Cambridge Historical Commission | African American Heritage Trail

Cambridge Historical Commission:
Black History Month -- African American Trailblazers

The history of the African American community in Cambridge is rich and complex. The first African Americans in Cambridge were brought here against their will as slaves. Soon after settlement, free blacks established themselves in many communities, including Cambridge. Few African Americans stayed in Cambridge after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, but a small community did remain and were joined in the 1840s by those escaping slavery in the south and segregation in others parts of the country.

The twenty individuals who are commemorated on the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail are a few of the many African Americans who distinguished themselves in Cambridge in the one hundred years between 1840 to 1940. 

A total of nine biographies from the Trail are included here on the CHC website during February.  We hope you enjoy this special feature.

Click here to view biographies of William Wells Brown, J. Milton Clarke & Lewis Clarke, and Harriet A. Jacobs

Click here for biographies of John J. Fatal, Joshua Bowen Smith, and Patrick H. Raymond.

Click here to cross the bridge from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, the last biographies to be posted are of three African American women who devoted their lives to education: Maria Baldwin, Alberta V. Scott, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown.













(pronounced Mah-rye-ah, emphasis on the middle syllable)
Educator, Lecturer, and Community Activist
Marker location: Agassiz School, 32 Sacramento Street

Maria Louise Baldwin was the headmaster of the Agassiz Grammar School in Cambridge, the first African American to hold such a position in the North.

Baldwin was born on April 22, 1856, the oldest child of Peter and Mary Baldwin. Her father, an immigrant from Haiti, was a mariner who became a postman in Boston, and her mother was from Baltimore. While the children were growing up, the family lived first on Washington and then on Clark Street, not far from Kendall Square.

Baldwin completed Cambridge’s teacher training program in 1881 but was denied a position in the city schools. She began her career as an elementary school teacher in Chestertown, Maryland. In 1882, however, she received an appointment to teach at the Agassiz School on Oxford Street, and in 1889 was offered the position of headmaster. Baldwin also held home study classes for African American students at Harvard in her house at 196 Prospect Street, which she shared with her brother Louis. After her death, her service to the community was praised by Harvard graduates W. E. B. Du Bois and former assistant attorney general William H. Lewis, as well as by President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard.

Baldwin helped found the League of Women for Community Service and was its president for several years. She also served on the board of the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with her Prospect Street neighbor, attorney and alderman Clement Morgan. Although she left Cambridge in 1906, and lived for the rest of her life at the Franklin Square House in Boston’s South End, she continued as master of the Agassiz School until her death on January 9, 1922.

Boston Transcript, August 24, 1900, and January 10, 1922
Cambridge Public Library photograph collection
Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, 1972–1989
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 1982
Jessie C. Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women, 1992

Maria Baldwin was the headmaster of the Agassiz School on Sacramento Street in Cambridge. For more information on the school, go to 



1875 – 1902
First African American Graduate of Radcliffe College
Marker location: 28 Union Street

Alberta Virginia Scott, a resident of Cambridgeport, was the first African American graduate of Radcliffe College.

Alberta was born near Richmond, Virginia, the daughter of Smith and Fanny Bunch Scott. When she was six years old, her family moved to Cambridge, where they lived in several locations in the "lower Port," a traditionally black neighborhood near Kendall Square that has been replaced with office buildings. Her father, a boiler tender and stationary engineer, was a deacon at the Union Baptist Church on Main Street As a child, Scott devoted herself to intensive study. From the time she entered elementary school, it was said that she had a studious disposition. At Union Baptist, she taught Sunday school under the guidance of her friend Charlotte Hawkins.

Scott graduated with distinction from the Cambridge Latin School in 1894 and entered Radcliffe College, where she studied science and the classics and belonged to the Idler and German clubs. Radcliffe had no dormitories at that time, so during her first two years there she lived with an African American family on Parker Street. In her senior year, she lived at home at 28 Union Street. When she finished college in 1898, she was only the fourth African American to graduate from a women’s college in Massachusetts.

