History

Women’s History & the Nantucket Atheneum

Nantucket Atheneum, Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

The grand Greek Revival building on the corner of India and Federal Streets is the Nantucket Atheneum, the island’s library. It has been home to a cadre of exceptional women, and a place where women’s voices have always been heard.

Originally constructed in 1825 as the First Universalist Church, the building was purchased by Charles Coffin and David Joy in 1834, creating a membership library. Maria Mitchell became the Atheneum’s first librarian at age 18, eventually leaving the library to become the first Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College.

In July of 1846, the Atheneum was one of hundreds of buildings in the downtown core destroyed by the Great Fire. Astoundingly, funds were raised to rebuild, securing one of the island’s preeminent architects, Frederick Brown Coleman, by October of the same year. Coleman’s design moved the lecture hall to the second floor and books to the first floor. Charles Wood, the builder, saw to it that the project was completed within six months of the fire.

Original building, Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

Coleman designed other Greek Revival structures in town, including 94 and 96 Main, the interior of the Unitarian Church on 11 Orange Street, and the Ionic temple of the Methodist Church at 2 Centre Street.

The Great Hall allowed islanders to hear important speakers of the day, like women’s rights advocates Lucretia Mott in 1854 and Lucy Stone in 1886.

Librarian Sarah Barnard served the Atheneum for 50 years, from 1856 to 1906. Clara Parker also served a 50-year tenure until 1956. Both women advanced the library by embracing new technologies like typewriters, card catalogs, and telephones.

In 1955, the library was restored and remodeled. The second-floor Great Hall became a reading room. A new wing of the library, named for Starr Kynett, was added in the 1965, housing a reading room and space for a microfilm reader. Thirty years later, the Atheneum underwent another major restoration, preserving the building’s historic integrity while allowing for modern upgrades in technology. Most recently, in 1996, a children’s wing of the library was added, named for Louise Frances Walker.

Modern technology means we are now more connected to the mainland than ever, but the Nantucket Atheneum remains a critical part of the island’s cultural and intellectual landscape. Because of the stewardship of the Atheneum’s librarians, including present-day librarian Molly Anderson, and trustees, it remains a fine example of the island’s architectural heritage.

Women’s History Month | Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

Walk down nearly any lane in Nantucket, past nearly every home or public building and you are likely to stumble onto a site important to women’s history. This month, we’re taking a closer look at some of the buildings where dreams of equality were first fostered.

5 New Street, Siasconset: Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

5 New Street Siasconset, 1910s, courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

“That I have been successful as a preacher is largely owing to the fact of my Quaker birth, and my early education on the island of Nantucket, where women preach and men are useful at washing day and neither feel themselves out of place.”

-Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, 1869

Born in 1829 on Nantucket (or ‘Sconset, sources differ, and only to Nantucketers would there be such a distinction) to George W. Coffin and Phebe Ann Barnard, Phebe Ann Coffin would one day become the first woman ordained as a minister in Massachusetts, and the third woman minister in the country.

Phebe’s father, George W. Coffin, purchased a house in ‘Sconset on the bank near the gulley from Ichabod Aldridge for $30. In 1841, the house was removed from the bank during the October gale and set up on it’s present location on New Street. The house, called “Seldom Inn” by the 1910s, was added to over the years and eventually became the site of many summer vacations.

Phebe’s marriage to homeopathic physician Joseph A. Hanaford would eventually take her away from Nantucket, but the educational foundation she had built in ‘Sconset would follow her throughout New England.

During the Civil War, Phebe became an active abolitionist and suffragist, preaching and writing on the subjects. During the late 1860s, Phebe joined the Universalist Church of America, editing periodicals and studying to become a minister.

1868 marked an important turning point in Phebe’s life. She was ordained as the first Unitarian woman minister in Massachusetts, and she separated from her husband.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Her ministry took her all over the northeast. Controversy regarding her commitment to women’s rights and unorthodox personal life resulted in the loss of her New Jersey pulpit. No matter; Phebe started another church in the same town. Phebe and her partner Ellen Miles lived together for 44 years, separated only by Ellen’s death in 1914.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford died in 1921. Her childhood home still stands. Perhaps she would have enjoyed the name Seldom Inn, as her talents took her far from Nantucket’s shores.

 

Mizpah | Boston-Higginbotham House

Boston-Higginbotham House in 2018.

The residents of 27 York Street have always been ahead of their time.

Seneca Boston, a weaver and former slave, purchased land at 27 York Street in 1744—a full decade before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. The house Boston had built for his wife, a Wampanoag woman named Thankful Micha, and their six children is a rare example of a middle-class African-American home in the 18th Century on Nantucket.

