Absalom Boston was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1785, to parents Seneca Boston and Thankful March. Seneca Boston was the son of an ex-slave. Thankful March was a member of the Wampanoag tribe. Absalom’s 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, and 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, and within ten years able to buy his license to open and operate a public hotel. Boston became the Captain of a whaleship named The Industry and manned an all-black crew. He garnered fame for leading his crew on a six-month mission and returning with 70 barrels and his crew unharmed.
During the mid-1800s black men were able to find work within the sailing industry; it is said that around 700 black sailors were employed. Black men as captains of whaling ships were uncommon, but Boston was one of the few black men who were the captain of the boat he sailed upon. Blacks were a small percentage of the population of Nantucket, according to a 1764 census, 50 black people 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 established a meeting house for black people, one of the first black institutions in the United States.
Boston retired from sailing in 1822 but continued his work to help uplift his community. He opened a general store and 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, which 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 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. Despite the segregation, he understood the importance of black empowerment through economics and education. He not only preach those messages, he actually lived what he preached. To Captain Absalom Boston, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
J. A. Ward
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