protest the poor conditions of the Abiel Smith School. Most of the African American community joined in and removed their children from the school. The boycott came on the heels of the 1848 Massachusetts State Supreme Court case Sarah Roberts v. Boston. Sarah’s father, Benjamin Roberts challenged the Boston School Committee’s policy of racial segregation. The court held that racial segregation was permitted under the Constitution. This unfortunate ruling was used as a precedent in many subsequent cases including Plessy vs. Ferguson.
In 1855, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law which prohibited public schools from discriminating on the basis of race, sex or religious beliefs. The Abiel Smith School was closed the same year. After its closure, the school building was used to store school supplies and furniture until 1887 when it became the headquarters for African American Civil War veterans. Today the Smith school is an exhibit gallery, a museum store and is also the 13th site on the Black Heritage Trail in Boston.