Reference Entry

Boston, Absalom (1785 - 1855), Entrepreneur, Whaling Industry Leader, Ship Captain, Community Activist

Barbara A. White

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Boston, Absalom (1785 - 1855), Entrepreneur, Whaling Industry Leader, Ship Captain, Community Activist

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prosperous businessman, whaling captain, and community leader, whose court case against Nantucket led to the integration of the public schools, was a member of one of the largest and most influential black families on the island. His father was Seneca Boston, a manumitted slave, who was a self‐employed weaver. His mother was a Wampanoag Indian named Thankful Micah. They had four sons and one daughter. Absalom Boston, the third‐born, went to sea, as did many of Nantucket's young men, signing onto the whale ship Thomas in 1809 when he was twenty‐four. Little is known about his early education. Anna Gardner, in her memoir Harvest Gleanings, mentions him visiting her family and hints that it may have been her mother, Hannah Macy Gardner, who taught the young man to read.Shortly before he went to sea, Boston married his first wife, Mary Spywood, about whom little is known. He returned to land because of the deaths of his father and his eldest brother, Freeborn; he was left the sole supporter of the family, which included his mother, Thankful; his brother's widow, Mary; and her two young children. Boston's wife died in 1813, leaving him with four‐year‐old Charles. In 1814 he married a widow, Phebe Spriggins, née Williams, in the South Congregational Church (later Unitarian), as there were no separate black churches on the island at that time. Their union produced three more children: an unnamed baby who died at birth, Henry, and Caroline.Two years later he returned to the sea. This time he went as Captain Boston, the captain and master of the whale ship Industry with an all‐black crew. This was a rare event in maritime history. The landmark voyage became the subject of a song that included the lyrics: “AF Boston was commander and him we will obey…. ” It ends with the promise that, should Boston ever captain another ship, the crew would sign up again (Nantucket Historical Association Archives). Whaling was a risky business, however, and the Industry's voyage proved a financial failure, forcing Boston to auction his ship upon returning to Nantucket. He remained on land for the rest of his life, although he continued to invest in whaling ventures.The failure of the Industry was only a temporary setback for the enterprising Boston, who continued to prosper on Nantucket and became a successful businessman and entrepreneur. By 1812 town records show him venturing into real estate, a business in which he was active throughout his life, successfully buying and selling properties in the segregated community of New Guinea, sometimes known as Newtown, where most of the African Americans of Nantucket lived. He also made mortgage loans to others in the New Guinea community, and when he turned thirty‐five, he was granted a license for a public house and inn in New Guinea. His inn was frequented by transient sailors passing through the island. His wealth enabled him to contribute to the improvement of life for the African American community on the island. Around 1825 he helped found the island's first black church, which still stands on the corner of York and Pleasant streets. The African Meeting House, as it is now called, was also used as a one‐room school for black children, and the trustees rented the building to the town to use a primary school until 1838.Absalom's second wife died in 1826 at thirty‐two years of age, leaving him once again with motherless children. He remarried within a year, this time to Hannah Cook of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and together they had five more children, Phebe Ann, Absalom Jr., Oliver, Thomas, and Sarah.Boston continued to prosper. In 1827 he paid for an ad in the local newspaper offering a reward for the recovery of a French‐made silver watch, and in 1833 the local newspaper reported that a “gang of foreign vagabonds” had burgled his house and taken forty to fifty dollars in silver coins; few of the island's blacks would have such money readily at hand. His influence in the community grew with his affluence; a notice in the local paper in 1840 listed him as “attorney” for the executor of a will and in 1844 he served as the executor for the will of an Abel Norcross, a mariner. When the whale ship Loper, with an all‐black crew under the command of a white captain, Obed Starbuck, returned from a particularly successful voyage in the Pacific in 1830, Boston led a triumphant parade through the main streets of Nantucket. He also became increasingly active in reform and politics. In 1826, he placed a notice in the local paper that Jacob Perry, at the time a minister and a teacher at the African School, would deliver a “discourse against slavery” at the Meeting House. In 1839 Boston became the first African American on Nantucket to run for public office, one of thirty to run for the five‐member board of selectmen. He also ran to be a fire warden, but he failed to win either position.An eight‐year battle began in 1838 to integrate the public schools after seventeen‐year‐old Eunice Ross