Noelle Trent, the new President and Chief Executive Officer of the Museum of African American History (MAAH), which owns Nantucket’s African American Meeting House, traveled to the island for the first time Monday to speak at the Meeting House’s Juneteenth celebration.
“I’m very excited to be here,” she said. “I’m very excited about the stories we tell here.”
Trent, who specializes in African American history and culture, received a doctorate from Howard University and has about 20 years of museum experience in areas ranging from curation to education. Most recently, Trent served as director of interpretation, collections, and education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
As of Monday, Trent was still in her first week as CEO, but she already has lofty aspirations for MAAH. MAAH is pursuing accreditation through the American Alliance of Museums, a process that will take years but that Trent feels is incredibly important to show they are at the top of their field. As for the Nantucket museum specifically—which in total encompasses five buildings, including the Meeting House—Trent hopes that it can become a larger part of the community both during the summer and year-round. In the long run, she hopes everyone on Nantucket will know the museum’s story.
“[The Nantucket museum’s] story is an incredibly powerful story. It’s a unique story,” she said. “That’s something to take some pride in.”
The Meeting House, which reopened to the public after extensive restoration efforts in 1999, is one of the oldest buildings of its kind in the country and the oldest remaining public building constructed and occupied by Nantucket’s Black community. Completed in 1827, the Meeting House does indeed have a unique story: it has played host to everyone from Frederick Douglass to Absalom Boston, the first Black whaleship captain, and has been everything from a church to a school to a museum.
“The big thing for me is to expand and elevate the museum,” Trent said. “To elevate the story and bring it to people beyond the island.”
Trent hopes to increase MAAH’s presence in the local community by ramping up the events offered at the Nantucket museum and suggested that next year’s Juneteenth celebrations, which commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States, will be larger than those held this year. She also suggested she will work to bring nationally and internationally recognized names to speak at MAAH locations.
To do all that, she’ll need financial support—and she’s already off to a good start. Just last week, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund announced a donation of around $140,000 for restoration efforts at the Meeting House.
“I’m very proud of the team,” Trent said. “We are going to continue to spruce up this building.”
As CEO of MAAH, Trent will inevitably be faced with questions about the racist graffiti spray-painted on the Nantucket Meeting House in 2018, but she doesn’t want that incident to get in the way of MAAH’s work.
“I’ve worked in Black museums for years. This is not my first encounter with racist vandalism,” she said. “Regardless of that, the good works continue.”
“We would all like for justice to be served,” she added, “but in the words of [Martin Luther King Jr.], justice delayed is justice denied.”
Trent hopes that, if anything, the vandalism will spur MAAH on to do good in the community and continue to educate people about the Meeting House’s important story.