Exploring Nantucket’s Black History Trail

By Satta Sarmah Hightower | July 23, 2018 | 3 Minute Read

Massachusetts is steeped in history, from Salem’s House of Seven Gables to the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord. While these famous sites attract visitors from around the world every year, there’s another important piece of the state’s history that’s worth checking out: Nantucket’s Black History Trail.

Like Boston, Nantucket was a key part of the freedom trail movement. Coordinated by the Museum of African American History and the Friends of the African Meeting House on Nantucket, the Black History Trail spans two significant locations that are part of the island’s black history—Downtown and New Guinea. The trail includes 10 sites across the two locations that will help you learn more about the lives of Nantucket’s Black community.

In the 1600s, the first enslaved Africans came to Nantucket with white settlers and about 160 years later, the island’s Black population numbered only 44 people. In 1773, Nantucket abolished slavery and African-Americans found jobs as laborers, tradesman, and farmers—and eventually within whaling industries. By 1820, the island’s Black population had grown to 274 and continued to increase throughout the early 1800s as Nantucket’s whaling industry grew.

One of the most prominent sites on Nantucket’s Black History Trail is the African Meeting House, which was built in the 1920s by the African Baptist Society. It’s served as a church, school, and social haven for the island’s Black community. Though the Meeting House closed in 1911, it reopened in 1999 after the Museum of African American History collected grants and donations to restore it. The Meeting House, which is located in New Guinea, also holds the distinction of being the only public building in Nantucket that the island’s Black community built and occupied during the 19th century.

The Florence Higginbotham House, located on York Street next to the African Meeting House, is another historic site on the trail. The house is named after Florence Higginbotham, an African American cook who moved to Nantucket to work for some of the island’s wealthy families. Higginbotham earned enough money through her work to buy the home, the meeting house, and two other buildings. The house was previously owned by Seneca Boston, a former slave who purchased the land in the late 1770s. Since then and for the better part of 200 years, the home was owned solely by African Americans.

“From Seneca Boston to Florence Higginbotham, we know at once that this home is a symbol of the sophistication of a Black community, who with great intention and a sense of purpose lived their lives to shape the world. This family was not simply reacting and surviving in this new republic, but put down roots,” museum officials said in a press release detailing the home’s historical and architectural significance.

The African Meeting House and the Florence Higginbotham House are just two of the four sites on the New Guinea section of the tour. Five Corners features the homes of prominent African Americans in Nantucket like Seneca Boston and Civil War veteran Sampson Pompey. There’s also the “Colored Cemetery,” where some of the island’s well-known African American community members are buried including Pompey, several religious leaders, and Eunice Ross, who helped to integrate Nantucket High School.

Downtown sites on the trail include the Unitarian Church, Sherberne House, Anna Gardner’s House, the Atheneum, Dreamland Theater, the Whaling Museum, and the Folger Museum.
Nantucket may be known for its secluded beaches and beautiful harbors, but the island also has strong ties to African American culture and heritage. Take some time to learn about this rich, cultural history during your visit.

Learn more about Nantucket’s Black History Trail and how the island is home to more than just beautiful beaches.

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