Scott decided that it was her duty to teach African American children in the South rather than stay in Massachusetts. At first she taught in an Indianapolis high school, but in 1900 Booker T. Washington recruited her to teach at the Tuskegee Institute. Scott’s promising future was tragically cut short. After a year in Alabama, she fell sick and returned to Cambridge, where she died at her parents’ home at 37 Hubbard Avenue on August 30, 1902. Charlotte Hawkins sang at her funeral. which was conducted by the Reverend Jesse Harrell of the Union Baptist Church.

Boston Globe, June 23, 1898
Boston Guardian, September 2, 1902
Radcliffe College Alumnae File, Schlesinger Library (photo)

Alberta Scott was the first African American to graduate from Radcliffe. For more information on Radcliffe, alumni, and the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, visit  

Scott taught briefly at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). For information on the university, go to

The historic campus of Tuskegee Institute was made a National Park Service site in 1974. For information, visit 



Educator, Lecturer, Social Worker, and Religious Leader
Marker location: 55 Essex Street

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was the founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute, a private preparatory school for African American children in Sedalia, North Carolina.

Charlotte, born in Henderson, N.C., was the daughter of Carole Hawkins and Edmund H. Hight. Her father deserted them, and Charlotte and her extended family of nineteen moved to Cambridge when she was seven. When her mother married Nelson Willis, a laborer, they settled in a traditionally black neighborhood in the "lower Port," first on Hastings Street near Kendall Square, then on Clark near Main Street. The family moved to 55 Essex Street about 1901. Charlotte, who showed great promise, was successful at finding mentors to encourage her. She started a Sunday school kindergarten at the Union Baptist Church and, like her friend Maria Baldwin, graduated from Cambridge English High School. Her mother discouraged Charlotte from attending Radcliffe College, so at the urging of Alice Freeman Palmer, a member of the state board of education, she attended the Massachusetts State Normal School in Salem.

In 1902, after teaching for a year in North Carolina, she started the Palmer Memorial Institute, which she named after her benefactor. The school prepared students to be educationally self-sufficient, religiously sincere, and culturally secure. Charlotte returned to Cambridge each summer to study and raise money for her school. In 1911, she married Edmund S. Brown, a teacher. In 1917, her parents moved for the last time, to 69 Dana Street. Charlotte continued to return north in the summertime to pursue further studies at Harvard, Wellesley, and Simmons College. A Charlotte Hawkins Brown Club held benefits and mortgage parties at the Union Baptist Church.

As her school grew more famous, Brown traveled widely to speak on behalf of African American education and civil rights. She was a vice president of the National Association of Negro Women and a founding member of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, a forerunner of the Southern Regional Council. Brown died on January 11, 1961, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her school, which closed in 1971, is now the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Memorial State Historic Site.

Cambridge Public Library photograph collection
Charlotte Hawkins Brown Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 1982
Jessie C. Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women, 1992, Union Baptist Church archives

Charlotte Hawkins Brown founded the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina. The school is now a State Historic Park. Visit

To help her students learn fine manners, in 1941 Brown wrote The Correct Thing: to Do, to Say, to Wear. In the introduction, she writes,

The habit of being one’s best self daily in the little courtesies at home, to those nearest to one, so establishes the individual’s expression of fine and gracious personality that meeting a stranger at any time has, for him or her, neither fear nor dread. . . . This book offers no miracles for sudden metamorphosis. It does, however, set down certain definite principles upon which charm depends, and by the practice of which a more desirable and pleasing personality may be achieved.

Advice includes how to:

  • behave at home ("Don’t mistake a family bathroom for a private bath. Every other person has the same right to use it that you have.");
  • set the table for lunch, dinner, or tea;
  • behave at a dance ("Excessive movements of the body are very ungraceful. Remember that dancing should be done with the feet, not the torso.");
  • dress correctly ("Never go shopping, or be seen anywhere on the street before five o’clock p.m. without a hat. In college towns where the people are largely active for the college the opposite is permissible."), and make proper introduction.

A copy may be read at the Historical Commission library.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown & Palmer Memorial Institute: What One Young African American Woman Could Do by Charles W. Wadelington and Richard F. Knapp was published in 1999. This illustrated biography may be read at the Historical Commission library.

These three Trailblazers were prominent in the struggle for freedom and equality both nationally and locally.










