NHA Home | Historic Nantucket Articles | Bookmark and Share

Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 40, no. 4 (Winter 1992), p. 76-78

African-American Women in Nineteenth-Century Nantucket:
Wives, Mothers, Modistes, and Visionaries
By Gloria Davis Goode

As pioneers of a new Nantucket community, nineteenth-century black women became role models for other freed slaves to follow.

African-American women in nineteenth-century Nantucket were born and bred into a domestic sphere. Throughout their lives their domestic orientation became their strength, their prominence, and their authority as they faced challenging yet restrictive prospects for advancement in society. Slavery, the preoccupation with survival, and the absence of sufficient rewards for their labors helped to shape their identities. Drawing from their past experiences they were able as a community of women to bond with each other, to mature, and to emerge as models of exemplary esteem within their own cultural group as well as in mainstream society.

Maria Boston, the "ancestral matriarch" of Nantucket's African-American women, was a part of a small, close-knit community of manumitted slave families. Sometime before the Revolution, William Swain offered freedom to Maria and her husband Boston. But it was not until 1760 that Maria, Boston, and their youngest son, Peter, were manumitted, "For and in consideration of the many good & faithful services. . . ." The couple's six other children were to remain in slavery until they reached twenty-eight years of age, with the exception of Tobias, an adult, who was to be freed at the age of twenty-five. By the 1790s, all of the children had been freed through the process of gradual manumission. Destined for success by virtue of strong family ties, perseverance, and hard work, the Boston freedmen became mariners, merchants, and craftsmen. As pioneers of a new community, they took the lead in setting examples for other freed slaves to follow. They purchased land in the West Monomoy shares near the Old Mill; during the first half of the next century they married and with their wives built their homes, raised their children, and amassed their fortunes. After the death of Boston, Maria remarried into the Pompey family and in her declining years was cared for by her sons.

About the time that Maria Boston's children began to receive their freedom papers, an event occurred that helped to change the composition of the island forever. A few years before he was to be granted freedom papers, Maria's son, Prince Boston, signed on as a crew member of the sloop Friendship, owned by the Quaker, William Rotch. When Captain Elisha Folger paid Prince Boston for his wages, an heir of his owner, John Swain, sued Boston to recover the money. The Court of Common Pleas granted Boston his freedom three years ahead of his scheduled manumission. Thus, the island became known as a haven for fugitive slaves who came by way of the Underground Railroad and slave mariners rescued by Quaker captains visiting southern ports. By the 1820s, a unique African-American settlement composed of native Nantucketers, southern-born newcomers, and a few South Sea Island mariners began to emerge, most of whom made their livelihoods from the whaling industry. The settlement, known as "Guinea," or "New Guinea," after the territory of the same name in West Africa, was a cluster of residences, gardens, and pastures physically separated from the white community by Newtown Gate, a sheep barrier at the end of Pleasant Street. There were stores, shops, churches, a school, and later on an abolition society. Within this community, women played an important role.

In 1830, black women, almost a quarter of the total African-American population of 282 persons, were listed in the Nantucket census of "Colored Persons," as wives and mothers. How the society recognized social differences can be gleaned from a record of deaths from 1832 to 1834. A destitute woman in the poor house known only by age and sex was identified in this report, which states "August of 1832. ... A Negro Woman Slave died at Quaise Asylum . . . age 47." In a similar record no surname is used and the circumstances surrounding the death are omitted; thus, "Mary died at New Guinea, Nantucket very suddenly .. . Age 30." Those entries can be contrasted with one for a minister's wife, "September 9, 1832 . . . Sophia Cooper, a Coloured Woman wife of John Cooper, died suddenly at New Guinea . . . age 27;" and the one for Maria Boston's granddaughter, "July 4, 1834 . . . Mary Douglas wife of Michael a Coloured Woman and daughter of Tobias Boston a Respectable Woman . . . age 66." What made a woman "respectable" can be ascertained by examining the life of a woman who lived on Guinea Hill.

