Nantucket Doesn’t Belong to the Preppies
The island was once a place of working-class ingenuity and Black daring.
I caught the fast ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. As the boat plowed the waves, I was taken aback by my first view of the island. I could see it all at once, end to end, 14 miles of isolated terra, dwarfed by the sea and sky. Once we reached the wharf and I joined the carefree crowds of summer tourists, I tried to forget that picture of exposure. But those who live on Nantucket and care about its past and future know that the climate is changing, the sea is rising, and the island has never been more vulnerable.
“We are a pile of sand out here,” Marsha L. Fader, an architect and a preservation specialist, told me. We were standing on a grassy green, shaded by trees in their full June glory, in an area known as Five Corners. Back in the late 1700s and the 1800s, it was part of a neighborhood called New Guinea, a name reflective of its ethnic origins. Two buildings remain from that time: a house built by a Black man, Seneca Boston, who had been enslaved on the island in the mid-1700s, and the African Meeting House, which also served as a church and school. These structures constitute some of the oldest Black landmarks in America.
Florence Higginbotham, a Black cook and domestic worker, purchased the Boston house in 1920, and the Meeting House 13 years later. No one knows for sure why she bought the buildings, but we owe their continued existence to her. After she died, the Meeting House fell into disrepair. In 1986, a headline in Nantucket’s Inquirer and Mirror read: “Historic Black Church on York Street Awaits Restoration–Or Collapse.” A few years later, Higginbotham’s son sold the African Meeting House to the Museum of African American History, headquartered in Boston. But even the museum struggled to pay for the upkeep. In an appeal for support in the ’90s, the major threats to the African Meeting House were identified as “neglect,” “deterioration,” and “insufficient funding.” Some islanders saw the building as an eyesore, asking: “Why don’t you just tear it down?”
Supporters of the effort pressed on. Today, the Meeting House stands restored, and the Boston-Higginbotham House, also acquired by the museum, will soon be open to the public. The humble structures meld with the gray-shingled streetscape so tidily that one would hardly know they represent a significant chapter of African American history, marking the spot where hundreds of Black people, alongside their Native American kin, once made Nantucket their own.
Picture Nantucket, and you probably imagine whales and hydrangeas, white people swimming in white-capped waves. But that’s only part of the story. Although the Black community of New Guinea has passed into history, its mark on the landscape remains, a reminder that Nantucket was once a place of working-class ingenuity and Black daring.
This was my first visit to Nantucket. But the place was no stranger to my imagination. When I was a midwestern fifth-grader in the 1980s, I became obsessed with The Official Preppy Handbook, a cheeky guide to the WASP lifestyle. My mother and I lived in a leaky, lemon-yellow rowhouse that my family had bought from the city of Cincinnati for a dollar. The house stood on a street that was mostly Black and a little bit poor white. On weekends, while my mother was closeted in her bedroom studying for her part-time junior-college courses, I snuck into vacant houses where I could unearth abandoned objects, read Trixie Belden mysteries, and comb through the Handbook.
Some Fridays, a friend from school who sketched perfect, feather-maned horses and was also fascinated by preppy culture slept over. We would eat cereal and think up stories about barely disguised autobiographical characters named Buffy and Muffy.
I am Black and my friend is white, but we were both the only children of financially strapped single mothers. We attended Clifton Elementary in an upstanding white neighborhood full of stay-at-home moms and mansions. My friend lived in a small apartment on the border of that neighborhood. I lived a fair distance away, but my mother had kept a sharp eye on the school since my toddler years and, thanks to some mix-up with the application paperwork and home addresses, facilitated by the fact that my father and stepmother lived (arguably) near the school, I wound up there too.
We were surrounded by girls who were the real prep deal. They collected grosgrain ribbons, wore tennis dresses with miniature animals on the heart, and belonged to private swim clubs that didn’t let Black people in. It was from these girls’ Handbook that I learned that summer is a verb and Nantucket is an island.
When I finally saw the place in person, I found it to be lovely and bustling, its buildings charming and historic, an effect crafted by savvy residents who realized that preserving the island’s 18th- and 19th-century look would be a lure for tourists. Cobblestone streets overflowed with visitors, including a smattering of people of color dressed, like everyone else, in florals and summer whites.
There was a difference between these tourists already sporting Nantucket sweatshirts and the regular summer inhabitants who own second homes. The summer people appeared drenched in a caliber of wealth so beyond my personal experience that I could not begin to classify its features and gradations. I could, however, identify “Nantucket red,” that ruddy shade of sailboat-chic clothing, as well as the train of Jeeps too large for the antique roads, both of which I had read about in The Official Preppy Handbook.
