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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Historic Nantucket

Black-White Relations on Nantucket
by Robert Johnson

Prior to the Civil War, no issue more sharply divided Americans than the issue of race. Yet on Nantucket, blacks and a substantial number of whites nurtured a working relationship that recognized both racial differences and shared human characteristics. While the vast majority of American blacks in 1773 languished under the pains and deprivations of slavery, many in Nantucket could pursue a livelihood and plan their futures as free people.

Nantucket, of course, was not spared the experience of slavery. The earliest evidence of it on the island appeared in the records of the monthly meeting of the Society of Friends on June 26, 1716. By 1733 Elihu Coleman’s tract against slavery had been published. In it he wrote, “Now I can truly say that this practice of making slaves of men appears to be so great an evil to me, that for all the riches and glory of this world, I would not be guilty of so great a sin as this seems to be.” Even during racial crises such as that involving school integration, when polarization between blacks and whites increased, this opposition to slavery continued on Nantucket.

Primarily as a result of Quaker influence, race relations on the island during and after the American Revolution were more harmonious than elsewhere in the nation. Even though racial antipathy continued to undermine black–white relations, the Quaker presence and the long tradition of abolitionist activities had an ameliorating effect.

Blacks had been a part of Nantucket’s population since the early eighteenth century. The first Nantucket census in which blacks were officially counted occurred in 1764. Out of a population of 3,570 individuals, fifty “Negroes” and one hundred forty-eight “Indians” were counted. By the 1820 census the number of “coloreds” had increased to 274. Ten years later the names of Arthur Cooper, Samuel Harris, Absalom Boston, and Stephen Pompey appeared as heads of households in the census. These men and their families played leading roles in the development of cooperative race relations on the island and established an African Meeting House, one of the first black institutions in the nation.

Prince Boston, the uncle of Absalom, was born into slavery on Nantucket in 1750, son of Boston and Maria, who were slaves of William Swain, a prominent Nantucket merchant. In 1773 Prince Boston made history by obtaining his freedom from the Swain family through a lengthy court battle. William Swain had freed Prince’s parents in 1760, with the stipulation that each of their children serve the Swain family until age twenty-eight, which for Prince would have been 1778. Through litigation, Prince was able to obtain his freedom five years earlier. This result was consistent with a developing legal principle in Massachusetts and England that allowed blacks access to courts to litigate issues of freedom.

Free blacks on Nantucket engaged in business. Prince Boston’s nephew Absalom, a freeborn native of Nantucket, became a whaling captain. Grandson of Boston and Maria, Absalom was born to their son Seneca Boston and his Native American wife Thankful (Micah) Boston. Like his younger brother Prince, Seneca had been born into slavery, but he had obtained his freedom upon reaching the age of twenty-eight in 1772. Absalom Boston continued his family’s tradition of agitation and hard work. In 1820, two years before becoming captain of his own ship, he obtained a license to operate a “public inn.”

But his voyage to the Atlantic whaling grounds as captain of the ship Industry with its allblack crew was significant, not because of the modest amount of oil brought back, but because he represented a continuing historical tradition of black seamanship in the whaling industry. Black seamen were subject to being kidnaped and murdered on the high seas. Although the Atlantic slave trade had become unlawful in 1808, an illegal trade continued, which placed all black seamen in jeopardy.

After retiring from the sea, Absalom Boston became a leader in the community known as “Newtown” and “New Guinea.” In the mid 1820s he was a founding trustee of the African Baptist Society, which assembled in the newly constructed Meeting House on the corner of Pleasant and York Streets. By 1830 he had also opened a store. In 1845 he brought suit against the town to get his daughter Phebe Ann Boston admitted to the Nantucket public high school.

Absalom Boston was widowed twice. His first wife was Mary Spywood; his second was Phebe G. Spriggins; and his last wife was Hannah Cook, who outlived him, as did children of his second and third marriages.

No confrontation over black freedom on Nantucket raised more important issues than that involving Arthur Cooper, who had been born a slave in Alexandria, Virginia in 1789. He managed to leave the farm of his owner, marry a free black woman named Mary, and eventually make his way with his young family to Nantucket in 1820.

