Cambridge Historical CommissionHistory & Links  | African American Heritage Trail

African American Heritage Trail Guide Book

The Cambridge African American Heritage Trail Committee has published an illustrated guide to the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail. Twenty historic plaques across the city honor notable African Americans who were abolitionists, authors, educators, and office holders in Cambridge from 1840 to 1940. The guide 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.

Cambridge is home to one of the oldest African American communities in the nation and has long attracted African Americans of national prominence and influence. For many years, local groups worked separately to gather and maintain the history of the community. In November 1990, then-Vice Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves sponsored a City Council resolution asking these independent organizations to collaborate in the creation of "a Cambridge African American Historical Trail, to serve as . . . a vehicle for teaching and interpreting Cambridge African American history." In response, over twenty representatives from local community organizations came together in early 1991 to form the Cambridge African American Heritage Project. The mission of the project was to illuminate the unique history and vital contributions of Cambridge African Americans for residents and visitors, through the creation of a historic trail and the distribution of educational and informational materials.

With the participation of Cambridge Discovery, then the city’s tourist and resident information service, and the Cambridge Historical Commission, the city’s historic preservation agency, the Project initiated a nationwide search for materials on individuals and sites relating to the African American experience in Cambridge and oversaw several researchers and curriculum development specialists. Project historian Reverend Jeffrey Brown and the staff of the Historical Commission worked together to refine the research and write the texts for the historic markers.

In 1993, the first Trail marker, commemorating the life and work of W.E.B. DuBois, was installed at 20 Flagg Street. The Trail now honors twenty notable African Americans. Some, like Du Bois, achieved national prominence. Du Bois was the father of Pan Africanism and founder of the NAACP. He lived in Cambridge while attending Harvard University. In 1895, he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. William H. Lewis, a graduate of Harvard Law School and an All-American football player, was the first African American to serve as assistant attorney general of the United States. Bishop George A. McGuire, an Episcopal priest, founded the African Orthodox denomination, which was the religious arm of Marcus Garvey’s Back to African movement.

Other Trailblazers made their greatest contributions at home in Cambridge. Patrick Raymond, a veteran of the Civil War, was editor of the weekly Cambridge Press and fire chief from 1871 to 1878. Maria Baldwin, who attended Cambridge public schools, was heralded in the national black press when she was appointed headmaster of Cambridge’s Agassiz Grammar School, becoming the first African American to hold such a position in the north. Reverend P. Thomas Stanford, born in slavery in 1860, started a shelter for homeless women and children in North Cambridge. These are just a few of the lives highlighted by the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail.

The 12-member Cambridge African American Heritage Trail Committee is composed of educators, local historians, and community activists, all with long histories of involvement in the life of Cambridge. Future projects include distribution of The African American Experience in Cambridge: A Teacher Resource Guide and research into the African American presence in Cambridge before the Revolution.

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