Field Trips!

Project team members standing in Smith Court.
l to r: Kira Torrieri, Jessica Luo, Kesia Davies, Ananya Dhandapani. Student project team members not pictured include Jenia Browne and Liam Maclean.

We took a trip to Beacon Hill to check out extant structures, take notes on materials, and to try out some 360 cameras. Here’s an unstitched spherical photo of members of the student team standing in Smith Court in front of the African Meeting House.

Here’s what image looks like stitched. You can click and drag to rotate the image.

Belknap Street and Smith Court

It’s really hard to find visual evidence of what Belknap Street (as it bordered West End) looked like in the period before the Civil War. So we thought you might want to see two wood engravings that appear in Sketches of Boston, Past and Present (1851). These wood engravings seem to have been used first in 1840s editions of the Boston Almanac, and were reused for this publication. They give us a brief glimpse of what the neighborhood looked like about 10-15 years after Walker’s death.

The Abiel Smith School and Belknap Street, from Homans, Isaac Smith. Sketches of Boston, Past and Present (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1851).

This view looks up Belknap Street, toward Boston Commons, from approximately Walker’s front doorstep. The second structure from the right is the Abiel Smith School, which served the African American community. It is currently the site of the African American History Museum. The structure furthest to the right is no longer extant, but would have abutted a structure that William Cooper Nell once occupied. This may well have been what Walker could see from his front window.

The African Meeting House and First Independent Baptist Church, from Homans, Isaac Smith. Sketches of Boston, Past and Present (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1851).

Were we to take right at the Abiel Smith School instead of heading toward the Commons, we’d find the African Meeting House and the First Independent Baptist Church. The wall on the left is the back side of the Smith School. There are some houses on the far right which no longer exist, but much about this view is still recognizable today.

David Walker in the City Directories

Much the way we navigated the twentieth century by using phonebooks, nineteenth-century Bostonians used printed directories to locate individual households and businesses within the city. Directory listings tend to reflect head of household and may list the dwelling place, place of business, or both. Boston directories in the early nineteenth century included segregated listings of “People of Color” that allow us to track individuals on Belknap Street (the site of Walker’s first residence and African American neighborhood) during non-census years. This is particularly useful in Walker’s case since he only appears in the federal census for 1830, around the time of his death. The state censuses from Walker’s time in Boston, which were taken every 10 years in years ending as “5,” have not survived.

Example of a "People of Color" directory from Stimpson's Boston Directory for 1835, available on via the Library of Congress.
Example of a “People of Color” directory from Stimpson’s Boston Directory for 1835, available on via the Library of Congress.

David Walker first appears in the city directory for 1825. His last appearance is in 1830. His address appears differently in each directory, so we’d like to break down what you might find in a directory through his example.

Walker, David, clothes dealer, City Market
Walker’s listing in the 1825 Boston Directory

It’s probable that Walker arrived in Boston sometime around 1824; city directories took time to prepare for publication, so Walker likely had to set up shop in the city prior to 1825 in order to appear in the city directory for that year. Frustratingly, there appears not to have been a city directory issued for 1824, so there’s no way to tell if Walker may have arrived in late 1823 or early 1824. He is not listed in the 1823 directory. But in 1825, Walker is operating (likely out of a stall) at the City Market, which refers to the area near Faneuil Hall. Quincy Market, which is the adjacent building, was being built around this time as well, to accommodate an expanding number of vendors. This directory doesn’t provide information about where Walker was living that year, though it’s not uncommon for Bostonians to just list a place of business.

Walker, David, clothes dealer, 20 Brattle
Walker’s listing in the 1826 Boston Directory

By 1826, Walker has a store front on Brattle Street; several other Black merchants sold clothing on this block.

Walker. David, clothes dealer, 42 Brattle, h. Belknap
David Walker’s listing in the 1827 Boston Directory

In 1827 we get quite a different entry. Walker was still selling clothes on Brattle Street, but at a different address. This may indicate that he moved to a different store front, but it also could indicate construction and subsequent renumbering of buildings on the street. We’re trying to do more research to work this out. The “h.” stands for house, which later had the address “8 Belknap,” but for much of the 1820s Belknap Street may have had no formal numbering system, which was not unusual for the time. In addition to being a clothes dealer, Walker is an agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper in the United States.

