At the intersection of what is known in Nantucket as "five corners," sits a small, white building that is the African Meeting House. It was constructed in the 1820s to serve Nantucket’s thriving African-American community.
In its early years, the building was used as a church, a school and for countless gatherings of some of the oldest land-owning blacks in America. Today, it is "the only public building constructed and occupied by African Americans in the 19th century still standing on Nantucket," according to the House's website.
A place that many see only as a summer playground for the super-rich was, a few hundred years ago, the center of America’s whaling industry. It was also a place where African-Americans had unusual economic and social power.
The Meeting House is now owned by the Museum of African American History and is used primarily to share the historical narratives of the island’s first black community, which was initially called New Guinea and later known as Newtown. This weekend in Boston, the museum will hold its annual Living Legends gala. The fundraiser supports the main museum in Boston and the satellite campus on Nantucket.
Marita Rivero, chief executive officer of the museum, said the Meeting House is a testament to a community that has lived on Nantucket since the 1730s.
“When people come in [to the Meeting House], they know something happened there,” Rivero said. “If you don't have any sense that blacks were on Nantucket, then you don't have a picture of what America was about, of what we could be now and why we're backtracking on things we already learned.”
Adjacent to the Meeting House — and also owned by the museum — is the Boston-Higginbotham House. The original owner, Seneca Boston, was a weaver and was enslaved before being freed in 1772 at age 28. He built his house a full 10 years before slavery was abolished. The property remained in Boston’s family until 1918, when Florence Higginbotham purchased it. Her family sold it to the museum in 1989.
Boston’s ability to purchase land and build a house as a black man on Nantucket derived from the presence of a large abolitionist community, and the vibrant island economy.
Barbara White is a longtime island resident who taught history at the Nantucket High School and wrote "A Line in the Sand," a book that tells the story of the fight to integrate Nantucket’s schools. White has spent a lot of time contemplating Nantucket’s African-American history.
“It is the American story," White said. "I've often thought that the island’s isolation and close-knit community must have enhanced the expression of black Americans being able to have land and some — some — economic power here.”
That power was enhanced by Nantucket’s whaling industry. Rivero explained that whaling provided an unusual opportunity for black men. It was dangerous and difficult work, but as long as you could lead a ship to safety, a man of any color could make a lot of money.
Seneca Boston’s son, Absalom Boston, became the first African-American captain to sail a whaling ship with an all-black crew in 1822. He amassed significant wealth and status inside and outside of the New Guinea community.
“Black men could build careers in Nantucket, so they were able to create community,” said Rivero. “They came back with wealth from around the world. They couldn't participate in what we thought of then as the American banking system. What did they do with their money? They built homes. They invested in property.”
Eventually, these businessmen set up their own savings and loan operations so they could help other people finance their property. To Rivero, it’s important that people learn about the existence of an active and developed pre-revolutionary African-American community on Nantucket.
These days, the Meeting House continues to be a gathering place. There are civic meetings, concerts, lectures, and traditional ceremonies like weddings. One Friday last summer, Nantucket’s Jewish community held a Friday night Shabbat service for children.
In March 2018, though, the Meeting House was defaced with racist graffiti — a jarring reminder that people don’t always get along.
But Charity Grace Mofsen, who was the museum’s site manager during the incident, said it was amazing to see the community come together to erase the graffiti and repaint. Mofsen said the museum can show kids that the African-American experience is so much more than a collection of horrible things.
“Having this history in their toolbox is a game changer,” Mofsen said. “[Kids] can look and hear these stories to know that, ‘I came from whaling captains. ... I came from property owners.’ It feels empowering to me. I can only imagine for young people to grow up always knowing this to be absolute truth. It changes everything.”
Archaeologists have excavated the Boston-Higginbotham property and have studied thousands of artifacts reflecting life in Nantucket’s black community over nearly 300 years — meaning there are still many more "truths" left to discover.
Rachel Rock is an intern with WGBH's New England Center for Investigative Reporting.