Historic Coloured Cemetery

Tucked in behind Mill Hill Park and just west of Nantucket Cottage Hospital is Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery. Until well into the twentieth century this is the place where anyone considered non-white was laid to rest— including people of Wampanoag heritage, Cape Verdeans, Afro-Caribbeans, Pacific Islanders, and even a seaman from Calcutta. On the other hand, only in recent years has anyone not “of color” been permitted to even consider burial in this cemetery. Racially segregated burials are finally a thing of the past in this and the other Nantucket cemeteries. 

The Historic Coloured Cemetery dates from late in the 1700s. As early as 1710 Nantucketers who had been holding Africans in slavery began to manumit them and to provide for them by means of donations of property. Stirred by the anti-slavery sentiments of a visiting English Quaker in 1716, Nantucket’s Friends Meeting began to seek revelation about the issue. It is believed that Nantucket’s became the first Quaker Monthly Meeting in the world to declare that it was “not agreeable to Truth for Friends to purchase slaves and keep them for a term of life.” 

This did not lead to immediate manumission of all persons held in slavery on the island or even prompt freedom for all of those held by Quakers, but slavery did come to an end on the island in advance of when it was declared unconstitutional in Massachusetts. 

The last two decades of the 1700s saw a surge of marriages among people of African and Wampanoag heritage and likewise a surge of real estate transactions as newly freed people consolidated land to form a village on the south edge of town. The village was called New Guinea, and before the end of the century, the people of New Guinea began burying their dead on the south side of Mill Hill. A headstone that was recorded in the 1960s but is no longer to be found carried the date 1798. 

Recognizing that burials were taking place there, Nantucket’s Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land voted in 1805 “that the Black People may fence one acre of land where their Burying Place is.”  Two years later a deed referred to the cemetery as “the Burying Ground that belongs to the Black People or People of Color.” 

Considering the constraints of the economy for the residents of New Guinea in the 1800s, it is remarkable how many inscribed headstones and footstones are to found in the Historic Coloured Cemetery. Nonetheless, there are empty-looking areas that are actually full of unmarked graves. Simple fieldstones were placed on some graves, and others originally had wooden markers that eventually weathered away. In the twentieth century, aluminum markers were pushed into the ground above some otherwise unmarked burials. These have now been replaced with inscribed stones. 

The Historic Coloured Cemetery is rich with stories. Three churchmen are buried there, two of them refugees from slavery. Members of the Rev. John W. Robinson’s family lie under a little tree in the northwest corner. On Nantucket his Pennsylvania-born daughter married Cape Verdean whaleman Joseph Lewis. Their son, Joseph Lewis Jr., also went whaling and late in life became one of the custodians of the Old Mill after it was opened to the public as a property of the Nantucket Historical Association.

The Rev. James Crawford served as pastor of the Pleasant Street Baptist Church for four decades, the longest tenure of any clergyman on the island, at times also assuming responsibility for the Summer Street Baptist Church. Crawford had slipped away from slavery in Virginia, and later, with cash he had raised with the aid of American and English Quakers, he purchased his sister-in-law’s freedom. Then he took the risk of going south in person, posing as a white slave owner, to purchase his niece Cornelia and bring her to the safety of Nantucket.  

Arthur Cooper and his family had found refuge on Nantucket in 1820. Two years later, an agent for his former owner came to the island to take him into custody and return him to slavery along with his wife and children. The people of New Guinea and Nantucket’s Quakers intervened, the Cooper family was spirited into hiding, and the agent left the island empty-handed. Arthur Cooper subsequently became an elder of the A. M. E. Zion Church and was part of a committee formed in 1832 to acquire land for its church building. After Mary’s death, he married again. His second wife was Lucinda Gordon, who had been born in Africa, taken as a slave to a South Carolina rice plantation, and finally had reached Nantucket via Newport, Rhode Island. Lucy Cooper long outlived Arthur, passing the age of one hundred before finally going to rest beside him and Mary.

Joseph Lewis and his son were not by any means the only whalemen interred in the Historic Coloured Cemetery. Absalom F. Boston has achieved considerable fame as Nantucket’s black whaling captain. Edward J. Pompey was also master of whaling vessels as well as a prosperous merchant and the Nantucket subscription agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Captain Pompey has a fine headstone, while visitors to the cemetery look in vain for that of Captain Boston. A stone laid flat in the ground carries the name of Absalom F. Boston, but it is for the captain’s infant son. There are stones for Captain Boston’s first two wives as well as for his daughter Phebe Ann, but there are none for Absalom nor for Hannah Cook Boston, his third wife, who survived him by just two years. When they passed away in the 1850s, Nantucket’s whaling economy was in free fall, the Bostons’ estate was losing value precipitously, and it is unlikely that the three surviving Boston children could afford memorial stones for their parents. We know that they are there, however. According to the Weekly Mirror, Hannah’s funeral in 1857 was attended by all the employees of the steamship company and “a large number of citizens.”

James Ross was another resident of New Guinea who had been born in Africa. At least three of his daughters went to rest in the Historic Coloured Cemetery, two with headstones and one without. The oldest sister, Maria, married half-Maori William Whippey, and together they operated a seamen’s boarding house for Pacific Islanders. Their infant daughter, Mary Whippy, lived only two months and has a headstone in the Colored Cemetery. After William fell victim to tuberculosis, Maria forged on and eventually remarried. In 1900 she was living with a niece on York Street, and she surely went to rest in the same cemetery as baby Mary. Younger sisters, Sarah and Eunice Ross have twin side-by-side headstones. Eunice is famous for her role in the racial integration of the Nantucket public schools in the 1840s. Sarah was her quiet supporter. The two lived out their lives together and remained together in death, Sarah surviving Eunice by less than two years.

Eighteen or nineteen African Nantucketers served in the Civil War, most of them in the Union Navy. All survived the war, and at least four of the veterans eventually passed away on Nantucket and were buried in the Colored Cemetery with official veterans’ stone markers. One of them, Sampson D. Pompey, was descended from people enslaved on Nantucket in the 1700s. With his friend Hiram Reed, Sampson was active to the end of his life in the Nantucket chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic. 

The headstones of the Historic Coloured Cemetery recall many more stories of seamen, entrepreneurs, musicians, scholars, working men and women whose lives can be traced through Nantucket records. The unmarked graves are silent. We know the names of people who are surely there, but they cannot be located.

One of the most fraught issues about the Historic Coloured Cemetery has been what to call it. The earliest documents describe it as the burying place of the Black People or the People of Color. Over the years, various publications have called it the Negro Graveyard, the Black Cemetery, the African-American Cemetery, and Mill Hill Cemetery. Official town burial records consistently call it the Colored Cemetery. Since not all the people considered non-white in Nantucket were African Americans or even of African descent, most of the names that have been used were misleading.  

When an informational plaque was placed in the cemetery in 2008, it simply referred to the place as a historic cemetery. After much discussion and public input, it was decided that the official name should be the one on the death certificates of the deceased, namely the Colored Cemetery. Further discussion settled on the Historic Coloured Cemetery. In the summer of 2009 two wooden signs joined the bronze informational plaque. One on Prospect Street reads Historic Cemetery and points the direction. Inside the cemetery fence a second sign read Colored Cemetery. It has since been replaced with an inscription on the reverse side of the boulder with the bronze plaque.

This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).