In 1822 the Quaker community came to the assistance of the Cooper family when Camillus Griffith, a bounty hunter, arrived to take Cooper, his wife, and his children into slavery. While Griffith may have had a valid legal claim against Arthur Cooper, it is unlikely that he had the right to apprehend Mary and the Cooper children.

A crowd of blacks and Quakers pledged that they would not let the family be removed. William Mitchell, father of Maria Mitchell, organized a citizens’ response. While he explained to Griffith that he had no authority to apprehend the Coopers, another townsperson slipped the family out the back door. When the matter was brought before him, Magistrate Alfred Folger ruled that the family could not be removed from Nantucket, and Griffith left the island empty-handed. Griffith continued trying to gain possession of the Coopers through litigation on the mainland, but he was unsuccessful. The Coopers continued to live in peace on Nantucket. After the death of Arthur Cooper’s first wife, he married Lucinda Gordon, who had also escaped from slavery. The Cooper children continued to reside on the island.

Another black person who lived in Nantucket, interacted with its Quaker residents, and went on to an extraordinary career was Mary Ellen Pleasant. Born into slavery in Georgia, she was brought to Nantucket where she lived and worked for the Hussey- Gardner family. The Gardners taught her to read, and she learned to keep accounts and deal with the public in their store. Eventually members of the Gardner family assisted her in moving to San Francisco in 1852. There her business acumen made her a millionaire, and she used her riches to assist fugitive slaves and to support antislavery causes.

Between 1773 and 1840 there was no unanimity of white opinion on the race question. While strong opposition to slavery existed among Quakers, there was less agreement on issues of social equality. This abolitionist fervor emanated from both the black and Quaker communities. In 1839 a group of Quakers formed the Nantucket County Anti- Slavery Society as an auxiliary to the Massachusetts State Anti-Slavery Society. However, disagreement centered around two issues: whether white churches should be more active in opposition to slavery and whether black and white children should go to school together. This vacillation in commitment to black freedom was epitomized in the local antislavery conventions and the Eunice Ross controversy.

Through the efforts of twenty-five-year-old Anna Gardner, a series of antislavery conventions was held on the island. Frederick Douglass, who later became the country’s leading black abolitionist, spoke at one that met in the Nantucket Atheneum in 1841. This speech before a primarily white audience marked the beginning of his career as an abolitionist speaker. Those who supported and encouraged him to speak in Nantucket were mostly Quakers and included the Gardner family who had hidden Arthur Cooper and his family in 1822 and the Barney family, leaders in the Nantucket abolitionist movement.

A year after Douglass’s initial speech, another convention was held in the Atheneum. Among those present were William Lloyd Garrison and Stephen Symonds Foster. The second antislavery convention was met with mob violence; cobblestones and eggs were thrown after Foster’s speech, in which he attacked Christian churches for complicity with slavery. His speech was later published under the title “Brotherhood of Thieves.” Foster’s position was that northern churches, including those in Nantucket, that did not actively oppose slavery were guilty by association.

While Nantucketers might deplore the violent opposition to Foster’s speech, they were resistant to mounting pressure to integrate the island’s public schools. To many it seemed self-evident that blacks should attend separate schools just as they lived in the separate community of New Guinea. A controversy arose, therefore, over whether black children should be integrated into the white schools. Despite deep division of opinion, several prominent whites supported integrated education. Ironically, the question of whether Eunice Ross, a black pupil of Anna Gardner, should be admitted to the high school raged during the height of the antislavery movement on the island.

In 1789 Massachusetts had required all towns to establish public schools. Nantucket eventually complied with the law in 1827, establishing new schools and providing a subsidy to New Guinea’s already existing African School. The Eunice Ross controversy began in 1840 and was not resolved until 1847, when the island’s schools were integrated.

This result did not come without a struggle led by both blacks and whites. When school committee member Edward Gardner moved in 1840 that “coloured children” be allowed to attend any of the public schools, his motion failed to pass. The ensuing controversy stirred both communities and divided the white community.

Blacks assumed leadership in this struggle by issuing resolutions, boycotting classes, and petitioning the state legislature. Edward J. Pompey prepared their initial petition, which was signed by over a hundred and four blacks. By this time Pompey was already actively engaged in antislavery activities, having been the Nantucket agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator since 1831. In 1834 Pompey had become secretary of the Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society. The petition from the New Guinea community and additional petitions from the white community led to the passage of House Bill 45, guaranteeing all Massachusetts children access to education. A year later the schools were integrated, and the school in the African Meeting House passed out of existence.

