You probably remember reading the story: In March 2018, Nantucket’s c. 1827 African Meeting House was vandalized. The community came together and quickly repaired the damage. The vandalism was a hateful act, but there was also a bright side: Some folks didn’t realize the African Meeting House — the epicenter of Nantucket’s African American history — even existed. “This unfortunate event gave us the chance to shed light on Nantucket’s untold story,” says L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation at the Museum of African American History Boston/Nantucket.
Many New Englanders are aware of Martha’s Vineyard’s history as a haven for Blacks, but Nantucket’s past as it relates to people of color? Not so much. “Nantucket is an established place of Black experience in American history,” says Leon Wilson, the new president and CEO of the Museum of African American History. If you didn’t realize that, you’re not alone: Wilson calls it a “large gap in US history.” Scholars involved with the museum, and Nantucket’s Black Heritage Trail, are aiming to close it.
A visit to Nantucket’s African Meeting House and Museum of African American History is a great way to get a sense of the island’s secret history. It is among 10 sites on Nantucket’s Black Heritage Trail, featuring historic homes and neighborhoods that reveal how African Americans advanced the cause of freedom — while living on an island 30 miles out to sea. Because of COVID-19, we spoke to Frazier and Wilson by telephone to get a sense of Nantucket’s untold story. Some day, the actual sites on the Black Heritage Trail will open safely so you can actually visit them. Until then, here are some of the things we learned on our virtual tour.
Freed slaves sought shelter on the island. But because of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, slave hunters could legally travel to free states to capture runaway slaves. Nantucket became an underground railroad of sorts, says Frazier; some Nantucketers, like the family of activist Anna Gardner (whose house still stands at 40 Orange St.) sheltered escaped slaves. When bounty hunters arrived on Nantucket to find fugitive enslaved people — presumably an easy task on a 15-mile-long island — the trail grew as cold as Madaket Beach in January, Wilson says. “We’ve unearthed many stories that offer evidence of this.”
One major connector between Black and white islanders on Nantucket: The sea. “There’s water in our [African-American] DNA. It was invested in us on our journey to America,” Wilson says. Nantucket, of course, was all about life on the sea. To that end, Black and white mariners worked side-by-side on fishing boats and whaling ships, out at sea for months at time. “There’s an interdependence with life aboard ship. These men were intertwined to survive, and this became part of the fabric of the island,” Wilson explains. “They developed a culture of working together and living together.”
Black sailors weren’t just crew on Nantucket’s whaling ships — some were captains. One of the best known was Captain Absalom Boston (1785-1855), whose portrait hangs in the Whaling Museum. Boston was the first Black captain to own his own whaling ship. “In 1822, Captain Boston took a voyage with 200 Black men aboard the schooner The Industry, and they all came back after six months,” Frazier says, returning with 70 barrels of oil. Boston later cofounded the African Meeting House.
African Americans on Nantucket were entrepreneurs and landowners. “People assume that Black society in Nantucket was only a serving class, but that was not the case,” Frazier says. They worked as tradespeople, laborers, and farmers, launched businesses, and quickly bought property and built homes. Black Nantucketers established a neighborhood called “New Guinea,” at an area now known as Five Corners, and they gave some of the streets names like Angola as a nod to their West African roots. “They were engaged socially and economically, and they were patriots, deeply involved in political life,” says Frazier.
The African Meeting House was the beating heart of the island’s Black community. Built around 1825 by the African Baptist Society, the multipurpose structure functioned as a one-room schoolhouse for students of color, who weren’t allowed to attend public school. Nantucket’s schools were officially desegregated in 1846, more than 100 years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling made segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The meeting house also served as a safe haven for escaped slaves and a meeting place for Native Americans, Cape Verdeans, Quakers, educators, and abolitionists. The building underwent a major restoration in the 1990s, but nearly three-quarters of the original structure remains. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is home to Nantucket’s Museum of African American History.
The Florence Higginbotham House represents two centuries of occupation by Black families on Nantucket. It’s a rare and significant example of a house constructed for a middle-class African-American family in the 18th century, and features period Nantucket architectural design. Recent evidence reveals that the house had been owned by Seneca Boston, Absalom’s father, since 1774.
Frederick Douglass gave his first public speech to an integrated audience in Nantucket’s Atheneum in 1841, the first year Blacks were allowed to meet at this space. The Atheneum is now Nantucket’s public library.
All of the sites referenced here, and more, including the Whaling Museum, are part of Nantucket’s Black Heritage Trail. Pick up a map of the trail and visit on your own, or join a guided tour. Guided tours are set to begin in June (by reservation only), but that is likely to change because of COVID-19. For details, visit www.maah.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org