Uncovering and Protecting the Black History of NantucketRoundup
tags: climate change, historic preservation, African American history, whaling, public history, Nantucket
Tiya Miles is a history professor and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Her latest book is All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.
I caught the fast ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. As the boat plowed the waves, I was taken aback by my first view of the island. I could see it all at once, end to end, 14 miles of isolated terra, dwarfed by the sea and sky. Once we reached the wharf and I joined the carefree crowds of summer tourists, I tried to forget that picture of exposure. But those who live on Nantucket and care about its past and future know that the climate is changing, the sea is rising, and the island has never been more vulnerable.
“We are a pile of sand out here,” Marsha L. Fader, an architect and a preservation specialist, told me. We were standing on a grassy green, shaded by trees in their full June glory, in an area known as Five Corners. Back in the late 1700s and the 1800s, it was part of a neighborhood called New Guinea, a name reflective of its ethnic origins. Two buildings remain from that time: a house built by a Black man, Seneca Boston, who had been enslaved on the island in the mid-1700s, and the African Meeting House, which also served as a church and school. These structures constitute some of the oldest Black landmarks in America.
Florence Higginbotham, a Black cook and domestic worker, purchased the Boston house in 1920, and the Meeting House 13 years later. No one knows for sure why she bought the buildings, but we owe their continued existence to her. After she died, the Meeting House fell into disrepair. In 1986, a headline in Nantucket’s Inquirer and Mirror read: “Historic Black Church on York Street Awaits Restoration–Or Collapse.” A few years later, Higginbotham’s son sold the African Meeting House to the Museum of African American History, headquartered in Boston. But even the museum struggled to pay for the upkeep. In an appeal for support in the ’90s, the major threats to the African Meeting House were identified as “neglect,” “deterioration,” and “insufficient funding.” Some islanders saw the building as an eyesore, asking: “Why don’t you just tear it down?”
Supporters of the effort pressed on. Today, the Meeting House stands restored, and the Boston-Higginbotham House, also acquired by the museum, will soon be open to the public. The humble structures meld with the gray-shingled streetscape so tidily that one would hardly know they represent a significant chapter of African American history, marking the spot where hundreds of Black people, alongside their Native American kin, once made Nantucket their own.
Picture Nantucket, and you probably imagine whales and hydrangeas, white people swimming in white-capped waves. But that’s only part of the story. Although the Black community of New Guinea has passed into history, its mark on the landscape remains, a reminder that Nantucket was once a place of working-class ingenuity and Black daring.
This was my first visit to Nantucket. But the place was no stranger to my imagination. When I was a midwestern fifth-grader in the 1980s, I became obsessed with The Official Preppy Handbook, a cheeky guide to the WASP lifestyle. My mother and I lived in a leaky, lemon-yellow rowhouse that my family had bought from the city of Cincinnati for a dollar. The house stood on a street that was mostly Black and a little bit poor white. On weekends, while my mother was closeted in her bedroom studying for her part-time junior-college courses, I snuck into vacant houses where I could unearth abandoned objects, read Trixie Belden mysteries, and comb through the Handbook.
Some Fridays, a friend from school who sketched perfect, feather-maned horses and was also fascinated by preppy culture slept over. We would eat cereal and think up stories about barely disguised autobiographical characters named Buffy and Muffy.
The service workers and Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades whose labor keeps the dreamlike summer industry afloat never appeared in that book, but they are everywhere on Nantucket: unloading ferries, driving taxis, serving in restaurants, repairing shingles, and scrubbing short-term rentals. In the quaint inn where I stayed, the other guests were all white, and every person cleaning a room was a Black woman with a Caribbean accent.
Surely this glimpse of life on the island is incomplete. Almost 20,000 people live on Nantucket year-round, and they still include working- and middle-class people whose families have been there for generations. An exhibit at the public library, made up of scenes embroidered by members of the community, includes this stitched line: “My home is not a lifestyle brand.” Still, the impression of Nantucket as a place where the comforts of wealthy white summer residents are supplied by low-wage Black workers carries echoes of the class stratification, indentured servitude, and slavery that gave rise to New Guinea in the 1700s.
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