Rights and Race

Rights and Race, a exhibition and multi-year programming initiative at Hadwen House, explores the island’s history of social justice, civil rights, and racial equality.

In the nineteenth century, Nantucket was home to a large contingent of social activists committed to the popular reform movements of the period. Prominent islanders actively worked to abolish slavery, prevent the abuse of alcohol, elevate the status of women through suffrage and equal protection under the law, and increase educational opportunities for minorities. Many were Quakers or Unitarians and thus prescribed to a common value system that promoted racial and gender equality, personal integrity, simplicity, community, and non-violence.

Hadwen House, named after whaling merchant William Hadwen, is perhaps the grandest of Nantucket’s nineteenth-century Main Street mansions. Given the family’s strong interest in social activism and also the home’s proximity to New Guinea, a section of Nantucket town that in the 18th and 19th centuries housed a predominantly black community, the Nantucket Historical Association is repurposing this historic site as a forum for Rights and Race.

In the mansion’s parlors, visitors will explore the most pressing ethical issues of the nineteenth century and the ways that Nantucket’s people of color and its wealthy white elite advanced the causes of anti-slavery, women’s rights, and school desegregation. We also present New Arrivals, New Voices, a display about the reasons for and impact of immigration to the island.

Islanders have long wrestled with the weighty issues of justice and equality. In part because of the long influence of the egalitarian tenets of Quakerism, leading island activists have often been leading national activists, and the “Nation of Nantucket,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson called the island, provides a unique prism through which to examine the history of American civil rights and racial relations.

Looking broadly across four centuries, future exhibitions will examine relations between the native Wampanoag people and the English settlers during the first contact period of the late seventeenth century, and questions of liberty and freedom during the colonial and Revolutionary War periods. Voting rights for women, attempts by the island to secede from the commonwealth at various periods, and the 2004 decision to permit same-sex marriage in Massachusetts are all topics we will explore.

This year we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, in partnership with the African Meeting House and the Nantucket Atheneum. Next year, we celebrate our own 125th birthday along with 360 years since first contact. In 2020, we celebrate one hundred years of women’s voting rights. As we look to these anniversaries, we will constantly build on this Rights and Race initiative.

In the off-season, this new attraction will be free of charge to the island community. We will encourage students and seniors alike to take advantage of this opportunity to congregate, socialize, and enjoy this resource and learn about their shared history.

Learn more about social activism on Nantucket


Banner image photos (clockwise from top left) include: Lucretia Mott, 1793–1880 (CDV1327); Frederick Douglass, 1818–1895 (Library of Congress); Martha B. Miller, 1844–? (GPN1195); Nathaniel Barney, 1792–1869 (P985); Joseph R. Lewis, Jr., 1850–1925 (GPN3852); Thomas Macy, 1787–1864 (CDV1349); Eliza Starbuck Barney, 1802–1889 (P111); Absalom F. Boston, 1785–1855 (1906.0056.001); Anna Gardner, 1816–1901 (GPN1319); and Reverend James Crawford, 1847–1888 (GPN973).

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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