(pronounced Fah-tahl, with the accent on the last syllable)
1816 – 1904
Abolitionist and Public Official
Marker location: 49 Lincoln Street

John J. Fatal, a school desegregation advocate and elected official, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, to parents of African and West Indian heritage. While living in Boston, Fatal joined the Boston Vigilance Committee and helped shuttle escaped slaves to Vermont and Canada on the underground railroad. He was also active in a number of fugitive slave cases, particularly the George Latimer affair of 1842. In that case, abolitionists organized a public subscription to buy the freedom of an escaped slave who could easily pass for white. The public was outraged at the actions of the slave hunters, and the episode convinced many New Englanders to support abolition.

Fatal joined Joshua Bowen Smith, John T. Hilton, and William C. Nell, among others, in the fight to desegregate and improve Boston’s public schools. The struggle to end segregation lasted from 1844 to 1855 and culminated in a lawsuit brought by fellow Bostonian Benjamin F. Roberts against the city of Boston. When the suit proved unsuccessful, Fatal joined an exodus of black parents to Cambridge, where the school system was integrated. By 1852, Fatal was living in the house at 49 Lincoln Street. He worked as a laborer, but in 1863 became a porter at a furniture store in Harvard Square. After the Civil War, he opened his own store at the corner of Cambridge and Prospect streets.

In 1870, Fatal became the first African American nominated to a political office in Cambridge. He declined the nomination, however, allowing his friend J. Milton Clarke to become the first African American to serve on the Cambridge Common Council. Despite his protests, Fatal was elected to the council in 1874, but he served only one term before resigning to take a position with Clarke at the U.S. Subtreasury in Boston, where he was in charge of the vaults for twenty-five years. He died on March 18, 1904, at the age of eighty-eight.

Boston Transcript, March 19, 1904
Cambridge Chronicle, August 29, 1903 (photo) and March 26, 1904



1813 – 1879
Abolitionist and State Representative
Marker location: 79 Norfolk Street

Joshua Bowen Smith, a confidant of U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and one of the best-known public figures of his day, was born free in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. His father was English, and his mother was probably of both Native American and African descent.

Joshua grew up in a Quaker household in Philadelphia, but came to Boston in 1836 and found work serving tables at the Mount Washington House, a South Boston hotel. Later, while in the employ of Robert Gould Shaw, Sr., he met the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, George Luther Stearns, and Theodore Parker, as well as Sumner, the future senator.

After working with H. R. Thacker, a caterer, Smith opened his own establishment in 1849. He provided commencement dinners for Harvard College, catered municipal functions, and oversaw some of the most celebrated banquets in Boston history. His business enabled him to employ fugitive slaves while he kept a watchful eye on the movements of bounty hunters, who searched for their prey in Boston restaurants. A member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, Smith was active in two fugitive slave cases. The judge in one case recalled, "In the hotness of his wrath against the servants of the slave power who had hunted down Sims, [Smith] determined to shoot them as they issued from the court house with their lawful prey, and was with difficulty held back."

In 1869, Smith joined Senator Sumner and Governor John Andrew to raise money for the monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Jr., of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, that was placed on Boston Common in 1897. Smith continued to work closely with the senator, advising him on issues relating to manumission rights, which were resolved with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Sumner, who died before the bill became law, remembered Smith in his will, leaving him a valuable painting, The Miracle of the Slave.

Smith was elected to the state legislature in 1873 and 1874 and served as chair of the Federal Relations Committee. Later, he was appointed inspector of the Marine Hospital at Chelsea. He purchased the house at 79 Norfolk Street in 1852, along with most of the property around what is now Rumeal Robinson Court, and lived here until his death.

Boston Evening Traveller, July 5, 1879
Cambridge Chronicle, July 12, 1879 and August 29, 1903 (photo)
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 1982



1831 – 1892
Civil War Veteran, Newspaper Editor, and Fire Chief
Marker location: 10 Pleasant Street

Patrick H. Raymond, the first African American fire chief, was born in Philadelphia, the son of the Reverend John and Susan Raymond. His father, a runaway slave from Virginia who became a well-known abolitionist in New York City, was one of the early pastors of the African Meeting House in Boston. About 1847, the Raymond family moved to Cambridge, where they lived on Washington Street near Kendall Square in the "lower Port," Cambridge’s first African American neighborhood. Raymond worked as a shoemaker before becoming a journalist at the Boston Herald and the Boston Advertiser. Able to pass as white, he and his brother joined the navy in 1862.

