Boston Athenæum Directory of African Americans in Boston, 1820-1865
The Boston Athenæum has assembled a list of names, addresses and occupations for approximately 5800 African Americans who lived in Boston during the period from 1820 to 1863, the time at which the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. This list is the culmination of three years of painstaking research that was begun as an effort to create a list of black voters for display at the State House. A few broad-minded historians realized the relative wealth of information that was available to researchers interested both in this facet of Boston history and in the field of African-American history. The project was later expanded to include all black adults.
Rather than grouping individuals by family, occupation or neighborhood, the database contains separate entries for each person. Using such a structure, all of the information collected on one person can be viewed at once. All information in the database records was gathered from at least one of three sources examined by Boston Athenæum staff and volunteers: the Boston Directory for the years between 1820 and 1865, the 1850 and 1860 federal censuses, the 1855 Massachusetts state census, and the Boston Tax Assessor’s ward books between 1850 and 1865.
The Boston Directory is a resource through which individuals may be traced for decades. It provides information almost exclusively for the heads of households, although in a few cases married women (most likely those whose husbands were mariners and thus out of town) or single women with a trade were listed. In the early directories, address was given with only a street for reference, and often was omitted entirely, identifying the person only by occupation. Occupation was not always listed either. Any information found in the directories was included in the database.
African Americans were listed in a “Colored Section” until 1849, when the books were integrated. Ironically, the segregated directories provide much more certain information for the researcher than is found in those of later years. For example, in 1848 in the colored section there may be only one John Brown, laborer. But the directory of 1849 might have six John Browns and no indication of each one’s race. This is especially difficult in cases where the African-American person may have changed residences, which was fairly common. Therefore, the directory references from 1820-48 are a more reliable source than those from the later part of the period.
In order to examine this later period and to gather a more accurate list of adult women , Athenæum staff and volunteers checked the federal censuses of 1850 and 1860 and the Massachusetts Census of 1855 in addition to the Boston Directories. Although these early censuses did not list street addresses, they did provide a ward reference and more specific information about individuals. Each building in the city was numbered, and each household within a dwelling was also given a number. The head of the household was listed first, followed by other household members, including children and servants. Information about each individual was recorded: age, color (white, black or “mulatto”), gender, occupation, and birthplace. The federal censuses included literacy status, and notes in the margin of all censuses show evidence of pauperism, conviction, and handicaps (defined as deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic). These details were recorded in the database in most cases. Minors, however, were not included.
Since African Americans were no longer listed in a separate section of the Boston Directory after 1849 and the censuses only gave a single ward reference, more evidence was found in the Boston Tax Assessors’ Indexes for 1850-63. The names and ward locations of all African-American taxpayers were recorded and entered into the database. Unfortunately, only adult males who owned property were included in this resource, so the information by itself would have been inconclusive. But when viewed in conjunction with the census and directory records, the index material provides a look at the location and occupation of black taxpayers.
The Fifty-fourth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was a part of Boston’s African-American community as well, for however brief a time. The soldiers trained in Readville, just outside the city, and although most of them were not native Bostonians, they are still included in the database. The roster of the 54th was perused and the prewar occupation, army position, place of origin, and any other information that could be found was included in the files.
The familial relationships that could be safely assumed are included, although it is specified that these are only probable or possible, not definite.
- BD: The Boston Directory (1820-1865)
- C or FC: Federal Census (1850 and 1860)
- C or MC: Massachusetts State Census (1855)
- AB or TR: Boston Tax Assessor’s Ward Books (1850-1865)
- 54MVI: Roster of Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
- S: Single
- M: Married
- M*: Probably married
- W: Widowed
- W*: Probably widowed
How to Navigate the Directory
If you have Microsoft Access on your computer, download the Access Database linked below. The following instructions will help you navigate it.
You can search by first or last name.
The records are listed alphabetically by last name. You can sort by selecting a column and choosing ascending (A to Z) or descending (Z to A).
Please note: the list has a scroll bar separate from the window scroll bar at the far right.
To see a full record, highlight the desired record and click “view record” at the bottom.
If you do not have Microsoft Access on your computer, download our export of the database contents linked below, and refer to the included “How to Use this Resource” pdf for guidance.
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