...in 1845, the Massachusetts legislature guaranteed that every child in the state would have access to a public school. One source of pressure on the lawmakers was a petition submitted by a group of black Nantucketers. Accustomed to the relative equality they enjoyed aboard whaling ships, the island's blacks were unwilling to accept inferior segregated schools for their children. Strong Quaker influence caused most white Nantucketers to be sympathetic to abolition, but this did not translate into support for racial equality. On the contrary, a majority of white islanders voted to prohibit school integration. The island's blacks began a boycott and petition campaign. After a bitter struggle, they succeeded in bringing about the desegregation of the island's public schools.
The history of Nantucket as the capital of American whaling helps explain why its schools were the first in Massachusetts to be desegregated as the result of legal action.
With readily available work on and around ships, Massachusetts port cities like Nantucket drew a sizable free black population during the colonial period. By the 1830s, when whaling was an immensely profitable enterprise, Nantucket's well-established black community was in a position to become part of it. Whaling vessels were hardly free of racial prejudice, but at sea, black men were judged by their skill, strength, and courage as well as by their color. The success and self-respect attained by the island's black whalers made them unwilling to tolerate the inferior, segregated schools their children were forced to attend.
African Americans had lived on Nantucket for generations, centered in a neighborhood called "New Guinea." At the time of the Revolution, there were about 100 blacks living there. By the 1830s fugitive and freed slaves had swelled that number to 500.
Absalom Boston, who captained an all-black crew on the whale ship Industry, was the community's leader. According to one historian, Boston "came from a whaling clan on the island of many generations . . . [He] was a man of substantial means." In 1824 he helped the black community build the African Meeting House. This small post-and-beam structure would serve as the church, town hall, and school for "New Guinea."
The African Meeting House was the center of black Nantucket in large part because the white community would have it no other way. White Nantucketers before 1845 overwhelmingly supported a segregated society. The relatively integrated world of the whaling ship did not transfer to land. Most white people rejected a mingling of the races, or "amalgamation." As a result, black students were not accepted in white schools on the island any more readily than they were on the mainland.
White Nantucketers had complicated attitudes towards black people. Many of them descended from Quakers who had been early opponents of slavery. In 1770 Quaker merchant William Rotch helped Prince Boston bring a successful suit for wages earned as a sailor, thus ending slavery on Nantucket. As abolitionism blossomed, Quakers were leaders in the movement. Quakers organized a series of anti-slavery conventions on the island; it was at one of these, in 1841, that Frederick Douglass, an eloquent fugitive slave from Maryland, first addressed an integrated audience. While most Nantucket Quakers were genuinely committed to ending slavery and some even favored political rights for African Americans, very few of them accepted the notion of social equality or racial integration.
In 1840 a gifted black student named Eunice Ross finished her studies at the African Meeting House and applied to the only high school on the island. Although she was found "amply qualified," the School Committee voted to deny her admission.
Two years later, with progressives now dominant on the committee, the island's schools were briefly de-segregated. It took only a day for the Town Meeting to override the decision and re-segregate the schools. The black community sent a strongly worded open letter to the local paper denouncing the prejudice of the white islanders.
For the next three years, Nantucket's Town Meetings and School Committee deliberations were the scenes of bitter conflict. An 1843 vote expressly prohibited school integration, but the School Committee went ahead and integrated the schools anyway. The pro-integration members of the School Committee were defeated at the next election and replaced with anti-integrationists. The black students were returned to the African School. Outraged black parents began boycotting the school to the embarrassment of the island's white residents.
In 1845 black leader Edward Pompey drew up a petition to the state legislature, calling for an end to school segregation. Over a hundred black people signed it. Some members of the white community responded with an anti-integration petition of their own, while others submitted petitions in support of desegregation. On March 25, 1845, the Massachusetts legislature passed House Bill 45, which guaranteed all Massachusetts children access to public education and gave plaintiffs standing to sue. Nantucket's schools remained segregated, but now Absalom Boston had the right to take legal action.
In 1846 the high school denied entrance to his daughter, Phebe Ann. Absalom Boston filed suit on behalf of both Phebe and Eunice Ross. With considerable financial means and political will, Captain Boston hired lawyers and made it clear that he intended to fight the matter in court. Faced with an expensive court battle and potential liability under the new law, the Town of Nantucket conceded. At the age of 24, Eunice Ross finally enrolled in the ninth grade. The school at the African Meeting House closed.
Although the decline and disappearance of the whaling industry brought economic hardship to the island and caused most of the black families to leave, the African Meeting House still stands. Owned by the Museum of Afro-American History, it serves as a memorial to one of the state's most vibrant black communities and its hard-fought struggle against segregated schools.
The African School and the Integration of Nantucket Public Schools, 1825-1847. by Barbara Linebaugh (Boston University, n.d.)
"Black White Relations on Nantucket," by Robert Johnson, Historic Nantucket, Spring 2002.
The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket's Oars, by Frances Karttunen (Spinner Publications, 2005).