In 1864, Raymond returned to Cambridge, and in 1869 became the editor of the weekly Cambridge Press. In 1871, Mayor Hamlin Harding, a former editor of the paper, appointed him chief engineer of the Cambridge Fire Department. In 1870, the department had four assistant engineers, fifteen foremen, nine drivers, fifty-two part-time firemen, and a telegraph operator. The horse-drawn apparatus consisted of four steam fire engines and a hook and ladder truck. Over the next seven years, Raymond was able to triple the annual budget of the department, creating two new fire companies and building new firehouses on Portland Street and Western Avenue and in Brattle and Inman squares. Raymond suffered intense criticism from his rivals at the Cambridge Chronicle, but he survived eight years in office and served at the pleasure of four mayors. During his tenure he lived at 10 Pleasant Street, which was across Green Street from the City Hall of that time.

After Raymond was replaced as chief in 1878, he continued as editor and business agent of the Cambridge Press until 1890. He was elected corresponding secretary of the National Association of Fire Engineers in 1873 and was a charter member of the John A. Logan Post, Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans. His nephew, Theodore Raymond, was a real estate developer and longtime civic leader. Patrick Raymond died on July 28, 1892, and was buried in Cambridge Cemetery.

A History of the Fire Service in Cambridge, 1888
Cambridge Chronicle, April 6, 1878 and August 29, 1903 (photo)
Boston Transcript, July 29, 1892


Each week during Black History Month, three new biographies of Trailblazers will be presented. The first three follow below:




The text of many of Brown’s speeches, as well as the narratives of Harriet Jacobs and the Clarke brothers, may be found in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries: Documenting the American South collection.
Go to for an index.





c. 1814 – 1884
Abolitionist, Physician, and Lecturer
Marker location: 1 Lilac Court, formerly 29 Webster Avenue

William Wells Brown, an escaped slave who became the first African American novelist, was born on the Kentucky plantation of Dr. John Young. Later he was owned by three different masters in the St. Louis area. At one point he was a handyman in the printing office of Elijah P. Lovejoy, the first white abolitionist martyr, whose brother Joseph, a Cambridgeport clergyman, also supported the cause. In 1834, he escaped from his master in Cincinnati and was befriended by a Quaker, Wells Brown. William adopted the man’s name, settled in Cleveland, and started a family. After two years he moved to Buffalo, where his employment on Lake Erie steamers enabled him, in 1842 alone, to help sixty-nine fugitive slaves flee to Canada.

Brown, who learned public speaking in the temperance movement, moved to Boston in 1847 to become a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. That same year, he published his autobiography. A powerful orator, he gave many speeches on behalf of black education and human rights. Sent abroad by the society in 1849, Brown delivered more than a thousand antislavery lectures in Great Britain before returning to Boston in 1854. His book Clotel, or the President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, the first novel by a black American, appeared in 1853. In all, he wrote more than a dozen books, pamphlets, and plays, including the first travel narrative and the first drama by an African American.

In 1860, Brown married Anne Elizabeth Gray, the sister of William Gray, a Cambridgeport African American caterer who later served in the Civil War. The couple settled at 29 Webster Avenue, where Brown’s occupation was listed in the city directories as "author." Brown studied medicine, helped Frederick Douglass recruit for the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, served on the city’s Colored Civic Committee, and ran unsuccessfully for alderman, representative, senator, and governor on the Temperance and Women’s Suffrage tickets. From 1866 to 1878, Brown practiced medicine. In 1874 he moved to Boston’s South End and later to Chelsea. After years in failing health, he died on November 6, 1884, and was buried in Cambridge Cemetery. His house was demolished about 1935.

Boston Transcript, November 8, 1884
Cambridge Chronicle, October 21, 1871; November 3, 1872
Cambridge Public Library photograph collection
W. E. Farrison, William Wells Brown, 1969
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 1982



J. MILTON CLARKE (1820 – 1902) and LEWIS CLARKE (1818 – 1897)
Writers and lecturers
Marker location: 2 Florence Place

Lewis and John Milton Clarke, who were among the many contributors to the antislavery cause in Cambridge, were born in Madison County, Kentucky. They were the sons of an elderly white Revolutionary War veteran and a mulatto daughter of Samuel Campbell, a plantation owner. Campbell promised freedom for his daughter and her ten children upon his death; however, his heirs laid claim to them, and they were sold at auction to several new masters. Owing to their light complexions, Lewis and Milton attracted attention as "white slaves."

