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There are two parts to the history of the First Church in Roxbury: the well known information that can readily be found online, and the true history that together - we are investigating.  This is the part of our history that includes the enslavement of Black- and Indegenous-people by the white parishoners who worshiped here.  This page will continue to be a work in progress as we examine our history.

The First Church in Roxbury is a Boston landmark that has been the home of the UU Urban Ministry since 1976. That was the year that the last congregation that called the church their home disbanded - largely because of "white flight". The UU Urban Ministry is a non-sectarian, non-profit social justice organization that has its offices at this historic building. 


why people mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and i keep on remembering



- Lucille Clifton

(Response when asked to write a poem "celebrating our colonial heritage" for Maryland's 350th anniversary.)


We Speak Now:  Race & Enslavement at the First Church in Roxbury

In early-2023, Aabid Allibhad, a PhD candidate in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, completed a report that focused on the history of racism and enslavement at First Church in Roxbury.  Aabid started this report  at the request of the UU Urban Ministry at First Church and the Roxbury Historical Society, and also solicited feedback from other historians and residents before the report was published.

The report, titled, "Race & Slavery at the First Church in Roxbury (The Colonial Period 1631-1775)", tells the story of at least fifty-eight human beings—Black and Indigenous men, women, and children— who were enslaved by First Church’s white parishioners. Aabid's report is part of our commitment to an accurate look at our history in order to work for a more just future.  And it is not a one-and-done project, but the beginning of our work.

AABID FINAL report cover

Click image to read"Race & Slavery at the First Church in Roxbury (The Colonial Period 1631-1775)" 

Virtual Presentation of the Report

Screenshot 2023-04-28 154157.jpg

In addition to the presentation of the of Aabid's report at an event hosted here, we also held a virtual presentation of "Race & Enslavement at the First Church in Roxbury". 

The virtual presentation features the report's author, Aabid Allibhai, as well as historian Byron Rushing, to discuss the contents and answer questions from those who joined us.  The video is available by clicking the image (left) or

Click the image above to watch the virtual presentation of, We Speak Now:  Race & Enslavement at the First Church in Roxbury.


First Church in Roxbury has been in continuous use since early English settlers built the first meetinghouse on this site in 1632. The church building you see today dates back to 1804. It is the fifth meetinghouse built on this site. First Church in Roxbury is the oldest wooden frame church in Boston, and is an excellent example of the Federal Meetinghouse style.

Below is information about each of the five churches that has been built here, as well as the history of Roxbury.

