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Meeting House

11/05/08 7:55AM By Howard Coffin
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(HOST) Commentator and historian Howard Coffin visited Boston recently - where he had a strong premonition about the outcome of this presidential election.

(COFFIN) Each year as autumn strengthens and the hours of light shrink, I take myself from Vermont to Boston, and walk again the streets of this city I have loved for half a century. And so it was on the Saturday before election day 2008 that my wife Sue and I came upon a National Park Service ranger beginning a tour of Beacon Hill's African American history by speaking before Augustus Saint Gaudens' Robert Gould Shaw memorial.

We joined in, at first retracing the steps of the Civil War's first black regiment, Shaw's 54th Massachusetts, which marched down Beacon Street in 1863, headed south to glory, many to die for freedom.

Along the narrow cobblestone streets beyond Louisburg Square we were told that an African-American community developed here long before the Civil War. Here was the little wooden house of George Middleton, who once stood alone with an ancient musket in hand, perhaps the one he carried in the Revolutionary War,  to turn back a mob of angry whites. Here was the stately brick home of Lewis Hayden, in which scores of fugitives were sheltered.

Down a narrow hillside way we came upon the 1806 African-American meeting House, the oldest standing black church building in America. Though long closed for renovations, the ranger, sensing our particular interest, admitted us to the lower floor which was once a schoolroom. There, on a January night in 1832, a small group of blacks met with William Lloyd Garrison.

Once Garrison had been an advocate of colonization, of sending blacks back to Africa. But the former slaves that he knew changed his mind, made him understand that they wished to remain in America, to live here and be citizens - to be free. This night the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded, and from it the abolition movement exploded across the North.  Thus the issue was joined.

As I stood in that shrine, the thought occurred that, in three days, a black man would likely be elected president of these UNITED States of America. And he would be a senator from Illinois, the state of Lincoln, destined to take office in the year of Lincoln's 200th birthday. The word "hallelujah" came to mind.

Then I read these words of Garrison in a church brochure: "We have met tonight in this obscure schoolhouse, our numbers are few and our influence limited, but mark my prediction, Faneuil Hall shall long echo with the principles we have set forth.  We shall take the nation by their mighty power."

And to that I added three words of my own, surprising myself by saying them aloud for the first time in quite a while: "God bless America."
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