Smith Court Residences
3-10 Smith Court
The five residential structures on Smith Court are typical of the homes occupied by
black Bostonians in the 19th century. Number 3 was built in 1799 by two white bricklayers.
It was a double house with a common entryway. Black families began renting here between
1825 and 1830. In 1865, it was purchased by black clothier James Scott. William C. Nell
boarded here from 1851 to 1865. Nell was America's first published black historian, a
community activist and leader in the struggle to integrate Boston's public schools before
the Civil War.
Number 5 was built as income property by a lawyer between 1815 and 1828. George
Washington, a laborer and deacon of the African Meeting House, purchased the house in
1849. He lived in the upper part of the house with his wife and nine children, while the
first floor was rented out.
Number 7 was built some time between 1802 and 1811. Number 7A behind Number 7, is in
Holmes Alley. Number 7A was built as a double house in 1799 and sold the next year to
Richard Johnson, a mariner, and David Bartlett, a hairdresser. In the 1860s, black chimney
sweep and entrepreneur Joseph Scarlett bought both 7 and 7A as rental property. In the
19th century, Holmes alley had several houses similar to 7A. They stood where there are
backyards today. Such housing development in the middle of blocks, with an elaborate
system of pedestrian alleys, was typical when African Americans lived in the West End.
Number 10, next to the African Meeting House, was built in 1853 for Joseph Scarlett.
Originally, it had two brick stories with another story of dormer windows and a pitched
roof. Scarlett lived on Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown. At the time of his death in
1898, he owned 15 properties. He left bequests to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion
Church, then on North Bennett Street, and to the Home for Aged Colored Women on Myrtle
The brick apartment houses on the west end of the court and on the corner of Joy Street
are typical of the tenements developers began to build in this neighborhood between 1885
and 1915. They were built to satisfy the need for inexpensive, dense housing units for the
waves of post-1880 European immigrants to Boston. Usually wooden houses were torn down to
make way for these four and five story brick "walk-ups."
Photo credit: Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.