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The Museum of African American History is dedicated to preserving, conserving and accurately interpreting the contributions of African Americans in New England from the colonial period through the 19th century.

 

 


African Meeting House, Nantucket


The exterior of the African Meeting House
on Nantucket, recently restored.
Photo: Claudia Kronenberg

History

On Nantucket Island -- where there are more than 800 structures that predate the Civil War -- a ramshackle little building stood on a corner plot at Five Corners in the area once known as New Guinea.

It is the only public structure remaining on the island that is identifiably central to the history of the African community of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The small post-and-beam building dates from about 1827, 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.

Although Nantucket public schools were racially integrated in 1846, the meeting house continued to be used well into the 20th century as a social center.

A succession of events the discovery of petroleum, the California Gold Rush, and especially the demise of the whaling industry in the 1850s   turned Nantucket into an economic disaster area.


 

In 1911, a young African America woman of 15 came to Nantucket to work for one of those families returning every summer with her employer. In 1920, this young woman, now Mrs. Florence Higginbotham, bought her own Nantucket home at 27 York Street where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1933, Mrs. Higginbotham acquired the adjoining property with the meeting house and 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 repair shop for bicycles.

Mrs. Higginbotham died in 1972, leaving as her sole heir her son, Wilhelm, who honored her request to retain the meeting house property, underscoring what she recognized as its historic significance.

She was not alone in that recognition, for the businessman who had stored his bicycles there began research that led to its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and to the restoration effort now being pursued.

It was under his aegis that negotiations began between the owner and influential members of the African American community in Boston, resulting in its acquisition in 1989 by the Museum of Afro American History on Beacon Hill.

The Museum's success in restoring Boston's 1806 African Meeting House on Smith Court was certainly a determining factor in Mr. Higginbotham's decision to relinquish the property on Nantucket: he knew it would be in good hands. In 1992, the Friends of the African Meeting House on Nantucket joined with officials and distinguished guests from Boston and Nantucket to rededicate the site as a centerpiece of Nantucket's history, and to honor the memory of Florence Higginbotham.

The restoration of the Meeting House was completed in 1999 and the opened to the public on a seasonal schedule.

More on the Higginbotham House

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