Black Heritage Trail®
in Nantucket

Museum of African American History

Start

Presented by the Museum of African American History and the Friends of the African Meeting House on Nantucket, the Black Heritage Trail® features 10 sites that reveal the heritage of African Americans living on Nantucket, especially in the nineteenth century.

The Trail is divided into two segments, Downtown and New Guinea. New Guinea is the section of Nantucket where blacks lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Guided tours leave from the Whaling Museum and end at the African Meeting House.

Call (508) 228-9833 to schedule your tour!

Nantucket Black History Timeline

1600s

LEnslaved Africans arrive with the first white settlers.

1764

First official record of the black population counts 44 persons.

1773

Nantucket abolishes slavery. African Americans work as tradespeople, laborers, sheep and livestock raisers, and later as whalers and mariners.

1783

Massachusetts abolishes slavery.

1820

Nantucket’s black population is 274 persons.

1840

Records report 571 “free people of color” (6% of total population).

1800-1850

Black community grows as the whaling industry thrives.

Early 1820s

The African Meeting House is established as a school, church and social center of the black community.

1840s

School integration is hotly debated. Schools are desegregated in 1847.

1850-1900

Whaling industry declines, many people leave Nantucket.

1911

F The African Meeting House closes.

1999

The Museum of African American History completes historic restoration and reopens the African Meeting House to the public.

2005

Research reveals the Florence Higginbotham House was built shortly after the property was purchased by Seneca Boston, an African American in 1774, a decade before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. Boston was a weaver and formerly enslaved man who along with his wife, Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag Indian, raised their six children in the house.

Site 1

Whaling Museum and Peter Foulger Museum

Nantucket Historical Association (NHA)

Broad Street at South Beach Street.

Step into the galleries of the Whaling Museum to find the portrait of Captain Absalom Boston (1785-1855), Nantucket’s only known black whaling captain. Captain Boston was a third-generation, life-long Nantucketer, whose grandparents and parents had been born into slavery.

In 1822, Captain Boston took an all-black crew aboard the schooner Industry on a six-month whaling voyage, returning with all hands and seventy barrels of oil.

After his 1822 voyage, Captain Boston bought land, ran a store, and inn, and helped establish a school and church. He received votes for public office and initiated legal action when his daughter, Phebe Ann Boston (1828-1849), was denied admission to the public high school. When he died, Captain Boston was likely the wealthiest African American on the island. . The formality of portrait here in the Whaling Museum attests to his prominence in the community.

The Whaling Museum also features a wide range implements, such as the temple toggle harpoon. This innovation sports a swiveling barb to fix the harpoon’s hook in the whale’s body and prevent its escape. This was invented in 1848 by Lewis Temple, an African American blacksmith in New Bedford. Though he never obtained a patent for it, the Temple Toggle is considered an important technological innovation which still today bares his name.

Next Stop: Dreamland Theater
Site 2

Dreamland Theater

17 South Water St.

The Dreamland Theater was originally built as the Hicksite Quaker Meeting House on Main Street near Ray’s Court in 1831. The building hosted abolitionist Lucretia Coffin Mott, born on Nantucket, and black abolitionists including Charles Lenox Remond as speakers between 1835 and 1845.

Sold sometime after 1850 it was used briefly as a straw hat factory and skating rink. It was moved in 1833 to Brant Point to become part of the Nantucket Hotel and was floated to its present location in 1905. It is now the island’s largest movie house, operating only in the summer.

Next Stop: Atheneum
Site 3

Atheneuml

Corner of Federal and India Streets

TThe Atheneum is Nantucket’s public library. It was established during the 1820’s and moved in 1834 a remodeled building that had been the Universalist Church. It was the site of lectures by prominent cultural and political leaders of the day and the site of abolitionist meetings and conventions.

On August 11, 1841, young Frederick Douglass (c.1817-1895), a former slave who had come from New Bedford for the island’s first anti-slavery convention, was moved to make his first public speech before a mixed-race audience. A year later, another anti-slavery convention degenerated into riot. The convention was evicted from the Atheneum and was refused use of several other locations. It wound up at the Big Shop, a large building on the edge of town where whaleboats were built. Douglass also spoke at the 1843 convention.