One so-called respectable woman became prominent by virtue of marriage into the established Boston family. She took on a great number of responsibilities and obligations as the third wife of Absalom F. Boston. Born in the whaling town of New Bedford, Hannah Cook came to Nantucket in 1827 to marry the successful mariner, who at that time was captain of his own whaling ship and employer of an all-black crew. His —— first and second wives had died at young ages, leaving two sets of children. Taking her place as the "first lady" of Nantucket's community of color, Hannah Boston interacted with her extended family and managed a household that included four stepchildren, two brothers-in-law, and several boarders, one a foreigner. In her way, she added to the financial success of her family, for servicing boarders provided obvious economic advantages. Hannah Boston, no doubt, was a strong woman; she had experienced grief over the loss of her five children, none of whom lived to adulthood. Yet, she bore her responsibilities well. She supported her husband in his activities as a trustee of the African Baptist Church, as a candidate for local offices, as a member of the African Abolition Society, and as a plaintiff in a suit filed on behalf of his daughter to attend the high school. For women like Hannah, living in a large family with many friends had advantages. Isolation and alienation were rare and burdens shared by kinfolk, community, and church family were bearable. In 1858, upon the death of her husband, Hannah Boston was named executor of his estate, valued at over $1,300. As a widow she managed her property and her personal assets.

In contrast to the women of the older established black families, the first and second wives of Arthur Cooper represent those who were liberated from southern slave culture to live in a community where they could be respected, regardless of their color. Mary, a fugitive slave from Virginia, was guided through the Underground Railroad along with her intended husband, Arthur Cooper, on a Nantucket sloop. Soon after their arrival in 1820, the couple was married and received by the Guinea community. They took up residence on Angola Street, and Arthur Cooper became minister of the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on West York Street. The story of the attempted capture of the fugitive couple by an agent from Virginia is well known in Nantucket. The capture was thwarted because of the anti-slavery efforts of many black families and a plan engineered by abolitionists on the island. Mary Cooper died at an early age, leaving behind her husband and five children.

Lucy Cooper, Arthur Cooper's second wife, had also experienced the pain of slavery. Brought from Africa as a young girl, she was sold at the age of eighteen to the owners of a rice plantation in South Carolina. Sometime in the 1830s she came to Nantucket, married Arthur Cooper, and lived with him until his death in 1853. Lucy Cooper was respected by her own people as well as the members of the white community. According to Mary Starbuck and her friend Eliza, "There was a little bunch of grapes branded on her forehead just above the eyebrows. She wore a turban, and she had a lovely soft voice, and was gentle in her ways, and she and her little house were immaculately clean." The two women were so close to Lucy Cooper that after her death in 1866 they raised money to purchase her tombstone, so that she could rest beside her husband in the black cemetery. An observer articulated the reasons why Lucy Cooper may have lived on the island when he stated, "... Her years passed at Nantucket were so quiet and tranquil that the experience . . . mellowed and softened the recollections of her early life." In an obituary, Lucy Cooper was remembered as a pious woman.

Lucy Cooper is representative of a spiritual woman of the early African Methodist Episcopal Church. She probably attended a weekly class, an extension of her Methodist congregation called the Women's Band Society. In 1840, the bands of "true believers who have confidence in each other," in addition to Lucy Cooper, may have included Sarah Wright, Elizabeth Cooper, Cecelia Scott Robinson, Mary Clark Berry, and Rebecca Pierce. They prayed, testified, rejoiced at one another's successes, and shared their burdens.

