Place  /  Dispatch

Nantucket Doesn’t Belong to the Preppies

The island was once a place of working-class ingenuity and Black daring.

One Black family, the Bostons, lived on Nantucket for generations and profoundly shaped the island’s history. Boston and his wife, Maria, and their eight children were enslaved by a merchant named William Swain. In 1760, for reasons that are not documented, Swain freed the couple and their youngest baby. He placed the other children on a manumission schedule, guaranteeing that he could extract their labor for years. Eventually, members of the Boston family moved to a hilly region at the edge of town, where a handful of other free Black families lived, near the four noisy windmills that served as the island’s power source.

It was, according to the local historian Frances Karttunen, “a liminal area … a place for people to regroup.” A freed weaver named Africa may have been the first to purchase land in the vicinity, in 1723. In 1773 Nantucket began to phase out slavery, and many emancipated residents migrated to the settlement. They welcomed Wampanoags from nearby Miacomet, which had been decimated by disease. Intermarriages followed between Black and Native people from Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cape Cod, turning the village that was now known as New Guinea (and sometimes as Newtown) into a multicultural hub.

One of Maria and Boston’s sons, Seneca, a weaver, married Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag survivor. They built the house that still stands on the lot near Five Corners today, one of the oldest existing Black-built homes in the United States. The couple named their first child, a son, Freeborn. A younger son, Absalom, became the first Black man to captain a ship, the Industry, out of Nantucket’s waters, with an all-Black crew.

By 1850 New Guinea was home to two churches, a school, several shops, a dance hall, and an anti-slavery lending library. White residents lived alongside Black families who had escaped southern enslavement and found a relatively secure hideaway on the remote island. New Guinea was, in the words of the historian Nathaniel Philbrick, an “exemplary community” where people of color “operated in a microcosm of extraordinary diversity that was knit together by family bonds.”

But during the same decades that Nantucket became a hub of abolitionist activity, the island also saw an increase in anti-Black prejudice. Many New Guinea residents left the island as the whaling industry began to collapse due, in part, to the petroleum boom. Eventually the settlement became home to new communities of African descent: African Americans who came to Nantucket as domestic servants and stayed, along with Cape Verdean and Caribbean immigrants who worked in the island’s developing agricultural and tourism industries.