Nantucket, 1841

Over the autumn season this year I had the opportunity to travel as a Wellbeing Director with a trip that started in Boston, circled the Massachusetts cape, the islands, and finished in Newport RI. It was a tour route that appeals to me — and not because of lobster…I’m sadly allergic to lobster — but because I had never been to the MA Islands and there was a particular building I was excited to see.

Martha’s Vineyard was much in the news during the week I traveled. A group of nearly fifty migrants had recently been flown under false pretenses from Texas by the governor of Florida to the small island a few weeks before my visit. Media outlets were still highlighting the communities and organizations on Martha’s Vineyard who leaped into action (and were not previously informed of the flight’s arrival) to help confused individuals being used as game-pieces in others’ political stunt. [Those responsible for the flight are being investigated and named in lawsuits for potentially illegal actions, never mind being ethically and morally questionable.]

Martha’s Vineyard enjoys a tradition of diverse community. It’s more than the happy little whale logo on the shirt. It has a history of being a summer retreat for wealthier Black families — the Obamas have a place there. I snapped a photo of the house where Dr. King once stayed on vacation.

But Nantucket… Nantucket has a site of such significance in American history, I requested to share the story with the rest of the guests on the trip. I never cease being astonished that there are single points in history where the right people happen to be in the same place at the same time, and the narrative shifts with dramatic effect. And so it was at the Atheneum on Nantucket in 1841.

The late 1830s and early 1840s was a time of feverishly paced expansion in the anti-slavery/abolition movements in Boston and the Massachusetts environs. Smaller groups of both white and black activists were coalescing into formal organizations and rattling the metaphorical bars of the legal cage that entrapped humans in America. As with much when we gaze backwards through time, we seem to have lumped together fighters in these movements under a single banner, established those standing up to break this injustice with a unified voice, and perceive “abolition” as a monolithic concept. Lol.

There were disagreements on how to break the chains, what to do after, and who should be doing the breaking. Though earnestly engaged in ending the American institution of chattel slavery, meetings of white anti-slavery activists sometimes excluded black anti-slavery activists from attending. Mull that for a moment. Boston alone was an on-going soap opera of frustrations and scandal and power-plays and, yes, small victories.

A young man had settled himself in New Bedford MA. He and his wife were making a living and a life. They attended church a ten minute walk from their home. One day he stood to tell his story. Not long after, he was prevailed upon to speak in Nantucket. When he took the stage in the Great Hall at the Atheneum on Nantucket in August 1841, it was the first time Frederick Douglass would speak before an integrated audience. The first time an audience predominantly of white people would listen to his story. The first time he would encounter William Lloyd Garrison.

The trajectory of history was changed that evening.

It was a seismic moment, the meeting of those two men. Douglass shared his story of enslavement and claim for freedom in front of a crowd of 500 — men and women, black and white. No one recorded what he said. I like to imagine a room too transfixed on his words to consider marking them down in a notebook. He later wrote of the evening: It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering…The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down.

Garrison, who was slated to speak next, rose to his feet and shouted at the hall: Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man? Shall such a man ever be sent back to bondage from the free soil of old Massachusetts? It is said that the thunderously resounding cries of “No, no, no!” drowned out the voice of Garrison. However it was not the rallying of the vehemently outspoken abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, that inspired the hall — it was the articulated truths of Frederick Douglass. Would the path run smooth between these two men? No. Would they later reach a fork in the road? Yes. But what would we have lost without the collision of these two forces that one August night in Nantucket, 1841?

Douglass returned several times to the island over his lifetime.

When you disembark the ferry onto Nantucket Island, you can easily be distracted by the adorable little shops, the charming architecture, the preppy-casual style of the locals in a hue of red all their own. As with neighboring Martha’s Vineyard, the island of Nantucket manages its own rich and complicated tapestry of non-white residential history. Stroll a few blocks up from the wharf and step into the Atheneum. Sadly due to a fire, the building is not original. But the spirit remains. Dedicate some time to walking in the wake of Frederick Douglass.

~ Leigh

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