Letter from Nantucket: The African Meeting House

Every summer evening the commodore or vice commodore of the Nantucket Yacht Club—you can tell which is in residence by the flag flying over the little house at the end of the pier—strides into the club dining room a minute before sunset and says loudly, "All rise!" Outside, the club cannon is fired, Old Glory is lowered, and everybody sits down again.

You have to love this island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, famous for its whaling tradition but most esteemed nowadays for clean beaches and fine old architecture: saltboxes that for centuries have kept the wild North Atlantic storms out of the chowder and trundle beds, proper Quaker three-bay houses with steps flush on streets made of cobbles that once served as ballast in the old sailing vessels, proud Federal residences and red brick Georgians amidst cedar shakes, wood downspouts, and hand-wrought timbers.

History is palpable. In what other place with a resident population of 12,000—not counting perhaps 200,000 day-trippers a year—would you find two drugstores side by side on Main Street, both in historic buildings? Each has its own devoted clientele and notion of hospitality—one is friendly to all, the other mostly to regulars—and therein lies a lesson: acceptance on this easterly bit of America is subtle, and sometimes difficult.

You can spend your life on the 14-mile sand spit that is Nantucket and still be considered a "wash-ashore" if you weren't born here. Famous wash-ashores who have found safe haven include Michael Eisner, chief executive officer of Disney; Jack Welsh, retired former head of General Electric; and L. Dennis Kozlowski, head of Tyco International until he was indicted for fraud in 2002. Last year, a brassy new publication called N (for Nantucket Times) asserted that Kozlowski's "pals from Nantucket—along with a few from off-island—pledged over $30 million in property and other personal assets" should the former ceo need it to meet his sizable bail requirement. The erstwhile tycoon did not have to call in his pals, after all; disposable income is clearly no problem here, at least not for many.

You can be rich and devote your energies to sailing, or to preserving 18th-century facades and cranberry bogs, and never be invited to join the crusty Yacht or Sankaty Head Golf clubs. There are hundreds of names on the waiting list for a mooring in the lovely little harbor, but money will not buy one of those, either. Money does play a large part in access to some of the island's charms, however—in some cases a very large part: the new Nantucket Golf Club, for instance, accepts members for a mere $325,000 entrance fee. And those old homes in town, as everyone knows, go for millions.

McMansions with water views go for more millions. Their owners park their private jets on the crowded tarmac outside town, having already had their suvs brought over on the ferry. The roads are jammed in summer, the cars in curious juxtaposition to historic houses. Many of those interiors have suffered architectural trauma on behalf of powder rooms and dueling kitchen ranges, while others have been altered overall, and a few demolished. The National Trust designated Nantucket as one of the country's 11 most endangered places in 2000 because gut rehabs, teardowns, and new construction imperil the island's identity.

It could be worse. Nantucket is still beautiful because so many people work hard to keep it that way. Tradition is not just valued, it is imperative: By statute, two percent of the proceeds of every real estate transaction goes into a public fund for preserving open space. There are real if not total restrictions on what can be done to the exteriors of houses, forcing developers and other rehabbers to respect the letter and usually the intent of the law. This restrains some extreme shows of individuality by wealthy clients and thereby slows the developmental forces that have transformed so many of America's chosen places.

The allure of the past brings more off-islanders, but affordable housing for those who do the table waiting, carpentry, housekeeping, and teaching has disappeared. Workers often have to live on Cape Cod and commute by ferry, and sometimes by prop plane.

Nantucket's settlers may have been an egalitarian bunch, but the island's phenomenal early maritime success produced a distinction between property owners and servants, among them slaves. Today the contrast between the pace of preindustrial life, symbolized by the matchless historic structures, and the press of machines, designer wear, and other manifestations of new, privileged "lifestyles" is stark.

Thumb through the Nantucket telephone directory and you will encounter a daunting array of preservation organizations: the Nantucket Historical Association, the Nantucket Preservation Trust, Preservation Institute, and others. The ad hoc Nantucket Preservation Alliance embraces a dozen such groups whose members regularly meet to discuss preservation on the island; a recent addition is the African Meeting House, a one-room structure blocks from the town center, with a coved ceiling and pews with little gates opening into the aisle.

African slaves on Nantucket were freed in 1773, a decade before Massachusetts as a whole followed suit. The whaling trade—America's first oil boom—sorely tried the commitment to frugality of Quakers who had fled the Puritans on the mainland, while providing opportunity for black freedmen to excel as sailors, harpooners, and shipwrights. During the 1820s the meetinghouse was built by the African Baptist Society; within two decades, blacks—including African-Americans and Cape Verdeans—made up six percent of the population. Among them was Absalom Boston, who sat on the board of the Baptist Society and was the first black captain to sail from Nantucket with an all-black whaling crew.

Abolitionist sentiment was strong on Nantucket and shared by many whites, among them Anna Gardner, who taught in the African School, just one of many organizations that made use of the meetinghouse. Another was the Black Anti-Slavery Society. Nantucket served as an early venue for Frederick Douglass, who launched his oratorical career on the island, though not in the meetinghouse. But Douglass almost certainly visited the neighborhood, known first as Newtown and then as New Guinea, and its one-room hub of black community life.

