Winter Walks: Wandering around Newtown
Winter Walks: Wandering through Newtown
In celebration of Black History Month, this is a working version of a walk I want to put into "Walking Nantucket Vol. II" that explores a section of the outskirts of town where the residents were predominantly black. The area includes the African Meeting House and the Higginbotham House on York Street, and the black graveyard, James E. Crawford Cemetery.
This is a departure from my usual wilderness exploration. For this new book, I want to include an urban walks section and have four or five walks to go in this chapter. Sorry for the lack of photo with this walk.
Wandering through Newtown
Length: .97 of a mile
Time: 25 minutes
Difficulty Rating: Easy
Dogs: Yes, on a leash
Food: Grapes, blackberries
The James E. Crawford Cemetery, dubbed The Colored Cemetery behind the nurses housing for Nantucket Cottage Hospital on Prospect Street on the southern side of Dead Horse Valley is the destination in this amble, but it’s just one part of a historic section of the island through which this walk traipses. These walking verbs are apt descriptions for this route because it much more an exploration of a neighborhood than a get-out-there-and-get-some-exercise hike in the moors or on the beach.
The cemetery is part of Newtown, also called New Guinea and Negro Town, the portion of the island where almost all African Americans lived for more than a century starting around 1772, according to Isabel Kaldenback-Montemayor’s essay, “Absolom Boston and the Development of Nantucket’s African-American Community” in “Nantucket’s People of Color: Essays on History, Politics and Community” edited by Robert Johnson, Jr.
Tradespeople, predominantly involved in the whaling industry including carpenters, ropemakers, blockmakers, weavers, boardinghouse keepers, shoemakers and leatherworkers, seamstresses, chimneysweeps, blacksmiths, traders, ministers, victuallers, barbers and general labors settled this segregated district of Nantucket Town formerly called the Monomoy Shares in the vicinity of Five Corners where Pleasant and York streets, and Atlantic Avenue intersect.
The cemetery is named for James E. Crawford, pastor of the African Baptist Church on Nantucket from 1847 to 1888. The church, now known as the African Meeting House sitting at the north corner of York and Pleasant streets, began as the York Street Colored Baptist Society. After its membership dwindled down to just a few souls and the society ceased organized meetings, the Pleasant Street Baptist Society and Church sprang to life in 1847 for this part of the island’s black community whose neighborhood also had its own shops and stores.
What You’ll See
You won’t see a marker for the black founder of the Chicken Box, Willie House. His grave is across from the Stop & Shop in the Newtown Cemetery, also called the Old South Cemetery. But you will find a tombstone for Mattie B. Pina, who lived to be 101 and passed in 1999, among several dozen other black islanders from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The most visible remnants of Newtown other than the African Meeting House and the Higgenbotham House next door, is the Colored Cemetery where Pina is buried, and in which the earliest known burial was in 1798 and that was rededicated in 2007 with the following plaque inscription that reads in part: In 1805 the Nantucket Proprietors “voted that the Black People may fence one acres of land where their Burying Place is.” In 1807 this place is described as “the Burying Ground that belongs to the Black People or People of Color.”
So, you’ll certainly find a cemetery of headstones adorned with original farewells to the living and afterlife greetings on the outskirts of Newtown such as Lucy, Relict of Arthur Cooper who died Feb. 3, 1866 leaving the following words: “Sleep on, Thou Aged Saint, Sleep On. The Goal is Reached, The Victory Won. And Rev. Crawford’s parting words marking his death on Oct. 20, 1888; “His Record is on High.”
But you’ll comprehend a lot more if you get a copy of the book mentioned above or even page through it at the Nantucket Atheneum before your walk. Today, Newtown is a modern day Nantucket neighborhood that alludes to little of its historic underpinnings except where islanders have chosen to mark their significance.
Yes, the African Meeting House and the Florence Higgenbotham House are both quite obvious at 29 and 27 York St., respectively, but don’t get discouraged as you walk up York Street beyond Five Corners. There is more to see when you reach the cemetery. To have so much open, walkable land in such close proximity to town and the outer neighborhoods is really unique, especially when it’s peppered with so much history.
When to Go
Halloween. Is there any other time to visit a boneyard? Well, I love the spookiness of it with gray skies and loitering crows caw, caw cawing from the surrounding low bushes and trees. But I’ve also found that spring is best because of the abundance of birds. The entire Dead Horse Valley area is packed with dense thickets of bushes, including those that bear blackberries, and low trees, many of them heavy with other berries that the birds love. However, winter is great because if we ever do get snow again, there’s a certain stark beauty to graveyards after new fallen snow that you shouldn’t miss, as long it’s not too windy. Of course, there’s always the sledding.
Find your way to this peaceful plot of sacred soil by walking west across Pleasant Street and continuing up York Street until you see two entrances to Prospect Street with the Old Mill on your right. Cross this road, but be careful of cars coming from both directions, as this is a busy road.
Once on the bike path on the south side of Prospect Street, go left down the path toward the hospital. The first right you come to is the turn for the cemetery and is marked with a sign that reads: “Est. 19th Century by the Rev. James Crawford, Pastor of the African Baptist Church.”
Just a few hundred feet down this road you’ll find the cemetery on the south side of the road protected by a split-rail fence. Visitors are welcome here. Go on in, look around, but be respectful of the gravesites and their stones. Read what’s on them, but do your best not to lean, sit or place anything on these markers. Some of them are well over 100 years old.
From this cemetery, you can walk west along the dirt road and find your way to Dead Horse Valley and Nantucket’s best sledding hill sans snowmaking machine. Go straight for the sledding hill or take a left to reach its peak and continue on to the Prospect Hill Cemetery or, at the top of the sledding hill, go right and find your way back out to Prospect Street.
I like to walk back out the way I came, continue down the bike path and take a left onto South Mill Street because when the leaves are off the trees, the gold dome of the Unitarian Church can be seen from the crest of this lane right before it connects with York Street. From here, go right and walk back across Five Corners to wherever you parked your vehicle or bike.
Newtown, AKA Five Corners, is reachable, preferably, on foot or by bike from the downtown and mid-island areas. Consult the map with this walk to get your bearings. If coming by NRTA bus, both the Miacomet and Mid-Island routes stop at Five Corners. If you come by bike, remember that there are no bike racks for locking your bike and if by car, that parking is challenge in the downtown area late spring through the fall.