History’s Mystery

Nantucket's little-known black history

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ike many Nantucketers, Absalom Boston became a whaling captain who ultimately bought his own ship, the Industry, in 1820. Unlike other mariners, however, Boston was America’s only black whaling captain, who also had an all-black crew, part of the little-known but significant black community on Nantucket beginning in the 18th century that left behind the nation’s second-oldest surviving meeting house built by free blacks for their own use; the oldest is in Boston. The African Meeting House served as a school for black children until Nantucket’s public schools were integrated in the 1840s, then became the African Baptist Church, and later was used as a warehouse until it was restored. Captain Boston’s portrait hangs in the Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum on Broad Street, and he is buried in the Colored Cemetery behind the current-day Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

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Though their contributions are not widely known, blacks served in integrated crews on whaling ships, and even as officers, and the maritime route was as important as the Underground Railroad in helping slaves escape to freedom. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass fled in this way in 1838, working as a sailor on a ship that took him north; he would make his first speech before a mixed audience three years later at the Nantucket Athenaeum.

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