Museum of African American History, Boston & Nantucket

The largest museum in New England that is, according to its website, “dedicated to preserving, conserving and interpreting the contributions of African Americans”, the Museum of African American History (MAAH) has numerous sites in Massachusetts.  It owns two historic sites: the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School in Boston and the African Meeting House and the Florence Higginbotham House on Nantucket. 

The MAAH also consists of sites on the Black Heritage Trail® walking tour.  There are two trails, one in Boston and one on Nantucket, of the Museum and those who walk them are led by a tour guide.  Also available are private and self-guided tours.

Both of these trails highlight the lives of African Americans, the significance of Black cultural heritage and the value of community.  Additionally, because it is under the auspices of the National Park Service, National Park Rangers are available at both sites to offer greater insight to and lead discussions with visitors.

A not-for-profit institution, the Museum of African American History opened in 1963, featuring exhibitions and hosting gatherings of the public.  It has since become internationally respected for its outreach and collections of African American culture capital.  Accordingly, the Museum contributes to greater global understanding of persons of African descent during the European “settlement” of New England and its development.  Of note is that the Museum “… tells remarkable and vivid historical accounts about the lives of free African Americans and White abolitionists whose efforts changed a nation.”

This campus in Boston is located at 46 Joy Street in Beacon Hill and the campus on Nantucket is located at 29 York Street in Five Corners.  The mission of the MAAH is that it “inspires all generations to embrace and interpret the authentic stories of New Englanders of African descent, and those who found common cause with them, in their quest for freedom and justice.  Through its historic buildings, collections, and programs, the Museum expands cultural understanding and promotes dignity and respect for all.” 

In order to carry out this mission, it provides numerous opportunities for community engagement, in-person and virtual; develops programming; presents exhibits and promotes research.  Visitors may learn more by accessing content in the form of art, artifacts, photographs, primary documents and rare prints. 

Guests to the MAAH can discover and greater appreciate diverse aspects of life for African Americans in the colonial period to the 19th century.  These aspects include religion and spiritual systems; family and fictive kin relationships; slavery and freedom; education; politics and the arts.  They can also relate to these themes when frequenting an exhibit, whether virtual or in-person.  Exhibits held at the Museum of African American History include Picturing Frederick Douglass, the Most Photographed American of the 19th Century; Black Entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th Centuries; A Gathering Place for Freedom; and Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection.

The Boston campus of the Museum of African American History contains two sites on the 14-site Black Heritage Trail® walking tour.  Situated in Beacon Hill, which at one time was the epicenter for Black Bostonians during the 19th century, are the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School.  Both structures attest to the organization and craftsmanship of African Americans at that time.  They are considered to be amongst the most valuable assets of the Museum of African American History.

Built in 1806, the African Meeting House has served as a church, a school and a center for the community.  This structure is the oldest building in the United States to be used by Blacks as a church.  Built by free African American artisans, the African Meeting House is the last stop on this leg of the Black Heritage Trail®.  Restored to appear as it did in 1855, it is still available for use by the public. 

Adjacent to the African Meeting House is the Abiel Smith School, which was constructed in 1835.  This building was the first publicly-funded school for African American children in the United States.  On its walls are accounts and ephemera that emphasize abolition and education.  It presently acts a premier space for rotating exhibitions and educational programming.  The School also houses the Museum store and a kitchen that caterers may use for events.

Both of these sites are open to the public year round, Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 am to 4:00pm.

On Nantucket, there is also an African Meeting House.  It was completely restored by the Museum of African American History and opened to the public in 1999.  It was erected by the African Baptist Society, of which Captain Absalom Boston was a trustee, during the 1820s.  Boston (1785-1855) was a third-generation, life-long resident of Nantucket.  Though his grandparents and parents were born into slavery, he was born free because slavery was terminated in Nantucket in 1773.  Absalom Boston was the only known Black whaling captain in Nantucket.

This African Meeting House is, as stated, “the only public building still in existence that was constructed and occupied by the island’s African Americans during the nineteenth century.”  Similar to the one in Boston, it served as a site for church, school and social gatherings.  As such, it was integral to the development of African Americans who lived on the island.  This was needed as the population of Black people continued to increase, significantly with the growth of the whaling industry.

Next door to the African Meeting House, at 27 York Street, is the Florence Higginbotham House.  It was built after Seneca Boston, a free African American, bought the property in 1774, ten years before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts.  Seneca Boston, a weaver, was married to Thankful Micah, a member of the Wampanoag nation, and they reared their six children in the home.  The home remained in his family until 1918.

However, the house is presently named after Florence Higginbotham.  As stated on the museum’s site, she, “her son, Wilhelm and her daughter-in-law, Angeleen Campra saved both the African Meeting House and the house at 27 York Street, two precious historic structures, and provided the opportunity for the Museum of African American History to share this unique and powerful story with the world.” 

The MAAH acquired the house and, due to “generous support from the Community Preservation Committee of Nantucket and Tupancy-Harris Foundation”, preservation and restoration of the home at 27 York street is being developed.

The African Meeting House is often used for ceremonies and special occasions.  Cultural programming, such as exhibits and community discussions, is also held there.  According to its site, the House has scheduled hours of operation during July and August.  It is open by appointments during the other months of the year.  However, it is suggested that guests consult the museum’s site prior to visiting as the schedule of the Nantucket campus seems to change by season.

Finally, guests to the Nantucket campus may also extend their experience by taking its leg of the Black Heritage Trail®.  It contains nine sites within the island’s downtown and New Guinea, a community where African Americans lived in the 1700s and 1800s.