Walker, David, clothes dealer, 42 Brattle
Walker’s listing in the 1828 Boston Directory

In 1828, his household is omitted from the directory.

WALKER, DAVID, clothes dealer, 42 Brattle
Walker’s listing in the 1829 Boston Directory

And there’s no change to the listing in 1829.

Walker, DAVID, clothes, 42 Brattle, h. Bridge
Walker’s listing in the 1830 Boston Directory

In 1830, however, Walker has moved his family to Bridge Street, a site that is no longer extant but has been incorporated into the Massachusetts General Hospital campus. In August Walker dies. The census for 1830 tells us that the household was quite large; in addition to Walker, his wife Eliza, and their daughter Lydia Ann, there was another adult woman and several children. Because the 1830 federal census only lists household heads by name, we’re currently trying to figure out who these other occupants might be.

3D Technologies: 360 Cameras

While our project relies upon building 3D models with a modeling program, such as Google SketchUp or Blender, and then assembling them in the Unity 3D engine, we’ll be trying out various 3D and immersive technologies so the student team has an idea of how each works. Anticipating a future field trip, Angel Nieves and I went out to Beacon Hill to try out some socially-distanced 360 photography with a GoPro Max. This is one of the captures we made; since the camera can be operated remotely with a cell phone, we’re hiding around a corner and using the view finder to capture Smith Court.

Stitched panorama of Smith Court. William Cooper Nell's House, the African Meeting House, and the Abiel Smith School are visible in this image.
Stitched panorama of Smith Court. William Cooper Nell’s House, the African Meeting House, and the Abiel Smith School are visible in this image.

The camera has a stitching algorithm that merges the capture from two spherical, 180 degree lenses by identifying overlapping artifacts in each image it is piecing together. A similar technique is used to merge pictures in photogrammetry processes. Photogrammetry is a popular way of creating 3D models of physical objects through series of circuitously-captured photographs.

360 photographs require EXIF data that tell certain programs to interpret them as spherical captures rather than flat, distorted panoramas. We installed a WordPress plugin that lets us tell WordPress whether to interpret an image as a 360 image, or just a normal .jpg. The VR toggle in the lower right creates a stereoscopic view for your phone, which can be viewed with inexpensive VR devices like Google Cardboard. You can also view the image immersively in 360 by navigating to this page with a head mounted display, such as an Oculus Rift S or Quest, selecting VR mode, and looking around.

Normally, there’d be more people on the street, but because we took this picture during the pandemic, Smith Court was pretty empty. The 360 capture will be useful for thinking about spatial relationships between buildings in this area.

Project Beginnings…

What is this project, and what have we been up to?

While we have decidedly more formal ways of narrating this project, we thought we’d start by explaining how this project got started at Northeastern. Both myself and Angel David Nieves are new faculty as of the 2020-1 academic year; we had known each other from other collaborations that included the Immersive Pedagogy Symposium and a special issue of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. We’re going to be leading some spaces here that we thought had synergy; the a 3D/VR Lab for humanists (Linker) and the Social Justice Studio (Nieves). In the fall semester we sat down and thought through what we could work on together — and so we came up with 3D Black Boston, a project that uses immersive technologies and historical research to recreate sites related to Boston’s historical African American community on Beacon Hill. The first phase of the project examines this space prior to the Civil War and the pilot spaces associated with David Walker, the radical Black abolitionist. We want users to think about the long history of systemic racism in our society, and so I like the idea of looking at Boston, a stronghold of abolition, to show just how pervasive it was. Students sometimes have difficulty realizing that abolition and systemic racism co-exist, and that yes, people who supported ending slavery espoused racism in a range of different ways. At the same time, the African American community in Boston created spaces for themselves in response. We want to tell those stories.

When we say we want to use immersive technologies, we mean that we want to produce virtual reality museums that reconstruct a particular moment in time. Think 3D house museums — you’ve probably been to a historic home that’s been interpreted to reflect a moment or period in time. The nice thing about doing this work in VR is that we can recreate objects and spaces that no longer exist or provide interpretation for places that do, but present obstacles to doing this work. David Walker’s residence at 8 Belknap Street (now 81 Joy) no longer exists, and we’re pretty excited about the possibilities of recreating it digitally.

Thanks to support from Northeastern University, we have several students learning how to conduct historical research, build 3D models, and put everything together. This space will be updated as we progress! Look forward to hearing more from us soon.