  • First Meetinghouse (1632-1674)
    First Meetinghouse (1632-1674) English settlers began arriving in the area, originally named Roxborough, in 1630. The first congregation gathered in 1631 and by 1632 settlers completed their first meetinghouse: a small, simple building with a thatched roof. Roxbury’s famous minister, Rev. John Eliot, arrived in Boston in 1631 and began serving at the First Church in Roxbury in 1632. John Eliot became known as the “Apostle to the Indians” for preaching to Native Americans, training them to be ministers in their communities, and translating the Bible into the Algonquin language. Eliot also fought against selling Native Americans into slavery, and was instrumental in establishing free education for residents of Roxbury and other nearby towns.
  • Second Meetinghouse (1674-1741)
    Second Meetinghouse (1674-1741) In 1674 the congregation built a new meetinghouse to accommodate the growing population in Roxbury. Residents in the western-most part of Roxbury (now West Roxbury) built their own church in 1711, calling it the Second Church in Roxbury and, later, the Theodore Parker Church. Brookline residents, who had also been worshipping at First Church in Roxbury, built their own church in 1717. Although the new churches relieved some of the pressure on First Church, by 1736 the congregation was looking to build a third meetinghouse with more seating to accommodate the growing population.
  • Third Meetinghouse (1741-1744)
    Third Meetinghouse: (1741-1744) The First Church Congregation held its first service in the newly constructed third meetinghouse in 1741. Sadly, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1744. Over the next two years, the congregation raised the necessary funds to build a fourth meetinghouse, which they built in the same design as the third building and completed in 1746.
  • Fourth Meetinghouse (1746-1803)
    Fourth Meetinghouse (1746-1803) The fourth meeting house on the site bore witness to the Revolutionary War and, sitting as it did on the strategically important “Meetinghouse Hill,” became the center of a great deal of activity. The area around the church was used as a parade ground and the belfry served as a signal station, making the church a target for British bombs. The British evacuated Boston in 1776, but bombing had destroyed property and soldiers had cut down much of Roxbury’s trees, including many of the orchards the town was known for.
  • Fifth Meetinghouse (1804-present)
    Fifth Meetinghouse (1804-present) By the beginning of the 19th century, the congregation had plans to build a larger and grander meetinghouse. They hired a team of carpenters who tore down the fourth building and erected the fifth in eleven months. Much of how First Church looks today has its origins in the early 19th and early 20th centuries. The wall clock in the sanctuary is a replica of the clock the congregation bought in 1803 from Simon Willard, a prominent parishioner and well-known clockmaker (the original is on loan to the Willard House and clock Museum). The steeple bell, which weighs more than 1500 pounds, was bought in 1819 from the Revere Foundry in Canton. The organ was purchased in 1883 from the Roxbury firm of Hook & Hastings and the pulpit, modeled after the pulpit in the First Church of Lancaster, was installed in 1888. In 1913, Rev. James De Normandie dedicated the first four of the memorial plaques that hang prominently in the sanctuary. The steeple you see today was rebuilt in 1954 after a hurricane destroyed the original. Putnam Chapel was built next to First Church In 1878. In 2003, the UU Urban Ministry sold its downtown Boston office and constructed the Education and Justice Center at First Church to serve as the headquarters for Urban Ministry activities. The new center, which physically connects First Church with Putnam Chapel, features two floors of classrooms, a full kitchen, lounge, as well as as office space for UU Urban Ministry employees. In February 2023, the First Church in Roxbury was named an official Boston landmark.
  • History of Roxbury
    Roxbury is one of six villages founded by English colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The town — literally named for the area’s prominent stones and rocky features — grew from the very spot on which the UUUM campus is located, with early settlers making their homes within close proximity to the meetinghouse and then spreading outwards as the town grew. First Church in Roxbury is the fifth meetinghouse built on this site. 1630-1775 Roxbury’s original boundaries included present-day Roxbury and the neighborhoods of Mission Hill, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, the South End and much of Back Bay. The town was located where Boston connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, called “Roxbury Neck.” Roxbury Neck eventually disappeared under the massive landfill efforts that shaped modern Boston. Roxbury provided the colonists with many resources important to their survival in the new land: good farmland; materials for building, such as timber and stone; and the Stony Brook for waterpower. Because of its location on Roxbury Neck, the only land route into Boston, Roxbury became important economically and militarily. The town became known for its Roxbury puddingstone, which has been used in the foundations of many buildings and homes throughout the Boston area. In 1632, the colonists built their first meetinghouse in John Eliot Square, and there has been a church on this site continuously ever since. John Eliot Square served as the town center, and many of the colonists’ early roads still define the area’s topology: Washington St., Dudley St., Centre St., Roxbury St. and Warren St. all date back to the first years of settlement. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Roxbury’s primary economic activity was farming. The town was known for its orchards, with Roxbury farmers developing several notable varieties, including both the Roxbury Russet and Williams apples. 1775-1783 Because of its high elevation and location as the gateway to Boston, Roxbury became strategically important during the Revolutionary War. In 1775, the colonists built Fort Hill at Roxbury Neck to fortify the only land route into and out of Boston on the Shawmut Peninsula. Fort Hill was comprised of simple earthworks — there was no stone fort, and no tower was built. The fort became part of the Siege of Boston, which was the opening phase of the American Revolutionary War in which New England militiamen (and then the Continental Army) surrounded Boston to prevent the British Army from spreading out into the countryside. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the town of Roxbury had built its fourth meetinghouse on this site. First Church in Roxbury housed soldiers and served as a signal station and, therefore, became a target for British canon fire. By the end of the war, a great deal of property around the meetinghouse had been destroyed, and soldiers had cut down much of Roxbury’s trees, including many of the orchards the town was known for. One of the town’s priorities was to build a new meetinghouse, which would be the fifth church to be constructed on the site of the original 1632 meetinghouse in John Eliot Square. Completed in 1804, this fifth meetinghouse is the present First Church in Roxbury. 1783-1900 In the first generations after the Revolutionary War, American society went through many changes as cities grew and industries developed. This process included a new ideal of “the good life.” Instead of living near their work in the city, people wanted to live in free-standing, single-family houses with yards and trees. Roxbury was close enough to Boston to be a good choice for those pursuing this suburban dream. The first developments took place in the 1820s, when a horse-drawn bus line was established along Washington Street, linking Roxbury to Boston for commuters; and in 1835, when the railroad from Boston to Providence was sited along the Stony Brook Valley. Soon, farmland began to be subdivided for single-family dwellings, and Roxbury began its transition to a leafy Boston suburb. When electric trolley service began in 1887, more and more families poured into the neighborhood, creating a market for rowhouses and triple-deckers as well as single-family homes. Growth created the need for more municipal services, so the citizens of Roxbury voted first to incorporate as a city in 1846 and then to become annexed to Boston in 1868. The demand for services was responsible for public works projects such as the Eustis Street Fire Station and the Cochituate Stand Pipe. 1900-Present From Roxbury’s earliest days, commerce centered at Dudley Station, where Washington, Warren, and Dudley streets cross. By the turn of the 20th century, the area was a bustling mix of department stores, residential hotels, silent movie theaters, banks, and even a bowling alley, all designed by prominent Boston architects in a rich mixture of revival styles. Dudley Station itself opened in 1901 as the southern terminus of the Boston Elevated Railway, which ran to Sullivan Square in Charlestown and later became part of the Orange Line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. In 1885, Roxbury built the 527-acre Franklin Park, the largest park in Boston. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park is the final jewel of the Emerald Necklace – the seven-mile stretch of public parks land that begins at Boston Common. Until about 1900, Roxbury was a community of English, Irish, and German immigrants and their descendants. In the early 20th century, Roxbury became more diverse with the establishment of a Jewish community in the Grove Hall area along Blue Hill Avenue. Following a massive migration from the South to northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s, Roxbury became the center of the African-American community in Boston.


This video features Anthony Lanier, who has documented life in Roxbury for years. He shares why he is drawn to the Meetinghouse and special photos from an historic event that took place there: the Boston reenactment of the 1965 March in Selma which featured a speech delivered by civil rights icon, John Lewis.

Photographs in video are courtesy of Anthony Lanier.

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