The service workers and Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades whose labor keeps the dreamlike summer industry afloat never appeared in that book, but they are everywhere on Nantucket: unloading ferries, driving taxis, serving in restaurants, repairing shingles, and scrubbing short-term rentals. In the quaint inn where I stayed, the other guests were all white, and every person cleaning a room was a Black woman with a Caribbean accent.
Surely this glimpse of life on the island is incomplete. Almost 20,000 people live on Nantucket year-round, and they still include working- and middle-class people whose families have been there for generations. An exhibit at the public library, made up of scenes embroidered by members of the community, includes this stitched line: “My home is not a lifestyle brand.” Still, the impression of Nantucket as a place where the comforts of wealthy white summer residents are supplied by low-wage Black workers carries echoes of the class stratification, indentured servitude, and slavery that gave rise to New Guinea in the 1700s.
When I asked L’Merchie Frazier, the director of education and interpretation at the Museum of African American History, to tell me about New Guinea, she began with what she called “the discovery quote unquote” of Nantucket by English settlers. This is the bus-tour version of Nantucket history; one of the most popular anecdotes involves a group of Englishmen atop a hill in 1690, surveying the sandy land, an abundance of whales breaching in the distance. The settlers and Native Americans supposedly got along and traded knowledge, until Nantucket boomed into a wealthy seaside mecca known for its abolitionist, Quaker values.
As Frazier pointed out, there are some gaps in this story.
Nantucket comes from an Indigenous word for “island.” Nantucket was not discovered by Anglo-Americans, many of whom arrived from the mainland north of Boston, because Native Americans were already there—1,500 to 3,000 members of the Wampanoag people, dispersed across multiple villages.
They sustained themselves by hunting birds, gathering shellfish and wild plants, and occasionally harvesting the body parts of dead or stranded whales. After the English arrived, ushering in pathogens and poverty, the Wampanoag population shrank to just 800 people. Settlers let their sheep encroach on the fields where the Indigenous islanders grew corn. The English ordered the killing of the dogs the Wampanoags used to hunt waterfowl, because they interfered with those same sheep. Pushed onto smaller parcels of land, hindered in their ability to feed themselves, and cornered into crushing debt, many Native Nantucketers, children included, were forced into indentured servitude.
Meanwhile Anglo-Nantucketers became wealthy, particularly through the commercial whaling industry—first hunting right whales, then sperm whales. They did not do this alone. They needed labor from populations with ready skills that would not, or could not, reject dangerous maritime work. And so, like most of colonial America, Nantucket’s English settlers turned to slavery. They compelled Indigenous people to row their boats and brought Africans “skilled in the arts of weaving, milling, building, and other pursuits” to the island, Frazier said.
The first English landowners were independently minded Christians, mostly of Baptist and Congregationalist leanings. In the 1700s, many of their descendants adopted the Quaker faith. Quakerism and whaling created a distinctive set of values: intense commercialism combined with embryonic humanitarianism and global cosmopolitanism. By 1775, the bone and oil harvested from the bodies of whales had made Nantucket the most lucrative whaling port not just in New England, but in the entire world.
In the 19th century, many white and free Black Nantucketers became famously staunch abolitionists—in 1841, Frederick Douglass gave his first speech to a mostly white audience on the island. However, the century and a half before that was a time of dispossession and enslavement. In 1764, a Nantucket census counted 3,570 residents, including 148 “Indians + Sqwaws” and 50 “Negroes,” many of whom were enslaved.
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.
In the 1960s, gentrification began pushing the Black and working-class population out of historic New Guinea. Summer residents sought homes in what had become a desirable area. I can’t help wondering if Florence Higginbotham, when she purchased the town’s most famous buildings, preserving them for future generations, had an inkling that this was coming. Today New Guinea is full of multimillion-dollar homes built on lots that have passed out of Black, Native, and working-class hands.
Now the property faces a new threat: Along with the entire island, historic New Guinea must contend with the upheaval of climate change.
Nantucket is developing a coastal-resilience plan, slated for completion by this fall. A team of experts, officials, and residents are assessing every coastal area of the island for its community significance and physical vulnerability. The resulting blueprint will guide decision making about what should be prioritized for protection against sea-level rise, flooding, and erosion.
The African Meeting House and the Boston-Higginbotham House will not be prioritized, for an understandable reason: Though they’re less than half a mile from the water, they sit on a hill, so are not directly threatened by sea-level rise. But storms are worsening and flooding is becoming more common everywhere on Nantucket. The island geography that once gave New Guinea the freedom to flourish is precisely what now makes the area so vulnerable to climate change.
This pattern holds true for other sites of Black history. Early America’s Eastern Seaboard was a slaving landscape. In spots at the margins in the North, Africans and their descendants who managed to attain freedom, or were among the lucky minority born free, could sometimes form semi-safe, semi-stable communities. New Guinea is a prime example, as is Little Liberia in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which thrived in the mid-19th century. In the South, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida was a differently distinctive place. Enslaved coastal and sea-island residents were able to retain and adapt cultural practices from Africa because their enslavers rarely visited the humid and disease-infested plantations. Remoteness—clinging to coastlines or perched on islands—made these communities possible.