The structure sheltered, sometimes concurrently, not just the Baptist congregation, the school, and the abolitionists but also a vaccination dispensary, and open discussions of subjects that included education of black children. Nantucket's public school was desegregated as early as 1847 by a gifted young black woman named Eunice Ross, daughter of a founder of the Baptist Society, with the determined efforts of blacks and some whites.

The decline of whaling and the allure of the California gold rush in the mid-1800s reduced the island's overall population, including that of its blacks. The meetinghouse was closed in 1911, and deterioration set in. Nantucket's long economic decline lasted until the real estate boom began in the 1960s, with fixing up and restoration spreading from the water's edge to the end of every winding lane.

This revival didn't reach the African Meeting House. Many natives and most wash-ashores didn't know that the shack at the corner of Pleasant and York streets had once been the focus of a vital black community—or that it was one of the oldest African-American church buildings in the United States. Even after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the meetinghouse failed to inspire the same philanthropic enthusiasm showed by residents and summer people for Nantucket's other historical institutions, like the Atheneum (library) and the Nantucket Historical Association. "Breaking even after a fundraiser was something of an accomplishment," recalls Bette Spriggs, one of the relatively few black residents on the island today, of local efforts in the 1980s to raise money to restore the structure. The organizers "would really get excited if they raised $600."

Checks for as much as half a million dollars for worthy causes were written on-island, but not for the meetinghouse. The Historical Association, which two years ago completed an expensive expansion of its research library and subsequently conducted a successful multimillion-dollar capital campaign, showed little interest in it. Other preservation groups on the island offered advice to its supporters, but no money.

This general lack of financial support indicated, in the view of Spriggs' husband, Frank, "residual racism." There is some irony in this assessment, considering Nantucket's good record in race relations and Frank Spriggs' own history. When he visited his grandmother on Nantucket as a child, he found "a paradise" of acceptance compared with his home back in Washington, D.C. After retiring from ibm half a century later, having spent summer holidays in the family cottage on the outskirts of town, Spriggs returned to the island full-time in 1995 "to give something back." He and Bette built a modest house next to the cottage, and Frank did volunteer work before running successfully for the island's board of selectmen.

He is the first African-American ever elected to that governing body and last year was chosen by white counterparts to serve as chairman. His assessment of the difficulties encountered by proponents of the African Meeting House is not a condemnation of Nantucket but an observation about an attitude with deep roots in America—even in a place long credited with religious and ethnic tolerance.

Some perspective is provided by Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea, the popular book about the whaling ship Essex and a long-time wash-ashore. Nantucket is "a special place—Quakers, abolitionists, all that," he says. "We're proud of the history, but when it comes down to the day-to-day relations between the races, Nantucket is no different from the rest of America." Raising funds today for an obviously august institution is much easier, he points out, than raising funds for "a modest building with an obscure past. … The important thing is that it happened."

And that is because, in 1988, the African Meeting House attracted the attention of off-islanders, among them Ruth Batson, a civil rights activist and president of the board of the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston. The museum already owned the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, a National Historic Site, which included the Abiel Smith School next door. Batson urged the museum to purchase the Nantucket property, too, with money donated in part by Henry Hampton, producer of the civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize. The next step was locating the owner.

Florence Higginbotham, an African-American maid who had come to Nantucket with her employers in the summers, had bought the property in 1920, along with the house next door, reportedly built in 1842. Her heir, in California, agreed to sell both structures to the museum in 1988—and with them a trove of historic objects.

The meetinghouse was draped in black tarpaper to prevent further deterioration. A survey by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities had determined that the building had "a high degree of historic integrity and significance," and in 1993 Boston University conducted an archaeological study of the grounds that went back beyond the first European owners of the property. It turned up thousands of objects but no pipe stems or liquor bottles, suggesting an enduring abstemiousness.

Work to restore the building's exterior was undertaken with a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1995. Most of the building's foundation and original timbers were sound. The facade had undergone considerable change in the 20th century, when the meetinghouse served as a garage. In 1997 another matching grant was awarded to restore the structure's interior. There, beneath the plaster ceiling, workers discovered wood framing in the shape of an inverted ship hull, not uncommon in New England. Most of the old pews were gone, but their ghostly outlines remained on the walls.

Copies of the pews were installed, and the walls repainted. "The old floorboards were so stained with oil and gasoline they had to be replaced," says Bette Spriggs, now the site manager.

Since the restoration was completed in 1999, there have been weddings, concerts, a children's program for Black History Month, and of course, visits by tourists. "People come who had no idea there were African-Americans on Nantucket," says Bette. "I tell them that this is the same path Frederick Douglass walked, the same steps he would have climbed."

The National Trust is discussing with the Museum of Afro-American History a joint partnership that would include both the Beacon Hill and the Nantucket properties. As new Trust sites they would interpret the story of free African-Americans and the struggle for equality, part of an ongoing effort "to diversify the collection to more accurately represent the whole American experience in terms of history and architecture," according to Richard Moe, president of the Trust. That effort includes the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan and the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I.

But a small wood sign has already been set up on the corner of Pleasant and York streets identifying the Nantucket African Meeting House. Both message and lettering are appropriately discreet—this is Nantucket—but a touch of exuberance is apparent in two additional words: "Preservation Works!"

The African Meeting House won a Save America's Treasures grant of $300,000 in 2001.

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