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Obituary: Renee Oliver

Brian Wright O’Connor | 6/20/2012, 9:53 a.m.

NANTUCKET, Mass. — Renee Bernadette Forte Oliver, a retired school teacher and co-manager of the African Meeting House on Nantucket, died June 5 on the island she loved.

Oliver, 64, passed away at her home after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer.

Born in Queens, N.Y., and raised by a tight-knit extended family, Oliver spent many summers on the island off the Massachusetts coast, living close to “Five Corners,” the center of Nantucket’s historic black community. After retiring on the island, Oliver’s sense of history and deep roots in the community led her to become a docent of the Meeting House, which was built by free African Americans on Nantucket in the 1820s.

Beverly A. Morgan-Welch, executive director of Boston’s Museum of African American History, which bought and restored the meeting house in the early 1990s, said it was important that those who succeed Oliver know “what an incredible contribution she made to the preservation of our historic sites on Nantucket and to the education of anyone willing, and sometimes, not so willing to listen.”

A 1970 graduate of Talladega College in Georgia, Oliver married the Rev. Luther Holland Jr. and moved to Los Angeles, where she taught at San Pedro Elementary School and earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Southern California and a master’s in education administration from Pepperdine University.

After divorcing in 1988, Oliver moved to New Haven, Conn., where she taught in the public schools and met a local pastor, the Rev. William Boyd “Bill” Oliver III, a Texas-born preacher who was the first white minister to head an historically black congregation in the Lone Star State. They married in 1990 in Austin, Texas, surrounded by their children, family and many friends.

Active in the North Haven Congregational Church in New Haven, Oliver in 1991 purchased the Nantucket home of her aunt and uncle and spent the next nine summers vacationing on the island while renovating and expanding the property, located just up Pleasant Street from the Meeting House.

“Living on an island where space is scarce, she designed a drive-through garage with proper Nantucket doors and no back wall,” wrote Morgan-Welch in a moving tribute to Oliver’s “strong and sweet spirit” and her “just so” way of getting things done.

The unusual design allowed more cars to park in the back — the better to accommodate their large blended families who loved to visit.

After the Olivers retired from their jobs in New Haven in 2000, they became year-round Nantucket residents. Oliver continued to teach on the island while her husband also worked in the public schools.

Following her final retirement, the Olivers became co-managers of the African Meeting House, overseeing ongoing renovations of the structure as well as the adjacent Boston-Higginbotham home, birthplace of the black whaling captain Absalom Boston.

On a recent visit to the meeting house, the spiritual center of Nantucket’s black community, Renee Oliver’s docent badge still hung from a wooden peg beneath the curved roof, shaped by skilled black hands to echo the bowed sides of a whaling schooner.

Oliver is survived by her husband; her mother Lola; her children J.J. and Kim Holland; her stepsons William IV and David Oliver; and four grandchildren.

Services were held June 21 at the First Congregational Church on Nantucket. The family asked that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to the Museum of African American History.