The brothers escaped to Ohio and in 1842 were reunited in Oberlin. They arrived in Cambridge in 1843, staying with Aaron Safford, a Boston merchant who lived on Prospect Street near Broadway. They joined the Second Evangelical Congregational Church, which was known as the abolition church. Their pastor, the Reverend Joseph C. Lovejoy (the brother of Elijah, a famous martyr for the abolitionist cause), published their book, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, in 1846. The Clarkes’ fame arose by coincidence. Safford’s wife, Mary, was a daughter of Dr. Lyman Beecher and a sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. After hearing their story, Mary arranged for Stowe to meet the brothers in Cambridge. Stowe based George Harris, a character in Uncle Tom's Cabin, on Lewis.

Lewis left Cambridge before the Civil War to go to Dawn, Ontario, which was founded by escaped slaves. He later returned to Oberlin, where he lived until his death. Milton remained in Cambridge, working as a caterer and waiter. He supported a large extended family and lived on Norfolk Street and Florence Place from 1851 until he died. In 1870, he succeeded his patron, Aaron Safford, on the Common Council, becoming the first African American elected to public office in Cambridge. He was reelected in 1872, but resigned to become a messenger at the U.S. Subtreasury in Boston. There he worked with John J. Fatal, another Cambridge African American, for thirty-three years, until his death at age eighty-two.

Boston Transcript, December 17, 1897
Cambridge Chronicle, March 4, 1902
Lewis Clarke and J. Milton Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, 1846; reprinted 1969
Colored American, vol. 6, 1903 (photo)
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 1982
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852; reprinted
Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded, 1853; reprinted 1968



c. 1813 – 1897
Abolitionist, Author, and Women’s Rights Advocate
Marker location: 17 Story Street

Harriet A. Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, to Delilah Horniblow and Daniel Jacobs. Harriet and her brother John (who later lectured for the abolitionist movement) were orphaned at an early age and passed down to the Norcom family. To avoid the attentions of her new owner, Jacobs took a white lover and bore him two children. However, the man, a future congressman, broke his promise to free them.

In 1835, Jacobs escaped and spent the next seven years hiding in a crawl space above her grandmother’s storeroom. There she kept watch over her children, who had been purchased by their father and sent to live in the house. Reading, writing, and sewing to pass the time, she gained the literary experience that enabled her to write her book years later.

In 1842, Jacobs fled to New York, where she worked as a nursemaid, arranged for her children’s freedom, and met Quaker reformer Amy Post, who became her confidante and urged her to make her story public. Jacobs was freed in 1852, and for the next five years wrote her autobiography. Lydia Maria Child, an accomplished writer with strong anti-slavery convictions, became Jacobs’s editor. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, is now ranked with Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter as a major contribution to the genre of slave narratives. Jacobs became famous, although many thought her story was too fantastic to be true. She used her prominence to advantage, doing relief work for black soldiers and helping create schools for blacks after the Civil War. Jacobs lived in Massachusetts for brief periods while fleeing from her master.

After the war she rented a house on Trowbridge Street near Massachusetts Avenue, which she ran as a boardinghouse in 1870–1872 for the student sons of her white benefactors. In 1873 she moved to the corner of Story and Mount Auburn streets, at 17 Story Street, where she lived for three years. Jacobs lived out her life in Washington, D.C., but was buried with her brother in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Jessie C. Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women, 1992
Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, 1861; Jean
Fagin Yellin, ed., 1987 (photo)


The Guide to the Cambridge African American Trail contains the complete text of each marker, a map with key, and a brief history of African Americans in Cambridge. Books may be purchased for $2.00 each (includes tax) at the Historical Commission (831 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02139). Books can also be ordered by mail, click here for order form and instructions.  Note: Checks should be made payable to the Cambridge Historical Society with a memo that it is for the AAH Trail book.

Additional links and resources: