For almost two hundred years this simple meeting house on Nantucket has been a reminder of the African Americans who supported the island’s powerful whaling industry and of Absalom Boston, the black mariner and sea captain who was a leader of the community there.. And for the 44 years of my married life Nantucket has been, for me, a place of summer visits. I have passed this building many times and been intrigued by its history. And as I’ve learned more about the Rosenwald schools that came into being in response to segregation it has become even more meaningful to me.
After a visit to the meeting house this year I looked up Absalom Boston and learned that his parents were a Wampanoag woman with the lovely name Thankful Micah and a black man, Seneca Boston, descended from slaves owned by an island family and granted his freedom as the result of a suit filed by his brother in 1773. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783 so when Absalom Boston was born on Nantucket in 1785 he was part of a free black community. He became a mariner and, later, the first African American captain to sail a whale ship. In1822 he took The Industry with an all-black crew on a six month voyage that returned with 70 barrels of sperm whale oil. This wasn’t a huge catch but the fact that the crew returned without having lost anyone was impressive. Absalom Boston retired from the sea. He went into business running a store and, later an inn, and in 1824 helped found the African Meeting house. It was a school, a place of worship, and a social hall.
When Absalom Boston’s daughter, Phebe Ann, completed her elementary studies at the meeting house she wanted to go to high school. But the local public school said she could not — because she was black — so Absalom Boston threatened to sue the town of Nantucket. Faced with this prospect, and ongoing agitation from black Nantucketers, the town relented and Phebe and another young woman, named Eunice Ross, became the first African American students to attend public high school on the island. When he died in 1855 Absalom Boston was the wealthiest black man on Nantucket.
A name far better known than Absalom Boston is Frederick Douglass — and he, too, has a strong connection to Nantucket. Douglass was 23 years old and newly escaped from slavery in Maryland when he was noticed at anti-slavery meetings in New Bedford and was invited to attend a convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society meeting on Nantucket. It was there, on August 16, 1841, in a building no longer standing, the “Big Shop used for building harpooners’ boats, to bursting and guarded by Quaker members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with overflow crowd looking in at the windows, that the young Douglass first spoke publicly about his experience. He discovered that his story and his ability to present it were powerful weapons in the struggle to end American slavery. It was a turning point in his life.
So Nantucket is more for me than a place to go to the beach and eat seafood, though I love to do both those things. It’s a place where, each summer, I ponder again the journey that is taking us — Americans — from a place where slavery and injustice to native peoples were accepted as normal to a more welcoming and enlightened place. This struggle is hard. Two years ago the Nantucket African Meeting house was defaced with racial graffiti. By the time I arrived for my summer visit the offensive, repulsive words were gone but the episode was a reminder that this journey is not over. Sometimes the present feels so discouraging. I do find it helpful to remember that the effort to create a place of equality and opportunity has gone on for a long, long time and that among those who came before us were brave and principled people like Absalom Boston and Frederick Douglass speaking out about inequality and being heard. Each summer I hear them again.