Owing to the historic significance of many of the residents of Smith Court, including William C. Nell who fought for racial equality in 19th century Boston, the buildings of Smith Court are part of the Black Heritage Trail in Boston. These dwellings date back to the early 1800s and a majority of the residents of Smith Court were black by the 1830s. Residents include James Scott, who assisted runaway slaves and author William Cooper Nell who also led the Boston Vigilance Committee who assisted fugitive slaves. These notable homes stood at the center of Boston’s black community during the middle and late nineteenth century. Prominent black business leaders such as Joseph Scarlett lived on Smith Court until 1898.
There is a separate article written on
the famous house at 3 Smith Court. It was once the residence of William Cooper
Nell, an African-American activist who fought for
equal school rights in the mid-nineteenth century. The two-family home was officially designated
as a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic
places in 1976.
house, located at 5 Smith Court, was
built sometime in the early part of the nineteenth century. This home consists of three stories and is
covered with reddish-brown clapboard siding. A lawyer built the home as an
investment – he rented it out to make additional money. The house was later purchased by the deacon
of the African Meeting House, a man named George Washington, in 1849. He rented out the first floor while he lived
in the upper area with his wife and children.
Accounts vary, but he had nine or ten children living together in this
small space (the City of Boston’s Assessing Department states that the entire
house only contains about 1,458 square feet of living space). Washington passed away in 1871 but the house remained
in his family until 1917. Today, the
house is worth over $1.3 million. It is privately
owned and therefore not open to the public for viewing.
The next stop on the trail brings
visitors to a small two-story
home with light blue clapboard siding located at 7
Smith Court. This house was used as rental
property for many years as well. An
early owner, a white merchant named Elihu Bates, took in tenants beginning in
1822. In 1857, the property was
purchased by an African American real estate investor, Joseph Scarlett. Scarlett owned several of the buildings on
Smith Court was well as others in the Boston area. He owned 7 Smith Court until his death in
7A Smith Court stands directly behind
number 7, in what is called Holmes Alley.
This house was built in 1799, making it one of the oldest houses on the
block. It is three stories high and has
yellow clapboard siding. According to the
National Park Service, this structure is the only surviving example of the
early homes that lined the eight-foot wide Holmes Alley, where backyards are
found today. The house was initially owned
by two men, a New Bedford mariner named Richard Johnson and a hairdresser named
David Bartlett. The property went
through several hands before Joseph Scarlett purchased it in 1858. Scarlett owned and rented out the property,
like he did with many others, until his death in 1898.
The homes at 7 Smith Court (970 sf) and 7A
Smith Court (1,305 sf) are each valued by the City of Boston at approximately
$1.1 million. Both are privately owned
and therefore not open to the public for viewing.
Smith Court was constructed in 1853 for Joseph Scarlett (the same man who
owned numbers 7 and 7A). This building
abuts the African Meeting House, which is the final stop on the Black Heritage
Trail. By the time that Scarlett passed
away in 1898, he owned at least fifteen investment properties.
The Museum of African American History lists the final
Smith Court Residence as #10 Smith Court.
It reports that the house is situated directly next door to the African
Meeting House. However, there is no
listing for 10 Smith Court on the City of Boston’s website.