Seneca and Thankful’s son, Absalom Boston, was one of Nantucket’s most famous residents. Absalom was a whaling captain with an all-black crew. When his daughter, Phebe Ann, was barred from the Nantucket public schools, Absalom successfully sued the town government to integrate the school in 1845, resulting in changes at the state level. Seneca’s brother, Prince Boston, was the first enslaved person in Massachusetts to successfully sue for his freedom and his wages earned as a whaleman.

Interior of Boston-Higginbotham House, 2018.

Apart from less than one year, the house has been continuously owned by members of the Black community on Nantucket, and until 1919, by descendants of Seneca Boston.

In 1920, the house on 27 York Street was purchased by Florence E. Clay Higginbotham. Originally from Virginia, Florence Clay worked in Boston and went to cooking school. She traveled to Nantucket with friends in 1911 to work in ‘Sconset for the summer. When summer was over, she stayed. In 1917, she married Robert D. Higginbotham, also of ‘Sconset, but their marriage was short-lived.

Florence Higginbotham met the widow Evelyn Underhill, who owned a cottage colony in ‘Sconset, in 1920. That same year, Higginbotham purchased the former Boston home as an investment.

Interior of Boston-Higginbotham House, 2018.

Underhill hired Higginbotham to take over management of the cottages. When Higginbotham had a son, William, in 1921, the two moved into Evelyn Underhill’s cottage. Other black workers did not live with their employers, but rather in shanties in Codfish Park. The three lived in ‘Sconset in the summer and Waltham in the winter.

After the stock market crash of 1929, Underhill lost many of her investments. After a few years of living year-round in ‘Sconset, the two women and William moved into Higginbotham’s home on York Street. The women read poetry, listened to jazz records, and socialized with each other. However, when Evelyn Underhill’s friends came to call, Florence Higginbotham was to retreat to the back quarters of her own house.

In 1933, Higginbotham purchased the African Meeting House next door. During the 1930s and 1940s, she rented it out as storage and once as studio space for an artist.

 

African Meeting House in 2018.

The house was added to in 1830 and 1940, but nothing was taken away. The house retains much of its original 18th century fabric. Now owned by the African American Museum Boston-Nantucket, the Boston-Higginbotham is undergoing careful restorations. A preservation easement will protect the house for the future.

Interior of Boston-Higginbotham House, 2018.

Florence named her house Mizpah, a Hebrew word meaning beacon or watchtower, and lived there until her death in 1972.

Black History on Nantucket: the African Meeting House

 

African Meeting House today.

History has a way of hiding in plain sight. If you are a new visitor to Nantucket, it’s possible that you might not even notice the one-room building at the corner of York and Pleasant Street, as you try to figure out how a five-way intersection works.

The African Meeting House at 29 York Street serves as a visual reminder that Nantucket’s history does not begin and end with the Coffins and Starbucks. Nantucket’s history—like it’s people today—is one of varied and diverse experiences. The African Meeting House helps illuminate Nantucket’s rich Black history.

Constructed in 1827 under the African Baptist Society, the African Meeting House is the last remaining public structure central to the African American community of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The Meeting House property was purchased in 1933 by Florence Higginbotham, a trained cook and domestic worker who had come to Nantucket as a teenager to work in ‘Sconset. Higginbotham owned the property next door, and understood acutely the importance the Meeting House held to the island’s history.

 

African Meeting House from the Historic American Building Survey, 1968. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

The Meeting House, like other historic structures on Nantucket, fell into disrepair. However, while other buildings were given new life during the restoration revival that swept Nantucket in the 1960s and 1970s, the Meeting House was not one of them. The room where so many Black Nantucketers had worshiped, been educated, found community, and found strength was now home to bicycles and trucks that leaked oil and stained the floorboards.

The building was of historical importance, and in need of repair. In 1989, Higginbotham’s heir sold the Meeting House property to the Museum of African American History in Boston.

Though the Meeting House had undergone many changes during its history, it retained nearly three-quarters of its original materials. Builders discovered that under the plasterwork was intricate wood fanning in the shape of an inverted ship’s hull. Outlines of pews, long gone, lingered on the walls.

African Meeting House restoration. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

After a comprehensive renovation, the African Meeting House re-opened to the public in 1999. Today, it remains an important part of public life on Nantucket. It is a place where lectures are held, music is played, celebrations occur, and questions are asked. You can learn more about the African Meeting House here: http://maah.org/nantucket_campus.htm.

 

African Meeting House today.