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On Nantucket, a racist act gets a second look

Rose Marie Samuels stood with her son Christopher, 14, in Lily Pond Park in Nantucket. Two years ago, Christopher was struck by a vehicle and the driver fled the scene. Samuels made daily calls to Nantucket police seeking information about the incident.
Rose Marie Samuels stood with her son Christopher, 14, in Lily Pond Park in Nantucket. Two years ago, Christopher was struck by a vehicle and the driver fled the scene. Samuels made daily calls to Nantucket police seeking information about the incident.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The Black woman rose quietly from her seat at the back of the meeting room and made her way past the white faces that surrounded her, toward the front.

A Jamaican immigrant who worked as a nursing assistant on Nantucket, Rose Marie Samuels did not make a habit of frequenting meetings of the town’s Select Board. But on this chilly evening in March, she took her place at the microphone and requested what no one on this idyllic summer enclave had yet been able to give her: Answers.

“Today makes two years,” Samuels said in her accented English. “And nothing, still, has happened.”

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On March 11, 2018, island residents awoke to a startling act of hate. The front door of the African Meeting House — a nearly 200-year-old former church that now serves as a symbol of the island’s rich Black history — had been defiled with racist graffiti: “N----- LEAVE.” The crime made national news, shocking many who couldn’t fathom such overt bigotry in a place of rarefied tranquility. Residents quickly condemned the vandalism, while local officials, labeling the act a hate crime, vowed to seek justice.

But justice hasn’t come.

The African Meeting House on Nantucket was vandalized with racist graffiti in March 2018. Two years later, there have been no arrests in the case.
The African Meeting House on Nantucket was vandalized with racist graffiti in March 2018. Two years later, there have been no arrests in the case.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

In the two years that followed, no charges were filed, no arrests made, and the initial outcry eventually faded from the island’s mainstream consciousness — even as whispers persisted that local police might have had a reason to look the other way.

For the growing number of island residents of color, however, the pain has never left. Beneath the surface, they say, racial tensions on Nantucket have simmered for years. Some recount stories of being subjected to racial slurs, or of crimes against them never investigated, or of mistreatment by police.

With those frustrations, and the rise of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, as a backdrop, the unsolved crime at the Meeting House has become a flashpoint. Recent protests on the island have called for renewed attention to the case. A petition seeking information from authorities about the crime quickly garnered thousands of signatures. And after the Cape and Islands district attorney’s office announced this summer that a grand jury was reviewing the crime, there came a measured hope that town officials might now be forced to confront the matter anew.

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“You only need to look at what’s written on that door to fully comprehend that this won’t just simply go away,” says Leon Wilson, chief executive of the Museum of African American History, which operates the Meeting House.

“It was never going to go away.”

* * *

From afar, and to the many part-time residents who spend summers on the island, Nantucket is a breeze-swept haven of lobster rolls and lighthouses, pastel clothing and multimillion-dollar mansions — a quaint, historic escape.

“I think the public’s imagination of Nantucket is probably what downtown Nantucket might look like on a given summer day,” says Julian Cyr, a state senator representing Cape Cod and the islands. “A getaway for the super rich, all of whom are very white.”

Downtown Nantucket is often described as the picture of a Cape Cod village. But behind the bucolic imagery is a more unsettled reality for Black residents who say island authorities do not take crimes against them seriously.
Downtown Nantucket is often described as the picture of a Cape Cod village. But behind the bucolic imagery is a more unsettled reality for Black residents who say island authorities do not take crimes against them seriously.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

But the annual summer scene belies what has become an increasingly diverse year-round population. Today, as an influx of immigrants arrive from places such as Jamaica, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, roughly 30 percent of the island’s 11,000 full-time residents are of color, and 11 percent are Black. The shift has been particularly evident within the local school system, where in some classrooms students of color might outnumber white classmates.

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Despite its changing demographics and progressive history, however — the island was once a haven for freed slaves and served a prominent role in the abolitionist movement — Nantucket has not been immune to issues that exist elsewhere.

In recent years, some Black residents say, they’ve occasionally endured racial indignities large and small. One woman had a racial epithet hurled at her by an angry driver. Another Black resident said he played for a coach who referred to Black athletes as “monkeys.”

In 2008, the local police department was the subject of a civil rights lawsuit after officers confronted a group of Black teenagers congregated on a sidewalk. An officer told the group to leave, according to an internal police report, and one teen refused. The officer called for backup and police then descended on the group. During the incident, one officer — later determined to have used excessive force following an internal investigation — tackled a 13-year-old so hard the boy suffered a separated shoulder.

But more troubling, some residents say, has been what many see as a systemic neglect of the island’s residents of color.

A few years ago, a Jamaican native named Elaine Griffiths remembers walking home from work late one evening when she was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Knocked unconscious, she awoke in the hospital, she says, with a fractured ankle, fractured ribs, and blood clots in the brain.

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A scar cuts through Elaine Griffiths' right eyebrow, one of many injuries she suffered after being struck by a car in a hit-and-run a few years ago. She said police have not contacted her to investigate the incident.
A scar cuts through Elaine Griffiths' right eyebrow, one of many injuries she suffered after being struck by a car in a hit-and-run a few years ago. She said police have not contacted her to investigate the incident.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Though Debba Pitcock, Griffiths’ boss at the Rose & Crown restaurant, said she collected broken pieces of the vehicle from the scene and hand-delivered them to police, both Griffiths and Pitcock say that, to this day, they have never been contacted by Nantucket authorities.

Police Chief William Pittman did not respond to several requests for interviews or to written questions about accusations made against the department.

So when the sun rose over Nantucket on March 11, 2018, to reveal the racist defacing of an island landmark, the town’s Black residents were appalled and angry. But not surprised.

Racial problems have “been here for a long, long time,” says Jim Barros, a longtime island resident.

Still, the immediate response to the act was encouraging.

Jim Barros sits in the Nantucket African Meeting House, which was vandalized with racial slurs in March 2018.
Jim Barros sits in the Nantucket African Meeting House, which was vandalized with racial slurs in March 2018.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Within hours, residents had arrived at the Meeting House with buckets and brushes to help paint over the graffiti. In the weeks that followed, signs of support appeared in front yards across the island. And police, vowing a vigorous investigation, denounced the act as “not only a senseless crime but an attack on the rich history of this very community.”

“I think in the immediate aftermath, there was some hope that because it had so much attention, that the police on Nantucket would handle it,” said a woman who grew up on the island and later took a job within the local school district. “But it became clear pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen.”

From the start, the investigation by Nantucket police seemed to go nowhere, even as the chief insisted the department was doing everything in its power to find those responsible. In an update a few months after the crime, police said they had knocked on more than 100 doors, and the detective assigned to the case told the local paper he’d spent more than 100 hours working the case. At one point, police said, they’d passed along interviews to the FBI.

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None of it, the chief insisted, had turned up anything.

For a Black island community that already felt ignored, the lack of progress on such a high-profile case was distressing.

If police allowed an act as vile and egregious as the Meeting House vandalism to go unsolved, wondered Delroy Lawrence, a former standout high school athlete on the island, “then what reason would I have to believe that the police are going to be willing to serve my best interests as a Black person?”

Frustrations were fueled by widespread speculation that at least one of the perpetrators hailed from an island family with ties to local police — and the uneasy feeling among some that those ties helped explain why investigators continued coming up short.

In an interview with the Cape Cod Times, Pittman brushed the concerns off as unfounded social media ramblings.

“I hear a lot about talk on social media implying there is a reason why there hasn’t been a resolution to this case,” he told the publication in July 2018. “When they are saying this kind of thing, saying they know who was involved, I look at our reports and there is nothing from this person.”

Still, last summer Pittman turned the case over to the Massachusetts State Police and the office of Cape and Islands district attorney, saying later that it would be irresponsible for the department to investigate an incident in which “people believe we were involved.”

The shift — which came more than a year after the crime occurred — seemed to make little difference.

More weeks passed, then months, with no resolution.

* * *

Rose Marie Samuels never forgot what happened at the Meeting House. It ate at her.

When she’d first heard what had been scrawled across the building’s front door, she didn’t believe it. It was only when she saw a photo later that day on Facebook that she understood.

Her frustrations didn’t dissipate over the course of the next two years. But it wasn’t until the recent stories of police killings came to dominate the news cycle that she felt compelled to speak out.

“Watching the news and seeing all the different things that were happening, the racial things that were happening, I decided that this is time for answers,” Samuels said. “Things like this should not just be shoved under the rug.”

Two months after appearing before the town’s Select Board, Samuels addressed residents during an island protest against police violence, organized by a group of young local activists. There, she detailed her own experiences with the Nantucket police — she believes the department failed to properly investigate a 2018 incident in which her 12-year-old son was hit by a vehicle while riding his bike — while once again calling attention to the Meeting House investigation.

This time, her comments took hold.

After hearing Samuels speak, a former island resident — realizing that the African Meeting House crime had never been solved — started an online petition demanding that authorities supply information about the investigation. Shortly after that, for the first time in nearly a year, there came an official update in the case: Michael O’Keefe, the district attorney for the Cape and Islands, said his office had recently opened a grand jury investigation into the crime.

In June, meanwhile, Jason Bridges, vice chair of the local Select Board, issued an apology for the town’s handling of the Meeting House case. “The reality is that your Select Board has failed you, has failed your community — and we all know it,” he said at a public meeting. “I think we failed to acknowledge the severity of the pain resulting from the racist defacing and hate crime of the African Meeting House.”

The renewed attention has also raised questions about the handling of the original investigation.

Though Nantucket police eventually turned the case over to state authorities, many island residents say the department should have done so much sooner, pointing out that rumors of a possible conflict of interest first surfaced in the days immediately following the vandalism. That sentiment was echoed earlier this month by Bridges, who said that town officials erred in not pushing for an independent investigation at the first suggestion of a conflict of interest.

“We could’ve said, ‘Look, we want the police department to hand this over,‘” Bridges told the Globe. “We could’ve had that conversation.”

In response to the national protests on race and police brutality, Nantucket officials say they’ve begun work on a number of initiatives to address race on the island, including the creation of a new position — director of diversity, equity, and inclusion — for which there have so far been more than 50 applicants.

But the renewed attention has yielded few answers regarding the Meeting House.

“The community’s been waiting,” says Cyr, the state senator. “And when you have such a slow response from off-island law enforcement, it doesn’t build confidence that it’s being taken seriously.”

Even now, as a grand jury investigation plays out behind the scenes, some on the island hold out little hope that charges will ever be filed, a possibility District Attorney O’Keefe seemed to allow for during a brief phone interview this month.

“The people in Nantucket know exactly what happened here,” said O’Keefe. “So when those people decide to tell the truth, then the case will be resolved.”

Evening light falls on boats as they bob in the harbor in Nantucket.
Evening light falls on boats as they bob in the harbor in Nantucket. Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

For now, another island summer is nearing its end. Soon, crowds in the historic downtown district will begin to thin, the out-of-state license plates will disappear, and the year-round residents will be left to grapple with the lingering effects of a still-unsolved crime.

Earlier in August, meanwhile, new graffiti appeared on the pavement near a residential street in another part of the island.

The spray-painted handwriting, some immediately noted, bore a striking resemblance to that left on the African Meeting House two years ago, down to the use of both capital and lowercase “e”s and the unusual shape of the letter “L.”

“Blue Lives Matter,” it read.

It has since been painted over.


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.