What was Scott’s Hall?

Franklin “Frank” Scott (1870–1940) and his wife, Mary Chapman Scott (1889–1973), were not the first black Nantucketers to own a dance hall. In the 1820s, John Pompey hosted dances in “New Guinea,” an African-American neighborhood on the island, and his relative Trillania continued to organize entertainment a generation later. But, after the island’s whaling industry ended in the 1850s and 1860s, Nantucket’s population quickly declined, and such dance halls closed along with other local businesses and community amenities.

The Scotts noticed the absence of entertainment options for Black Nantucketers when they moved to the island in 1917. They lived in Codfish Park, a racially mixed community on the eastern end adjacent to Siasconset and Sankaty Head Lighthouse, and soon began building the barn that would become Scott’s Dance Hall. At this time, Nantucket’s Black residents were largely domestic workers who came to the island with the wealthy white seasonal families they worked for. Living in the same houses as their employers, workers enjoyed the leisure time they were allowed on Thursdays and Sundays. Unfortunately, there was a severe lack of recreational activities to choose from; one Black islander remembered that walking, biking, and swimming were the only diversions available, and they all these required fair weather. Poor weather meant people had few choices other than staying in their employers’ homes.

The Scotts built the barn in the early 1920s, and it turned out not to be a simple project. One day in May 1921, Frank was using a hatchet to cut a wood board when the tool broke and a piece entered his eye. A doctor was called, but Frank was quickly referred to a hospital in New Bedford for a specialist, and work on the barn understandably stalled. It is clear that the Scotts had made friends in their early years on the island, because they published a note in a September issue of the Inquirer & Mirror newspaper to thank those who had helped the family during Frank’s recovery. By April 1928 at the latest, the barn was completed and the Scotts applied for a dance permit from the town selectmen, though this was rejected as residents had protested that ’Sconset had too many dance halls. The first approved permit reported by the I&M was in 1934, but from the language, it is clear that Scott’s Hall had already established itself as an entertainment destination. After that, dances were held every Thursday evening in the summer.

One Black Nantucketer, although was too young to attend herself, remembered watching her sisters dress up to attend the dances. Her father would bring sandwiches and sweets to sell as people got hungry dancing waltzes, foxtrots, and polkas. Scott’s Hall was also available to others interested in hosting parties, so long as they acquired dance permits. In addition to playing records, the Scotts invited local Cape Verdean immigrants to play dance music to create an “oasis of fun and relaxation.” While Nantucketers of all backgrounds flocked to Scott’s Hall, the Thursday night dances became a second home for Black domestic workers in the 1930s and ’40s, a place where they could get away from their employers for a few hours.

Many Nantucketers created happy memories during dances at Scott’s Hall. One white islander, working as a police officer stationed outside the building during a dance in July 1936, met his future wife as she was walking inside. They married just over a month later. ’Sconset was the home of many dances and house parties, but Scott’s Hall gave those Black workers who had no home of their own on the island a place in which they belonged every week.

When Frank Scott died in February 1940, Mary again held weekly dances that summer. The next summer, she moved the dances to Saturday evenings. The last reported permit was issued to Scott’s Hall in 1948; while dances may have continued after that, it was probably not for much longer. In 1949, Willie House opened the Chicken Box, which quickly became the primary gathering place for working Black Nantucketers. Mary began spending the winters in New York or Pennsylvania and died in Philadelphia in 1973. Her comings and goings were reported in the I&M, as was her death, long after the last dance at Scott’s Hall.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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