The Black Impact | Museum of African American History in Nantucket
One thing I love to do when exploring new destinations is to not only learn the history of the area but also find the “Black impact; I coined that term based on my experiences of being able to find fascinating cultural influences and Black history both domestically and internationally.
Before my visit to Nantucket I did some research and found the African American History museum and knew that I had to see it in person! Online you can learn more about the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House, The African Meeting House and the The Black Heritage Trail® which features ten stops and is divided into two segments, Downtown and New Guinea. Fun fact, New Guinea is the section of Nantucket where African Americans lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.
African American History in Nantucket
The earliest records of African Americans on Nantucket date back to the 1650s when early Nantucket settlers owned slaves. Although forms of slavery persisted on the island until 1773, a neighborhood known as New Guinea emerged in the early 1700s where free African Americans went on to own homes, have their own churches, shops, a school and even a dance hall. To put into perspective all of this happened during a time when most African Americans across the country were still enslaved, those who lived in New Guinea truly operated within their own economy. Isn’t that fascinating?
Today the historic site is home to the African Meeting House located at Five Corners.
According to population stats, Nantucket has a population of more than 7,000 and is comprised of 89% white and 5.16% Black or African American, 2.64% two or more races and 0.71% Asian.
The African Meeting House
The African Meeting House was the only public building constructed and occupied by African Americans in the 19th century and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark today.
The one room building that sits at the corner of York and Pleasant Street has been a community cornerstone. Though to no surprise some were not fond of the building’s rich history and vandalized the meeting house, causing legal action to follow.
People were enslaved on Nantucket as late as 1775.
Most people enslaved on Nantucket were Africans, but some were Wampanoags. Many Wampanoags were caught up in “debt peonage,” through which they had to work without compensation for people to whom they owed money. “Indian debts” were bought and sold among Nantucketers. Wampanoag men convicted of crimes were required to go whaling, often for many years. Aside from debt peonage and punishment, some Wampanoags were simply enslaved and passed on to others in their masters’ or mistresses’ wills.
It’s believed that Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783.
In the 1800s, years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Nantucket became a safe haven for fugitives from slavery in other states.
Today you can step inside The African Meeting House and see the room where Black children of all ages and education levels gathered to learn as they were not able to attend public school with other children, adults within the Black community gathered here to fellowship, hold church service and on the main stage area there is a cut out where you can lift the floor and see a deep opening below where fugitive slaves would hide until they were given the clear to come out.
Nantucket Black Heritage Trail
The Museum of African American History acquired the African Meeting House and its connected properties back in 1999 and the Nantucket Black Heritage Trail emerged. It is a self-guided tour that begins at Nantucket’s historic “Colored” Cemetery where dozens of the headstones represent icons connected to Nantucket and American history.
For instance, here is where you will find the grave of Eunice Ross, who was denied the ability to attend Nantucket Public Schools in 1840. The town’s refusal to admit her to the high school in 1840 led to the first law in the United States to guarantee equal access to education.
Crazy to wrap your mind around how a Black girls experience while living on a remote island could spark racial legislative change.
Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House
This home once belonged to Seneca Boston, a weaver and formerly enslaved man who purchased the land a decade before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. He and his wife Thankful Micah, a Native American woman purchased land on Nantucket back in 1774 and were major contributors to the free Black community on the island.
Absalom Boston, the well-known Nantucket whaling captain, was one of the six children of Seneca Boston and his wife, Thankful Micah, who all lived in the house.
Absalom Boston was also a United States mariner who was the first African-American captain to sail a whaleship, with an all-black crew back in 1822.
The Boston family maintained the house until 1918 and then Florence Higginbotham purchased the house in 1920. Before her family sold the house to the Museum in 2001, its rooms were owned and occupied by African American families for over 200 years.
Florence Higginbotham had roots in Virginia where she was born in 1893, but she went on to make Nantucket her home.
After formally training at the Boston Cooking School, she came to Nantucket back in 1911 to work as summer staff in ‘Sconset.
Florence named her house Mizpah, a Hebrew word meaning beacon or watchtower, and lived there until her death in 1972.
During the tour, the guide Desiree and I assumed this room would have been that of Florence Higginbotham given its decor style and how it sat off on its own on the second floor of the house, compared to the other rooms that had attached quarters where people would pay her rent to stay.
In 1920, Higginbotham was hired to manage the Underhill Cottages in the village, where she lived with owner Evelyn Underhill, and purchased the historic Seneca Boston home, after the stock market crash of 1929, Higginbotham moved to the Boston house permanently. In 1933, she purchased the adjoining historic African Meetinghouse, which she also rented out for storage and, once, as a studio.
Higginbotham lived at the Boston house until her death in 1972. Her son, Wilhelm, retained ownership of the house, until it was sold to the Museum of African American History (MAAH) in 1989. The MAAH completed an award-winning restoration of both properties, ensuring her legacy.
As a way to keep the house cool during the season a rope would open this airway to the roof. Heat rises and cool air falls, so whenever this opening on the second floor was made ajar it would take in the heat and let in the cool air into the home. pretty interesting, right?
The Museum of African American History is set to offer year round virtual programming and expand its collaboration with Nantucket Public Schools so that students have an early understanding of African American history. The museum is also using the African Meeting House as a space to discuss racial equity and social justice.
The restoration of the Florence Higginbotham House was made possible through generous support from the Community Preservation Committee of Nantucket and the Tupancy-Harris Foundation.
I would highly recommend reserving your ticket to learn more about the Black history in Nantucket and experience it for yourself. I made a conscious effort to seek out the museum before arriving to the island and I am so glad that I did!