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Archaeological dig to begin at league of women for community service headquarters in Boston

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Sep 26, 2022 - 09:44 PM

The City Archaeology team will begin a new archaeological dig at the headquarters of the League of Women for Community Service located at 558 Massachusetts Avenue in the South End.  This will be the first archaeological dig in the neighborhood.

The Landmark designated townhome was built in 1858 for William and Martha Carnes and their three children on former marsh land in the newly-filled neighborhood. The stately home was the showcase of William’s fine wood importation and furniture making business and retains much of its original interior including some of the original furniture.

The Carneses were dedicated abolitionists and there is oral history that the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1868, Nathaniel and Eliza Farwell bought the home. Nathaniel was the mayor of Lewiston, Maine and a cotton mill owner, and his daughter, Evelyn, married into the Ayer textile family.  They were complicit in the cotton industry and benefited greatly from enslaved and later indentured labor in southern cotton plantations.

In 1920, the League of Women for Community Service purchased the building. The League is a group of Black Bostonians who created the organization in 1918 in response to the lack of support for Black veterans returning from World War I.  The League supported Black artistic and intellectual community through concerts, lectures, and exhibits in the house.

The South End became a growth area for Boston’s Black and immigrant communities in the early 20th century, becoming the most densely populated neighborhood by the end of the 1940s. The League helped any neighbor in need through a soup kitchen, lunch program for children, and clothing swaps.

In the 1950s and 60s, the building provided housing for Black students who could not live in local college dorms due to segregation. Coretta Scott rented a room in the building while a student at the New England Conservatory, and met Martin Luther King, Jr. while living there. The League building has remained a gathering place for Boston’s Black community and repository of cultural items for over a century.

Today, the house retains a remarkable amount of its original interior elements, and the League is in the process of fundraising for a large-scale restoration. The City Archaeology Program has teamed up with the League to explore the yard space behind the building with members of the League and community members in order to document what may be there before landscape work begins.

The wealthy original owners were able to have four indoor flushing toilets and two showers in their home decades before Boston received running water and sewers. “I’m really curious to see what may be in the yard at this home, given that they likely didn’t have a privy,” said City Archaeologist Joe Bagley. “It’s possible that the hired help in the house had an outdoor toilet, but there should be a large cistern and cesspool somewhere on the property.”

The dig aims to find out more about the lives and activities of the two families who lived at the home and the early League History. The archaeologists will also be looking for any evidence in support of Underground Railroad history.

The City Archaeology team will begin their survey on October 3rd and expect to be excavating through the end of the month.  The dig is open to the public. The team will update the public via social media posts from the field as well as status updates on the project as the artifacts are washed and cataloged. A final public report summarizing the findings of the project will be made public in 2023.

Source: City of Boston

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