Absalom Boston was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1785 to parents Seneca Boston and Thankful March. Seneca Boston his father was an ex-slave and his mother Thankful March was of the Wampanoag tribe. His uncle Prince Boston worked as a crew member of a whaling ship in 1770. Prince declined to turn over the money he earned from the voyage to his master. Prince Boston took his case to court and won the case; he also won his freedom and was able to keep his money. His victory was the first for an African-American in a U.S. jury trial.
Absalom Boston followed in his uncle’s footsteps and chose to work in the whaling industry; little did he know his decision would change the course of history. Over the years Boston saved his earnings, by the time he was twenty years old he was able to purchase property in the city of Nantucket. Boston continued to save his money over the years, within ten years able to purchase his license to open and operate a public inn. Boston became the Captain of a whaleship named The Industry and manned an all-black crew. He garnered fame for leading his crew in a six-month mission and returning with 70 barrels and his crew unharmed.
During the mid-1800’s black sailors were able to find work within the industry; it is said that around 700 black sailors were employed. Black men as captains of whaling ships were uncommon; Boston was one of the few black men who were the captain of the ship he sailed upon. Blacks were a small percentage of the population of Nantucket, according to a 1764 census 50 black existed within a population of 3,570. By the year 1820 the black population grew to 274; within ten years Absalom Boston and Stephen Pompey were labeled as heads of their households in the census. Boston and Pompey helped lead the charge against racism and segregation in Nantucket. The men were able to establish a meeting house for Africans, which was one of the first black institutions in the United States.
Boston retired from sailing in 1822 and continued his work to help uplift his community. He was able to open a general store and also became a trustee at the Baptist Church for African people. He became active in the movement to segregate the schools of Nantucket, he filed a lawsuit and won the case, this allowed his daughter to attend the local high school. In 1855 Absalom Boston died but not before amassing wealth in the form of real estate and revenue from various businesses. He was seen as the wealthiest black person in Nantucket and he helped set a standard of excellence for black people. Ironically, even though Boston fought tirelessly to end segregation within Nantucket, he was buried in a segregated cemetery. Even though Boston’s burial in the segregated cemetery was contrary to what he fought for, his impact cannot be diminished. He understood the importance of black empowerment through economics and education. Captain Absalom Boston, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
J. A. Ward
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