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Beacon Hill’s Storied Past

Boston’s Beacon Hill is an upscale 19th-century neighborhood lined with picturesque streets, brick sidewalks, antique gas lamps lit 24 hours a day, lovely doors and unique door knockers, hidden houses, beautiful flowers spilling out of window boxes and boot scrapers on the doorsteps. It’s a National Historic District that is approximately one square mile with a population of approximately 10,000.

Beacon Hill is home to Acorn Street, the most photographed street in Boston and Louisburg Square, an exclusive area where there are pricey brick row houses. Owning property and parking spaces both come with hefty price tags. Yet, way back in the day, Beacon Hill was mostly pasture land and a safe haven for fugitive slaves.

Most residents of Beacon Hill were abolitionists, hiding fugitive slaves in their own homes or in their back gardens concealing them from slave catchers. There’s one incredible, noteworthy story that deserves recognition. It is the story of Ellen and William Craft.

In December 1848, a young couple in their 20s planned an ingenious escape from slavery in Georgia. Ellen was fair-skinned, the daughter of a plantation owner and slave mother. She disguised herself as a white man in top hat and tails. She placed her arm in a sling to hide the fact that she couldn’t write–in case she had to sign documents at checkpoints. Her husband, William acted as her slave. They took trains, stayed at hotels, and even boarded a steamer without detection. They arrived safely at the African Meeting House on Joy Street in Beacon Hill in 1848.

The Crafts lived in Boston for two years. Their newfound freedom was short-lived: their notoriety made them targets of slave catchers. They sailed to England, had five children and pursued higher education. They became public figures in the abolitionist movement and lectured in England and Scotland.  The Crafts returned to Georgia in 1870 and opened a school for freed slaves. They later moved to Charleston, SC. Ellen died in 1891 and William died in 1900.