qualified to attend the all‐white high school but was denied entrance. There were frequent but unsuccessful attempts at the annual town meetings during the time period to integrate the public schools. The trustees of the African Meeting House refused to let the town continue to use their facility as a primary school, protesting the exclusion of black children from the town's upper‐level schools. This forced the school committee to build a new primary school in New Guinea. (It was during this time that Boston made his unsuccessful bid for the board of selectmen.) During the controversy, the library closed its doors to blacks and to abolition meetings. In 1842 the New Guinea community wrote an address to the town, which was printed in the local newspapers, as well as in the Liberator, complaining “that for a mere accident, the difference of complexion, we are denied the right of privilege of education in common with our fellow citizens; we must pronounce it to be unkind, unjust.” That summer, emotions connected with school integration resulted in an explosive anti‐slavery convention that culminated in riots, necessitating visiting abolitionist speakers, including William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Lenox Remond, to leave the island.That same year, Nantucket voted to build a third grammar school not far from the New Guinea neighborhood, and controversy intensified as to whether black children, including Boston's daughter Phebe Ann, would be admitted to the new school. Boston put his name up for the school committee that year with nine other black Nantucketers, none of whom was elected. He continued to seek public office almost every year during the school integration controversy. He ran for assessor in 1843, for the school committee again in 1844, for highway surveyor in 1845, and for fire warden again in 1846. He won none of these elections.In 1843 abolitionists were elected to the school committee, and they integrated the public schools despite a vote at the annual town meeting directing maintenance of the status quo in the schools. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Phebe Ann Boston and others were admitted to integrated grammar schools. The integration was short‐lived, however, as the abolitionists lost their positions on the school committee at the next annual town meeting. That newly elected school committee forcibly expelled black students from all the schools, except the one that had been built on York Street. The students were humiliated, called to the front of the class and made to leave in the middle of the school day. With Absalom Boston as one of their leaders, the New Guinea community began a two‐year boycott of the public schools. There is some evidence that a classroom was set up during that time by local abolitionists, who pressed for school integration at the next annual town meeting. Failing there, the integrationists turned to the state legislature for redress. Boston, along with his wife and oldest daughter, signed one of the petitions that eventually led to the passage of a law in 1845, stating that any student unlawfully excluded from a public school had the right to recover damages in court.Boston, on behalf of Phebe Ann, now seventeen, began legal procedures against the town based on the new legislation. She had applied to one of the town's upper‐level schools—it is unclear whether grammar school or high school—in June 1845 and had been refused admittance. A special town meeting was convened in September 1845, according to the Nantucket town records, “to see what order the town will take, in relation to an action brought by Phebe Ann Boston, by her Father … for depriving her of the advantage of Public School Instruction.” The case went from the Court of Common Pleas to the Supreme Judicial Court, which caused a delay of almost a year.In the meantime, the Great Fire of 1846 destroyed much of the downtown of Nantucket, devastating the economy of the island, as the wharves and most of Main Street went up in smoke. Luckily for the New Guinea community, the fire did not make it as far as their neighborhood, although several black businesses were destroyed in the center of town. The fire may have changed the voters' attitude regarding school integration on Nantucket. At the next annual town meeting, they rejected the segregationist town officers and voted in a solid abolitionist school committee. Their first act was to reintegrate the schools. Boston dropped his lawsuit, and Phebe Ann was admitted to an integrated school. Unfortunately, in 1849, not long after completing her education, she died at age twenty‐one from dysentery.Her father retired from public activities. He had lost seven of his ten children and two of his three wives. One son, Oliver, a mariner, enlisted in the navy during the Civil War. Another son, Thomas, lived in Boston and Washington, D.C., supporting himself in a variety of ways, from giving music lessons to banking. At the age of sixty‐nine, Absalom Boston died in Nantucket in 1855, the year the commonwealth legally integrated public education. He left a large estate valued at more than one thousand dollars, including several houses, a shop, and an inn.

Reference Entry.  1732 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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