While the number of Methodist women grew smaller due to the decline of the Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, a group of twenty-one women widened their circle of influence as founders of the Pleasant Street Baptist Church under the leadership of a new minister. James E. Crawford, a former Methodist missionary, was a gifted leader and orator who was affiliated with both white and black Baptist congregations. His first wife, Ann Williams Crawford, came from a well-known black family in Charleston, South Carolina. One of her sisters had married H. H. Garnet, a missionary to England and the West Indies. When it was learned that his wife's sister and niece had been sold into slavery, Crawford began a campaign to raise money for the ransom. After his sister-in-law, Dianna Williams, was liberated with funds collected by the islanders, he elicited the help of people from many denominations to purchase freedom for his niece, Cornelia Read. In a newspaper article, the Crawford family expressed deeply felt obligations to all of the ministers and churches of the coalition that had contributed to the cause. When his wife died, James E. Crawford married her sister and cared for his niece.

None of the Methodist or Baptist women became prominent ministers; however, one woman did change the course of the island's religious history.

After Zilpha Elaw had placed her daughter with a family in New York to learn the skills of a modiste, or dressmaker, Elaw continued on a religious tour to Nantucket in 1832. She contracted a severe illness and was compelled to remain on the island with little hope of recovery. She sent for her daughter, who with the aid of Sarah Coffin and two other women, an elderly Baptist and a Quaker preacher, prayed for Zilpha Elaw's recovery. At the end of an eight-month illness, Elaw regained her strength; she and her daughter decided to make the island their new home. She preached at two chapels of the Methodist Society, one situated in the upper part of town where she spoke on "the Lord's day afternoon," and the other in the lower part of town, a large chapel where she assisted her "beloved minister."

Zilpha Elaw's daughter Rebecca married a mariner, Thomas Pierce (Pearce) in 1833; the Pierces purchased property in "Newtown," or "Guiney," where they resided with their three sons and provided a home for Zilpha Elaw to relax in between her ministerial tours. In the 1830s Zilpha Elaw was approached by the African Baptist congregation to preach at their services as they were "destitute of a minister." With the consent of her Methodist minister and friend, Reverend Thomas C. Pierce, she did so successfully.

Rebecca Elaw Pierce was widowed in the 1850s and continued to live with her sons until they reached maturity. In 1868, when she was a middle-aged woman, Rebecca Pierce married her neighbor, a widower, James E. Crawford. She retained her Methodist affiliation but worked beside her husband in the Baptist Church. The last known mention of the evangelist Zilpha Elaw is recorded in an obituary for her daughter in 1883.

Although Rebecca Elaw Crawford left no will, she probably communicated to her husband that, after his death, her closest and dearest companion, Rachel Cooper Lynch, widow of Edward Lynch, was to inherit some of her personal effects. These included, "one brilliant Breast pin, one Shawl pin, one .... Gold Heart, ... [a] kitchen clock . . . Cook Stove and Stove furniture, clothes horse . . . Washing machine . . . and Wringing Machine . . . also the motto hanging in ... [the] front parlor which is a 'Shall We Gather at the River,' and one picture and any other picture of... Rebecca."

With the death of Rachel Cooper Lynch in 1899, recollections of the life of Zilpha Elaw might have vanished, except for a most important document written by this African-American woman who lived in Nantucket. This is a spiritual autobiography, Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, An American female of Colour, . . . published in London in 1846. The gift that Zilpha Elaw brought to Nantucket was the possibility for a woman to reach her greatest spiritual and intellectual heights.

By the turn of the century, the "Guinea" or "Newtown" community had virtually disappeared. Mahala Pierce was the only black woman living alone—on Dover Street in her family's homestead— and Cornelia Read Gould had moved with her husband to Dedham, Massachusetts. Today, Nantucket's Black Cemetery, with its unmarked graves and eroding stones, stands as a memorial to the African-American women of the nineteenth century. Their legacy is best exemplified in a 1904 tribute to Susan B. Pompey, descendant of the Kelley family and wife of Sampson D. Pompey:

Mrs. Pompey was an honored representative of a respected colored family on Nantucket, intelligent, industrious, active in good word and work from girlhood to womanhood.

Gloria D. Goode received her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in American civilization, with an emphasis on the history of African-American women. She has been awarded the 1993 Pennsylvania Secondary Teacher of the Year award.