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Amid national protests, Nantucket residents still want to know who defaced Black landmark

The main entrance to the African Meeting House.
The main entrance to the African Meeting House.JOSEPH FERRARO

With protesters bringing fresh attention to the ongoing oppression and inequity faced by Black Americans , some activists and community members want to know how close Massachusetts investigators are to determining who sprayed racist graffiti on Nantucket’s African Meeting House more than two years ago.

Thousands of people have signed an online petition since it launched on Saturday, urging Attorney General Maura Healey and the Massachusetts State Police to provide an update on the investigation, particularly as local officials publicly hint they may know who was involved.

In response, the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office — which is handling the case, not Healey — said the investigation is ongoing.

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"It has been more than two years now, and the Nantucket community, and primarily the African-American community on the island, have still not received closure from this incident," read the petition, which through Monday afternoon had nearly 7,000 signatures. "Additionally, there have been no updates or statements provided by the AG Healey and the Massachusetts State Police on the status of the investigation. There are numerous yard signs on the island demanding justice for this case."

The historic African Meeting House has stood on Nantucket since the early 19th century, when the African Baptist Society helped build it as a church, school and meeting house in what was still a segregated area.

Today, the House is part of The Museum of African American History's Nantucket campus and remains, in the museum's estimation, "the only public building still in existence that was constructed and occupied by the island's African Americans during the nineteenth century."

On March 10 or March 11, 2018, an unknown individual or group painted "N----r Leave" and an image of male genitals onto the front of the building, an act that the Nantucket Police Department immediately labeled a hate crime.

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The department last year transferred the case to State Police and the Cape and Islands district attorney.

The Cape and Islands DA's office asked Healey to appoint Assistant District Attorney Daniel Higgins as a special assistant attorney general for the matter so that he could use the attorney general's statewide grand jury, but Healey and her staff are not involved in the investigation beyond that procedural step, according to a spokesperson for her office.

Higgins said Monday that work on the case is ongoing.

“It’s an open investigation at this time with State Police,” Higgins said.

A State Police spokesman did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Locals have publicly described growing frustration at the length of the investigation and the lack of updates.

According to a Thursday report in the local Inquirer and Mirror newspaper, Nantucket High School student Britney Anderson, during a protest against police violence, asked why the investigation had lasted more than two years.

"It wouldn't be responsible for me as a police chief to investigate an incident in what people believe we were involved," Nantucket Police Chief Bill Pittman said, according to the Inquirer. "I think I know who did it, to be honest with you, but I don't have the facts and it's out of my hands."

At a March 11 Nantucket Select Board meeting, almost exactly two years after the alleged vandalism, local resident Rosemary Samuels, who is Black, linked the incident to her experience working with police after her 12-year-old son was struck by a car while riding his bicycle.

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Samuels said police told her they would be in touch, but never followed up and have not communicated with her in the nearly two years since her son was hit.

"The police department takes sides," she said. "They take sides that don't look out for the Black population or the rest of people from different countries in the community, which should not be so. You have to come to realize this is a new Nantucket. Nantucket is a diverse community."

The Inquirer and Mirror reported Thursday that Pittman said the department investigated Samuels’ case and that she is a “very decent individual” who has been pushed by others “into a false narrative.

A previous version of this story inaccurately described Attorney General Maura Healey’s involvement in the case. At the request of the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office, which is investigating the case, Healey approved Assistant District Attorney Daniel Higgins to be a special assistant attorney general, which allowed him to access the attorney general’s statewide grand jury. Healey is not otherwise involved.