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August 4, 2005

House offers a view into black 1700s Nantucket community

Kay Bourne

NANTUCKET — Not all forensic detectives sleuth the way they do on TV’s “C.S.I.;” some investigators look for clues to what happened in the past by the way houses were built.

An historic structure report on the Florence Higginbotham House reveals that the old homestead was built on Nantucket for a black family prior to the American Revolution. That a middle class black family thrived on the island off the coast of Cape Cod in those early years challenges the stereotypical notion that all black people of those times were living in slavery or of low incomes.

The nails driven into the boards of the house are one decisive clue, according the specialized architecture team who examined the property.

At a news conference held this spring on the campus of the Museum of African American History’s Nantucket holdings, lead architect Jack Waite of John G. Waite Associates traced the history of the nail as one of the pointers his firm used to date the house. He put the building of it to shortly after September 13, 1774 when Seneca Boston purchased the land.

All the nails in the original boards were hand wrought which suggests they were made in the 1800s, said Waite, who added as a side note that the Chinese invented the nail thousands of years ago. Until the last decade of the 1700s and into the early 1800s, hand wrought nails fastened the sheathing and roof boards on building frames. These nails were made by a blacksmith. In the early 1800s, various machines were invented for making nails from bars of iron, such as the A-cut nail. The A-cut nail is typical of the years 1790-1830.

Waite, whose renowned firm has worked on George Washington’s home Mount Vernon, noted of another founding father Thomas Jefferson, whose plantation Monticello is in the same vicinity, that his slaves make nails that were sold all over Virginia.

Seneca Boston of Nantucket had earned his freedom, however, and with a career as a weaver he put some of his profits into land. This was a decade before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. He and his wife Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag Indian, had six children one of whom was Absalom Boston, the well known and prosperous Nantucket whaling captain.

Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of Afro-American History, said at the press announcement that “this stunning finding is just the beginning of the research underway by the museum.

“From Seneca Boston to Florence Higginbotham, who knew that this home is a symbol of the sophistication of the black community, who with great intention and a sense of purpose lived their lives to shape the world.

“This family was not simply reacting and surviving in this new republic, but put down roots.

“The stability of the Boston family exemplifies the larger black Nantucket community, that began forming as early as 1710.

“This understanding of black life in those years defies the traditional perception of African Americans before the Revolution,” she said.

Other notable matters to do with the house at 27 York St. include that the house is a good example of Nantucket architectural design and building technology of the period. The house has never been restored nor adulterated with 20th century conceptions of the colonial era. With modifications that occurred in the 1840s and 1930s, the house represents two centuries of occupancy by African American families on Nantucket.

The house on Nantucket is open to the public through August, Tues – Sat. from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Sun. from 1 to 3 p.m. Off-season it is open by appointment. For more information you can call the site manager Bette Spriggs at 508-228-9833.

The Museum of Afro American History’s home site includes the African Meeting House and is at 46 Joy St., Beacon Hill in Boston. Adjacent to the Meeting House is the Abiel Smith School, built in 1835, the first building in the nation constructed for the sole purpose of housing a black public school.

This week the museum opens a new exhibit, “Words of Thunder: William Lloyd Garrison and the Ambassadors of Abolition celebrating the life, achievements, and challenges of famed Boston abolitionist and newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison, 1805 – 1879.

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