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Discovering Nantucket’s Museum Of African American History: A Hidden Gem

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

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When I travel, I make it a point to discover the “Black impact” of a destination. It’s not just about the history, but also the cultural influences of Black people both domestically and internationally.

Prior to my trip to Nantucket, I conducted research and discovered the Museum of African American History. It piqued my interest, and I was eager to experience it firsthand!

The Museum of African American History in Nantucket has a fascinating connection to both New Guinea and Nantucket.

The island of Nantucket played an important role in the whaling industry and had many connections to the Pacific Islands, including New Guinea.

The museum explores this connection through exhibits and artifacts, showcasing the lives and experiences of the African Americans who made their way to Nantucket and beyond, including those who worked on the whaling ships that traded with New Guinea.

The museum offers a unique and educational experience for visitors interested in learning more about this important aspect of American history.

A Journey Through African American History: Exploring Nantucket's Role in the Abolitionist Movement

The history of African Americans in Nantucket dates back to the 1650s, when settlers owned slaves.

Despite slavery persisting on the island until 1773, free African Americans established the New Guinea neighborhood in the early 1700s.

They built homes, churches, shops, a school, and even a dance hall, operating within their own economy.

Today, the African Meeting House stands at this historic site. Nantucket’s population of over 7,000 is 89% white, 5.16% Black or African American, 2.64% two or more races, and 0.71% Asian, according to population stats.

The African Meeting House

The African Meeting House, a National Historic Landmark, was the only public building built and operated by African Americans in the 19th century.

Located at the corner of York and Pleasant Street, this one-room building has served as a community center for years.

Unfortunately, some were not supportive of its historical significance and vandalized the building, resulting in legal action.

Enslavement existed on Nantucket Island until as late as 1775.

Most of the enslaved individuals were of African descent, but some were Wampanoag Native Americans.

The Wampanoags were often subjected to “debt peonage,” where they were forced to work for people they owed money to without receiving compensation. Some were also enslaved as punishment for crimes or inherited by others through wills.

Slavery was abolished in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783.

In the 1800s, Nantucket became a refuge for fugitives from slavery in other states, years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The African Meeting House served as a community center where Black children of all ages and education levels gathered to learn since they were not permitted to attend public schools with other children.

Black adults also gathered there for church services and fellowship. Visitors can see a cut-out area on the main stage where a deep opening exists beneath the floor, where fugitive slaves would hide until they could come out safely.

Today, The African Meeting House is a National Historic Landmark that showcases the resilience and triumph of Black people on Nantucket.

Nantucket Black Heritage Trail

The Nantucket Black Heritage Trail was established after the Museum of African American History acquired the African Meeting House and its connected properties in 1999.

As a self-guided tour, it begins at the historic “Colored” Cemetery where many headstones represent icons connected to both Nantucket and American history.

One notable figure is Eunice Ross, whose grave can be found here.

She was denied the opportunity to attend Nantucket Public Schools in 1840, and the town’s refusal to admit her to high school led to the first law in the United States guaranteeing equal access to education.

It’s incredible to consider how one Black girl’s experience living on a remote island could bring about such important racial legislative change.

Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House

Seneca Boston, a former enslaved weaver, and his wife Thankful Micah, a Native American woman, bought this house and land on Nantucket in 1774, a decade before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts.

They became key members of the free Black community on the island, and their home still stands as a testament to their legacy.

The Boston family included Absalom Boston, a renowned whaling captain, and one of six children who grew up in the house.

Absalom made history in 1822 as the first African-American captain to lead a whaleship with an all-Black crew.

This antique stove was found in the basement of the house and took years to restore.

The Boston family held ownership of the house until 1918, after which it was purchased by Florence Higginbotham in 1920. For over two centuries, African American families lived in and owned the rooms of this historic house before the Higginbotham family sold it to the Museum in 2001.

Born in Virginia in 1893, Florence Higginbotham later settled in Nantucket, making it her home. She received formal training at the Boston Cooking School before coming to Nantucket 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 passing in 1972.

During the tour, Desiree, the guide, and I assumed that the room we were in would have been Florence Higginbotham’s, given its distinct decor style and location on the second floor of the house, which was separate from the other rooms that had attached quarters where people paid rent to stay.

In 1920, Higginbotham was hired to manage the Underhill Cottages in the village, where she lived with owner Evelyn Underhill. Later, she purchased the historic Seneca Boston home and moved there permanently after the stock market crash of 1929.

In 1933, she also purchased the adjoining historic African Meetinghouse, which she rented out for storage and once used as a studio.

Higginbotham lived at the Boston house until her death in 1972, and 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, preserving Higginbotham’s legacy.

This opening on the second floor was used to keep the house cool during the season. By opening the rope, cool air would fall into the house while the hot air escaped through the roof.

This simple yet effective technique allowed the Boston family to regulate the temperature inside their home and keep it comfortable during the warmer months.

It’s fascinating to think about how innovative people were in finding ways to adapt to their environment without modern technology.

The Museum of African American History plans to provide virtual programming throughout the year and extend its partnership with Nantucket Public Schools to foster an early comprehension of African American history.

Furthermore, the African Meeting House serves as a venue for conversations about racial equity and social justice.

Thanks to the aid of the Community Preservation Committee of Nantucket and the Tupancy-Harris Foundation, the restoration of the Florence Higginbotham House was made feasible.

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!

Final Thoughts

As I walk out of the Museum of African American History, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe and gratitude for the knowledge I’ve gained.

Learning about the rich history of the African American community in Nantucket has opened my eyes to the struggle and perseverance of the people who helped shape this island.

The exhibits and artifacts in the museum tell a story that is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

This experience has left me with a deeper appreciation for the people who have come before me, and a stronger commitment to fighting for equality and justice in the present day.

I encourage anyone visiting Nantucket to make a stop at this museum and take part in this invaluable learning opportunity.

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