The Atheneum building and its contents were totally destroyed in the Great Fire of 1846. A new library was completed within six months. Renovations in 1955-96, preparing the library for twenty-first-century service, accomplished the most extensive changes to the building since that time.

Next Stop: Unitarian Church
Site 4

Unitarian Church
(South Church)

11 Orange St.

This Unitarian Church was built in 1809. Captain Absalom Boston was married here in 1814, his name appears on the register. Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) both spoke in this church, Douglass in 1885 and Washington in 1904.

Next Stop: Shelburne House
Site 5

Shelburne House

30 Orange Street. Privately owned, not open to the public

During Frederick Douglass’s last visit to Nantucket in August 1885, when he spoke at the Unitarian Church and the Atheneum, he and his wife stayed here when it was a guest house. Now a private residence, it has been moved back from the street.

Next Stop: Anna Gardner's Home
Site 6

Anna Gardner's Home

40 Orange Street. Privately owned, not open to the public

As secretary of the local women’s anti-slavery society, Anna Gardner, was instrumental in convening the island’s first Anti-Slavery Convention in 1841 (see Site 3). Her Quaker abolitionist family lived here. In 1822, her parents Oliver and Hannah Gardner sheltered escaped slave Arthur Cooper (see Site 7) and his pregnant wife.

Anna taught at the African School (see Site 9) from 1836 until 1840 and was a teacher of Eunice Ross (1823-1895) (see Site 7). Anna went South in 1863 to teach black youngsters in Union-occupied North Carolina. During Reconstruction, she taught in Virginia schools established by the Freedman’s Bureau. She later became a leader in the national women’s suffrage movement.

Next Stop: Nantucket's New Guinea Sites

Black Heritage Sites in Nantucket's New Guinea

In the 18th century, a number of free blacks bought lots on the West Monomy shores, near the Old Mill. Once known as Newtown, the area around Five Corners (see Site 8) became known by 1820 as New Guinea, indicating the African roots of the property owners. (The label “New Guinea” was used in numerous cities and towns to designate the section in which people of color resided.),
In 1994, Preservation Institute: Nantucket established the rough modern geographic boundaries for New Guinea to be Silver and Orange Streets, Williams Lane, and Prospect and Angola Streets, although in the nineteenth century the area probably extended further west to include the cemetery. An 1834 map names Atlantic Avenue as New Guinea.
During the nineteenth century, New Guinea was a separate community, conscious of its own identity and needs. There were two churches, inns, shops, and social organizations.

Next Stop: "Colored" Cemetery
Site 7

"Colored" Cemetery

Off prospect Street near the hospital.

Graves of Boston family members (See Site 1), Civil War veterans Sampson Pompey (1830-1909) and Hiram Reed (1830-1911), ministers Arthur Cooper (d.1853) and James Crawford (d.1888) and their many others may be found here. Mr. Cooper, an escaped slave, was the minister of Zion Church, an African Methodist Episcopal congregation established in 1835. Mr. Crawford was minister of the Pleasant Street Baptist Church for over forty years; an escaped slave, he gave lectures to raise funds to purchase freedom for his sister-in-law and her daughter, enslaved in South Carolina.

Also buried in this cemetery is Eunice Ross (1824-1895), who was denied admission to Nantucket High School by action of a town meeting in 1840. In 1847, at the age of twenty-four, Eunice and other African American children were finally admitted after legal action, community boycotts of the schools, and political struggles. She spent the rest of her life on the island. Her story is the subject of the 1998 Museum of African American History / WGBH video documentary Rock of Changes: Race, Faith, and Freedom on Nantucket and the book, The African School and the Integration of Nantucket Public Schools 1840-1848, by Barbara L. White (Boston University Press).

A chart of the headstones is available in the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library at 7 Fair Street.

Next Stop: Five Corners
Site 8

Five Corners

Atlantic Avenue, York Street, and Pleasant St.

