ARCHIVES OF LEAD STORIES
August 4, 2005
House offers a view into black 1700s Nantucket community
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
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
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
“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,”
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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