Community service

Archaeological digs to begin at headquarters of Women’s League for Community Service

A city archaeologist announces archaeological digs at the headquarters of the Women’s League for Community Service in the South Ward

The city’s archeology team will begin a new archaeological dig at the headquarters of the Women’s League for Community Service located at 558 Massachusetts Avenue in the South End. This will be the first archaeological dig in the district.

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

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

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

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 late 1940s. The League helped any neighbor in need with a soup community, a children’s meal program and clothing exchanges.

In the 1950s and 1960s, 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 remained a gathering place for Boston’s black community and a repository of cultural artifacts for over a century.

Today, the house retains a remarkable amount of its original interior features, and the League is in the process of fundraising for large-scale restoration. The city’s archeology program has partnered with the League to explore the courtyard space behind the building with League members and community members to document what may have been there before the start of landscaping work.

The original wealthy homeowners could have four indoor flush toilets and two showers in their homes decades before Boston got running water and sewers. “I’m really curious to see what might be in the yard of this house, given that they probably didn’t have a toilet,” said town archaeologist Joe Bagley. “It’s possible that the hired help in the house had an outhouse, but there should be a large cistern and sump somewhere on the property.”

The dig aims to learn more about the lives and activities of the two families who lived at the house and the early history of the League. Archaeologists will also look for any evidence to support the Underground Railroad story.

The city’s archeology team will begin their investigation on October 3 and expect to excavate until the end of the month. The excavation is open to the public. The team will notify the public via social media posts from the field as well as updates on the status of the project as artifacts are cleaned up and cataloged. A final public report summarizing the findings of the project will be made public in 2023.