Civil War veteran, Sampson Pompey, once owned 3 Atlantic Avenue. The original design of this house was very similar to the original design of 47 Pleasant Street. The house of Seneca Boston (b. 1744), a weaver and Captain Boston’s father, is at 5 Atlantic Avenue. These houses are now privately owned and not open to the public.

Up the hill, at the southeast corner of West York Lane and York Street, is the site of the Zion Church, founded in 1835, where Arthur Cooper (see Site 7) served.

Next Stop: African Meeting House
Site 9

African Meeting House

Museum of African American History

29 York Street (Five Corners)

The African Meeting House on Nantucket is the island’s most vivid reminder of a thriving 19th-century African American community. Erected in the 1820s by the African Baptist Society (of which Captain Absalom Boston was a trustee), it is the only public building still in existence that was constructed and occupied by the island’s African Americans during the nineteenth century.

The small post-and-beam building dates from c1827, when it was a church, a school for African children, and a meeting house. This segregated community, south of Nantucket Town, touched the lives of escaped slaves, Native Americans, Cape Verdeans, Quakers, educators, and abolitionists.

Frederick Baylies, a white itinerant preacher, is recorded as the first teacher in the African school. The first full-time teacher was a “Miss Thomson”. By 1829, there were forty pupils of all ages. The Rev. Jacob Perry was the first black teacher, but could not afford to stay on the island on the schoolmaster’s pay. He was succeeded by Eliza Bailey and, two years later, by Anna Gardner (1816-1901) (see Site 6).

After the schools were integrated in 1847, the building housed the Pleasant Street Baptist Church, whose minister, the Rev. James Crawford (see Site 7), served for 40 years - the longest island ministry before or since.

In 1933, Mrs. Florence Higginbotham, an African American who owned the house next door, purchased the Meeting House and its two outbuildings. The Meeting House continued to be used as a social center, but after World War II, it was rented out as a garage, and then a storage shed and bicycle repair shop.

Mrs. Higginbotham died in 1972, leaving her son, Wilhelm, as her sole heir who honored her request to retain the Meeting House property, underscoring what she recognized as its historic significance. The businessman who had stored his bicycles there began research that led to its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Her heirs sold these historic sites to the Museum of African American History in 1989.

The building was in danger of collapse and in dire need of restoration. A 1990 survey by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities found that the building retained “a high degree of historic integrity and significance.” The façade had undergone considerable change during the 20th century, but nearly three quarters of the material in the African Meeting House was original, although deteriorating. Ten years after acquiring the building, thanks to matching grants from the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), and donations from businesses, individuals, and foundations, the museum completed a comprehensive restoration, reopening on August 28, 1999.

Today, the Museum of African American History presents cultural programs and interpretive exhibits on the history of African Americans on Nantucket, and makes the African Meeting House available for ceremonies and special events.

Next Stop: Florence Higginbotham House
Site 10

Florence Higginbotham House

Museum of African American History

27 York St.

Florence Higginbotham, her son Wilhelm and daughter-in-law, Angeleen Campra saved both the African Meeting House and the house at 27 York Street, two precious historic structures, and provided the opportunity for the Museum of African American History to share this unique and powerful story with the world.

With support from the Community Preservation Act and the Tupancy-Harris Foundation of 1986, the Museum acquired the Florence Higginbotham House. The Museum selected nationally recognized historic architects and preservationists, John G. Waite Associates, to produce a Historic Structures Report and master site plan for the Nantucket campus.

At a press conference on May 11, the Museum announced exciting new information about the house at 27 York Street dating its history to before the Revolutionary War.

Recently developed and corroborated evidence reveals the house was built sometime after the property was purchased by Seneca Boston, an African American, on September 13, 1774. Boston was a weaver and formerly enslaved man who purchased the land a decade before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts.

Absalom Boston, the well-known Nantucket whaling captain, was one of the six children of Seneca Boston and his wife, Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag Indian, who all lived in the house. Except for a period of less than one year, the property was owned by African-Americans for the next two centuries.

For more on the Higginbotham house, click here.

Go to First Site