The African Meeting House in Boston is one of the great landmarks of American freedom, as important to understanding our history as Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill.
Not only is it the nation’s oldest black church, but throughout much of the 19th century it also served as the unofficial headquarters of the movement to abolish slavery in America.
And last week — its 205th anniversary — the African Meeting House reopened its historic doors after a $9 million restoration project to preserve the place where giants like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass once thundered against the evil of human bondage.
It was in the Meeting House basement where William Lloyd Garrison formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. Garrison predicted that the principles set forth by the Society would “shake the nation by their mighty power.”
Indeed, they did, because they were, in fact, the same principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the other founding documents of our country.
The Meeting House is a reminder of the struggle which was inevitable because slavery was written into our Constitution before brave Americans — both white and black — shed blood and spoke powerful words to ensure that it was at last written out of that founding document.
Maria Stewart, an African American woman William Lloyd Garrison admired greatly, took Garrison’s argument further, insisting in a series of speeches at the African Meeting House that under those founding documents, women were entitled to the same rights as men.
“It is not the color of the skin that makes the man or the woman, but the principle formed in the soul,” she said in one of her speeches in 1833. “Brilliant wit will shine, come from when it will; and genius and talent will not hide the brightness of its luster.”
That was never as true as when Douglass delivered “A Plea for Speech in Boston” at the African Meeting House in 1860 after an anti-slavery meeting elsewhere in the city had been disrupted by a mob.
“No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech,” Douglass said. It is “the great moral renovator of society and government,” he said. Slavery itself could not survive free speech. “Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South,” he said.
Tragically, it ultimately required a war to resolve the great contradiction at the heart of our democracy. And with the coming of the Civil War, the African Meeting House joined the war effort, hosting rallies to recruit an all-black regiment of soldiers.
The result was the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry made up of volunteers from as far as Haiti, led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw — the regiment and its commander both immortalized in monuments, literature and, of course, the award-winning film, “Glory.”
I was proud to work with Gov. Deval Patrick and the Massachusetts congressional delegation to get $4 million in federal grants for the $9 million renovation of the African Meeting House.
But few people have worked harder to make the renovation and rededication a reality than Beverly Morgan-Welch, the executive director of the Museum of African American History. She has spent more than a decade spearheading the project, and I congratulate her for all her efforts on behalf of the Museum and the Meeting House and for the decades she has spent telling the unique and powerful story of African Americans.
It is an inspiring story about those whose spirits would not be broken by slavery, those who found ways to create families and communities under unimaginably brutal conditions, and those who managed — against all odds — to escape to freedom.
The African Meeting House reminds us that America has come a long way in making good on what Dr. King called “the promissory note” of our democracy — the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to all our citizens.
It is a testament to the great strides we have made in outlawing the racial injustice that tainted the ideals of American society and helped make possible the election of our first African American president and, in Massachusetts, our first African American governor.
But the African Meeting House also reminds us of the work and the struggle that continues today. If we are to be fully emancipated from the consequences of slavery, we must understand its history, which played out so eloquently, so gallantly and so courageously at the African Meeting House.
John Kerry is the senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.