Celebrating Black History Month on Cape Cod

Black History Month gives locals and visitors to Cape Cod an opportunity to learn about the ways in which African Americans and the Cape Verdean population have shaped the culture and economy of this region. There are a few interesting places and events on the Cape and Islands to learn more about the rich history of these groups, from their arrival in America up until present day.  

Arrival on Cape Cod

Both African Americans and the Cape Verdean population have an extensive history in this region.  Enslaved Africans first arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s, while Cape Verdeans did not immigrate until the 19th century.  

Although slavery was made illegal in Massachusetts in 1783, it was still present on Cape Cod well into the 19th century.  Africans were forcefully brought here to serve as slaves, often working in their owner’s family businesses since land on Cape Cod was not favorable for farming.  Numerous Cape Codders hid runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.  There were several stops along the Underground Railroad located on Cape Cod, including Sandwich, Barnstable, and Martha’s Vineyard.   Eventually slavery was abolished in the United States and many freed slaves settled in New England and Cape Cod.

Cape Verdeans, of mixed African and Portuguese ancestry, arrived in the 19th century. Thousands of Cape Verdeans came to the U.S. drawn by jobs in the whaling industry and ended up working in the cranberry bog harvesting industry.  The cranberry industry became dependent on Cape Verdean immigrants, but very few became owners of bogs.  Many Cape Verdeans faced discrimination as persons of color and as a result of their lower socioeconomic status.  

Photo Credit: The African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard

How to Learn More and Become Involved

There are several places on Cape Cod that provide visitors the opportunity to learn about the arrival of these groups, their cultural influence in this region, and both their struggles and accomplishments over the years.  

  • Zion Heritage Museumcelebrates the African-American and Cape Verdean population, as well as the ethnic and demographic diversity of the Town of Barnstable and Cape Cod.  The museum provides tours and offers exhibits, including special events for Black History Month.  Admission is free in February in honor of Black History Month.   
  • The African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard includes 30 different sites dedicated to previously unrecognized contributions made by people of African heritage, to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. 
  • Museum of African American History has a Nantucket branch.  Sites to visit include the African Meeting House, the only public building constructed and occupied by African Americans in the 19th century still standing on Nantucket.  Another historical site is the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House.  Seneca Boston, a formerly enslaved man and his wife, Thankful Micah, contributed greatly to the development of the free Black community on the island in the early 18th century. The Black Heritage Trail features ten stops and is divided into two segments, Downtown and New Guinea, the section of Nantucket where African Americans lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Highfield Hall and Gardens – will celebrate Black History Month by featuring a lecture given by Skip Finley, author of Whaling Captains of Color, America’s First Meritocracy.  Mr. Finley addresses living and working conditions, and tells about the individual stories of more than fifty whaling masters of color, their adventures, successes, and struggles.  Those interested in attending this lecture must register ahead of time.  
  • Cape Verdean Club of Falmouth – the oldest of its kind in the United States. The Club holds an annual Cape Verdean Festival in September.
  • The 2022 Woods Hole Black History Month Celebration – welcomes community members to come together to celebrate Black History Month and build a stronger community through diversity. This year’s Black History Month theme is “Black Health and Wellness.”  All events are free, open to the public and require advance registration.

Celebrate Black History Month on Cape Cod by visiting one of these places to learn more about Black history on Cape Cod.  It is important that we recognize the struggles these groups faced, while also honoring their accomplishments and important contributions to this region.