by Amy Jenness
Despite its reputation as a 19th century antislavery stronghold, Nantucket’s first generations of European settlers owned slaves and the process of integrating the island has at times been a difficult one.
In 1659, nine English families purchased large portions of the island and came here to establish a town where no white people had ever lived. Although the founders invested in Nantucket as a business venture, the move also gave them some religious breathing space from the repressive Puritan Laws they lived under in the northern coastal Massachusetts. Nantucket, which belonged to New York state at the time, was free from the long reach of those laws.
In time the Quaker faith, which stresses equality for all despite race and gender, became the dominant religion on the island and Nantucket Friends (as Quakers are often called) were the first to denounce slavery around 1716. In 1733 Elihu Coleman, a carpenter and Quaker minister, published, “A Testimony Against That Anti-Christian Practice Of Making Slaves of Men,” which refuted all pro-slavery rationales of the day.
But slavery remained a part of island life until the late 1700s. Nantucket’s successful white families purchased slaves and passed their ownership on as estate assets. Slowly, individual owners began to choose to give their slaves freedom. But a seminal lawsuit ended the practice for good in 1773. Prince Boston was born into slavery on Nantucket in 1750. He was one of eight children born to Boston and Maria, African Americans owned by merchant William Swain. In 1760 Swain granted the parents their freedom, but stipulated the Boston children would serve as slaves until the age of 28. One at a time, each of Boston’s children passed into freedom throughout the 1760s and early 1770s.
In 1773, five years before his 28th birthday, Prince Boston made history by obtaining his freedom by going to court. Boston had help from prominent whaleship owner William Rotch and his success not only ended his slave status, it also awarded him back pay for his time as a working on one of Rotch’s whaleships. The after-effects of the lawsuit ended slavery on Nantucket for good.
Nantucket’s stance made it attractive to fugitive slaves and a confrontation between black and white islanders and a bounty hunter polarized the island in 1822. Arthur Cooper, was born a slave in Alexandria, Virginia in 1789. Cooper, his wife Mary, and their children came to Nantucket in 1820. Two years later bounty hunter Camillus Griffith arrived looking for the Cooper family, including Mary, who was a free woman. The Quaker community assisted the family by hiding them in different homes. Griffith brought the matter to court and Magistrate Alfred Folger ruled that the family could not be removed from Nantucket. Although Griffith left the island without the Coopers, he continued his pursuit through litigation on the mainland, but never succeeded.
Six-year-old Anna Gardner witnessed her parents hiding Arthur Cooper in their attic during the tumult and became an abolitionist on the spot. As a young girl Gardner taught at the African School, but quit in protest when her gifted student Eunice Ross was denied entrance to the all-white public high school. At age 25 Gardner helped organize an anti-slavery convention at the Nantucket Atheneum. At the convention, held in August of 1841, Frederick Douglass, a 23-year-old fugitive slave living in New Bedford, was urged to speak. Douglass rose and spoke haltingly, but eloquently, on the hardships and abuses of the slave system. That speech set him on a path that lead to international fame as an abolitionist, writer and orator. Douglass returned to speak at Nantucket anti-slavery conventions in 1842 and 1843. Seneca Boston, Prince’s brother, married a Wampanoag woman named Thankful Micah one year after gaining his freedom. They named their first child Freeborn Boston. Fifteen years later they named their newest child Absalom Boston.
Absalom grew up to become a leader in the island’s African American community, as well as a successful businessman. As a young man he went whaling and had saved enough money by age 30 to open an inn catering to seamen. In 1822, Boston captained the whaleship Industry and lead an allblack crew on a historic six-month whaling voyage. When the Industry returned, Boston retired from the sea.
Boston helped found the African Meetinghouse in 1824, an all-purpose institution on the corner of York and Pleasant Streets which served as school, church and meetinghouse for the island’s New Guinea section. In 1846, after years of struggle to integrate the schools, Boston forced the town to allow his daughter to attend public high school and desegregated the islands schools.
By 1835 more than 500 African Americans lived on Nantucket, but they were segregated from whites in many ways, including education. In 1837 Eunice Ross was deemed qualified to attend high school, but was denied because of her race.
In 1842 pro-integration Quaker Nathaniel Barney convinced the school committee to integrate the public schools. But a town meeting vote reversed the decision the next day. In 1843 town meeting voters pass a law making it illegal to integrate the schools. The school committee, which now had a majority of pro-integration members, ignored the law and opened schools to students of any race. One year later, voters appointed a new school committee which separated the school system by race once again.
The parents of African American school children were outraged and refused to send their children back to the African school. In 1845 African American citizen Edward Pompey petitioned the state legislature to end school segregation. At the same time, a group of white Nantucketers petitioned the legislation to allow segregation. State lawmakers pass a law that year making school segregation illegal, but Nantucket voters choose to ignore it.
Finally, in 1846 Absalom Boston’s daughter Phebe Ann was deemed qualified to attend high school but denied based on her race. Her powerful father Absalom Boston threatened to sue the town. Faced with legal action, town meeting voters decided to create a pro-integration school committee and open the public schools to all island students. Eunice Ross, now in her twenties, joined Phebe Ann Boston as a student at Nantucket High School.
Amy Jenness is the author of On This Day In Nantucket History.