Nantucket residents were stunned to awaken Sunday morning and find racist graffiti defacing an African-American historic site.
“It was incredibly hurtful. In a sense, it just feels like nowhere’s safe,” said Charity-Grace Mofsen, who manages the island’s African Meeting House, in a phone interview Sunday.
“To see this place that is such a tight-knit community and so peaceful — we’re not exempt,” Mofsen added later. “We’re still dealing with the same issues that you would find in the South, or the small-town Midwest. It’s everywhere.”
Between 4 p.m. Saturday, when Mofsen left the site for the day, and 7 a.m. Sunday, someone spray-painted a racial slur and the word “leave” on the meeting house door, alongside a crudely drawn penis on its shingled facade, according to Police Chief William J. Pittman.
“We don’t have any suspects at this point,” Pittman said. “We’re just canvassing the neighborhood to see if anybody saw anything.”
Within hours of the graffiti’s discovery, residents of the island had gathered to wash it away.
“The local community definitely came out and got to work,” Mofsen said. “They brought out buckets, and soap, and sponges, and whatnot. I know everybody is looking for, what can we do next, how can we help?”
On Monday, a pressure washer will remove what remains of the graffiti, she said. But the stain on this idyllic island community will take longer to remove.
“It’s picturesque,” Mofsen said of Nantucket. “You can let your children in elementary school just go to Main Street and go to the pharmacy and get a milkshake. It’s that kind of small town. It’s easy to forget that there’s still work to do.”
The meeting house is part of the Museum of African American History, based in Boston and Nantucket. The museum’s presence on the island also includes a black heritage trail and a historic African burial ground, according to Marita Rivero, the museum’s executive director.
Rivero learned about the vandalism through a text message that included a photo of the graffiti.
“I thought it was horrible,” she said in a phone interview. “I was disappointed. I was sorry that anyone really felt this was the appropriate way to express their views about other Americans.”
Rivero said no such vandalism has ever before occurred on the museum’s Nantucket properties.
State Senator Julian Cyr, who represents Nantucket, expressed disgust in a Facebook posting early Sunday afternoon.
“Take a good look,” Cyr wrote alongside a photo of the graffiti. “This isn’t some far off place — this is racist terror [in] my district. Nantucket woke up this morning to its African Meetinghouse attacked in the most vile and heinous of ways.”
About 10 percent of Nantucket’s year-round population of 11,000 identified as black or African-American in 2016, according to estimates from the US Census Bureau.
The history of the island’s African-American community dates back to the Colonial era, and includes a sizable population of people who worked in the whaling industry during its Nantucket heyday, Rivero said.
Beginning in about 1827, the small post-and-beam meeting house was a central element of that community, serving as a gathering place, a church, and a school for African-American children before Nantucket integrated schools in 1846, according to the museum.
“Black people have been on that particular property since 1774,” Rivero said. Referring to the message scrawled on the meeting house door, she added, “There’s a degree of irony here about who should leave Nantucket.”
The vandalism serves as a reminder, she said, that as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. approaches next month, much of his dream remains unfulfilled.
“It strikes me that we cannot sit silently and say this is something sad that happened and we’ll just move right on from it,” she said. “This isn’t who we are. This isn’t who we intend to be. We don’t like it, and it needs to be part of the public conversation we’re having across the country.”
Pittman said his department is taking the vandalism seriously and he hopes to track down the person or people responsible.
“The community doesn’t tolerate this kind of behavior . . . and we’d really like to put the people who were victims here at ease,” he said.
The vandal might have been a local teenager, someone wandering home drunk from a nightclub a few blocks away, a construction worker visiting the island for short-term work, or a college student on spring break, Pittman said.
“My first impression of that is. . . we’re dealing with somebody who is obviously very immature,” he said. “It’s probably more mischievous than it is sinister, but their choice of location couldn’t have been worse.”
He said anyone with information about the vandalism can report it confidentially to Nantucket police at 508-228-1212.
Mofsen said the act is a reminder that racism exists everywhere.
“Nantucket is not the horrible place where this stuff happens all the time,” she said. “It’s a magical place where something horrible has happened.”
But, she added, “this is something that has been happening all over. I think it’s just an eye-opener for our community that we’re not immune.”