In recent years, preservationists have begun to focus on how to protect coastal sites like these. A series of conferences titled “Keeping History Above Water” launched in Newport, Rhode Island, and came to Nantucket in 2019 with the support of the Nantucket Preservation Trust. “People are sometimes surprised to find that a historic preservation group is so interested in climate change,” Mary Bergman, the trust’s executive director, told me over email. But no one can ignore it “when there is water in the streets winter after winter and houses sliding into the sea from more frequent and powerful storms.”
Skeptical of the efficacy of mitigation strategies, Fader, the architect, thinks that eventually most threatened sites will just have to “move to higher ground.” She saw this tactic work in the late 1970s, when she was involved with a National Park Service project to relocate by barge a 19th-century maritime-rescue station from one part of Cape Cod to another to protect it from shoreline erosion. She described a futuristic scene in which the ocean would carry “barges with all these historic houses on their way to somewhere else.”
Fortunately, historic New Guinea doesn’t face this level of risk. But it is haunting to imagine any precious African American historic structure torn away from its origins and from the marginalized populations that stewarded it and were, in turn, sheltered by it.
This is Bergman’s fear for Codfish Park. Established around the turn of the 20th century on the eastern side of Nantucket in the area known as ’Sconset (from an Algonquian term meaning “place of great bones”), Codfish Park was a low-lying fishing village. It was also, Bergman told me, a “racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood, with African American, Cape Verdean, Bermudian, and Irish families … [who] worked as domestic workers, cooks, drivers, laundry workers, and performed other jobs for the vacationers ‘above bank.’”
In the 1990s, during a storm with no name, a few homes in Codfish Park slipped into the ocean. “It is a vulnerable, low-lying area with little separating it from the sea,” Bergman said. “It is also a place that is important to Nantucket’s Black history, and the history of working people on the island.”
Even without the complicating factor of climate change, places like Codfish Park and historic New Guinea can be doomed by simple inattention. “The traditional preservation movement has often neglected and undervalued Black historic sites,” says Brent Leggs, the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the author of Preserving African American Historic Places. This is “in part because they tend to be vernacular structures that do not personify beautiful architecture,” or because “their means of construction were not meant to last the test of time.” As a result, he told me over email, “the historic imprint of Black people” has disappeared from much of America.
The fund has just received $20 million from the philanthropists MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett to preserve Black landmarks. While none of these initial funds are slated for Nantucket, a portion will go to nearby Martha’s Vineyard for its African American Heritage Trail. (Martha’s Vineyard shares with Nantucket a history of African enslavement and had its own famous Black whaling captain, but is most notable in the annals of Black history for becoming a vacation spot for middle- and upper-class African Americans in the early and mid-1900s.)
Vince Murphy, who is overseeing the resilience plan for Nantucket, told me the government is aware of the complexities that issues of race and class add to its endeavor. He also pointed out a catch—a “paradox to equity on Nantucket” that complicates this narrative. In most places, “poorer people are most affected by climate change.” But Nantucket, where the rich spend millions on oceanfront property, is different. Property owners on the coasts generally “have the means to adapt to these threats,” he said, while “regular people” living inland would be “less directly affected.”
Trevor Johnson, the lead consultant on the plan, was the first to articulate a question—or, rather, a suspicion—that this brought to the top of my mind: “With sea-level rise, do those formerly undesirable locations now become more desirable?” Could that lead “to further displacement of Black history and folks who have been disadvantaged?” This, he said, is called “climate gentrification.”
In creating its coastal-resilience plan, Nantucket is facing a question that is being asked, or will soon be asked, of communities around the world, a question that goes to the core of what the historian David Glassberg calls “heritage justice”: Whose rights to home and history will be defended, and whose will be abandoned?
Our country’s track record does not inspire confidence that we will meet this challenge with honor.
Maybe the Bostons and their neighbors showed us a way forward. When Black Nantucketers struck out to create their own community, they did not have their pick of the best places on the island. They settled near the windmills; welcomed others in need; and turned the area into a garden of social, political, and economic life. These early Nantucketers acted to improve their collective existence despite trauma and loss, and others acted years later to preserve what they had built. To Leggs, these “overlooked stories of African American resilience, activism and achievement … are fundamental to the nation itself.”
New Guinea was a sanctuary village built in the wake of slavery. Its story captures an essence of Nantucket that is deeper than the stereotypical image of The Preppy Handbook and more inspiring than the legend of the Englishmen on the hill. Where better to ponder the possibilities for responding to the coming storms than on this communal high ground, still—by concerted effort that seems a miracle—under the stewardship of Black caretakers?