City Hall Plaza (formerly 16 Brattle Street), Downtown
In 1861, as Massachusetts rallied for the Civil War, abolitionist Joshua Bowen Smith, one of just five Black restaurateurs in the state, fed the state’s 12th Regiment for a period of three months, incurring a sizable outlay, $40,378. On presentation of the bill to the governor, John Andrew, himself an abolitionist, the state refused to pay. However, it did reimburse white restaurateurs. Such discrimination was the norm. According to a historian of the period, Black business people operated in “constant fear” that white clientele would not pay. Eight years later, following a lawsuit, Smith received partial compensation, insufficient however to save his business and rendering him indebted until his death in 1879.
Prior to those events, Smith grew a lucrative catering and then restaurant business serving both Harvard University and the abolitionist movement. His staff included formerly enslaved people, many living as fugitives from the South. Their employment was thus in defiance of federal law. Such a stance was consistent with Smith’s commitments. He was a leader of the Boston Vigilance Committee and founder of the New England Freedom Association, a fugitive slave assistance group founded by African Americans.
After the Civil War, Smith enjoyed enough public support to be win election to the state legislature in 1873. His many legislative activities included persuading the state to erect the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial across from the Massachusetts State House and advising his close friend Senator Charles Sumner on the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875.
Smith’s home at 79 Norfolk Street, Cambridge, is today part of that city’s African American Heritage Trail. Smith harbored people fleeing enslavement in his home, which served as stop on the Underground Railroad in the years preceding the Civil War.
As for the former site of his catering business, the City of Boston eradicated Brattle Street as part of the larger razing of Scollay Square in 1962. The business would have stood on what is today the southern end of City Hall Plaza. In Smith’s time, the area was home to key institutions associated with the abolitionist movement. Located one block away, on Cornhill Street, for example, were the offices of the famed abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, and John P. Jewett and Company, publisher of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Blue Line or Green Line to Government Center station.
To learn more:
Kelly Erby, Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.*
Smith is buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
*The book mistakenly reports that Joshua Bowen Smith’s catering business was located on Brattle Street in Cambridge, instead of Boston.