The Meeting House had, however, played an important role in the early nineteenth century. Built by the black community to serve as a church and a school, it served a multiplicity of purposes. Although the land was acquired for a school, the building was consecrated as a place of worship before it was completed in 1825. From its inception white teachers, including Quaker Anna Gardner, taught there, carrying forward a Nantucket legacy of cooperation between blacks and whites. Eunice Ross, who died in the same year as Frederick Douglass, not only changed Nantucket’s school system but helped to create substantive rights for all children in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

After the closing of the African school, the building on the corner of York and Pleasant Streets continued to play a role in the life of Nantucket’s black community. In 1848 James Crawford became pastor of the Pleasant Street Baptist Church, which met in the building. Born into slavery in Virginia, the Rev. Crawford had escaped by going to sea and leaving his ship in Providence, Rhode Island. In Nantucket, where he worked as a hairdresser — he operated in both the black and white communities — preaching regularly in the Summer Street Baptist Church as well as at the town asylum for the indigent.

From the beginning, Rev. Crawford’s black church received support from white denominations. The white pastor of the Summer Street Church called on Crawford’s black congregation to become affiliated with the national Baptist denomination at an ecclesiastical council convened in 1848. In April of that year, Crawford baptized thirty original members of his church. Ten years later the Summer Street Church was filled to capacity to hear Rev. Crawford preach and raise money to purchase the freedom of his sister-in-law Diana and his niece Cordelia from slavery in North Carolina. Rev. Crawford married three times. His first wife was the sister of the famous abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. His second wife, Diana, was his first wife’s sister, whom he had purchased from slavery. Diana died an untimely death in 1860. Eight years later he married Rebecca Elaw, daughter of the black Methodist woman preacher Zilpha Elaw, who spent the last years of her life conducting missionary work in London.

Born to a slave mother and her white master, Rev. Crawford was described by white Nantucketer Arthur C. Brock as having “wonderful brown hair, and the merriest blue eyes and dimples, and that large, humorous, lovely mouth that spoke evil of no man.” He served as pastor to the colored people of the island for forty years until his death in 1888.

Eighteen hundred and sixty was another crisis year in island race relations. A black woman, Patience Cooper, was arrested for the murder of Phebe Fuller, an elderly white woman. The brutality of the crime shocked the island. Patience was convicted of manslaughter solely upon a declaration Mrs. Fuller allegedly made to Captain Nathaniel Fitzgerald before she lapsed into a coma and died. Immediately after the assault Mrs. Fuller had told authorities that her assailant was an unknown white man.

Due to efforts of local attorneys, the initial murder indictment against Patience Cooper was dismissed. Subsequently she was reindicted for manslaughter and went to trial in 1863. The most incriminating evidence against her was the testimony of Captain Fitzgerald, who told the jury what he said Mrs. Fuller had told him. Despite efforts to exclude this testimony as hearsay, the judge allowed it to be heard by the jury. It is interesting to note that seventeen years earlier Captain Fitzgerald had actively opposed efforts to integrate Nantucket public schools, thus raising questions about his potential bias in the Fuller case. Did he have a motive to lie about his alleged conversation with the victim? Why was his testimony given more weight than the victim’s initial statement that a white man had assaulted her?

Convicted of manslaughter, Patience Cooper was sentenced to ten years in the Nantucket House of Correction. In 1873 she was transferred to the Bristol County House of Correction. Upon release, she returned to Nantucket and lived out the rest of her life as a resident of the town asylum for the indigent.

As in the case of Arthur Cooper, it was the intervention of white Nantucketers — in this case Attorney Edward M. Gardner — that shielded Patience Cooper. Otherwise she might have faced a capital conviction of murder and a possible death penalty. The question of whether she was unjustly convicted of manslaughter remains an open question.

The issues concerning integration that Nantucketers grappled with between 1773 and 1863 were precursors to similar national issues that raged from Reconstruction to the mid-twentieth century. After blacks acquired political freedom, would whites allow them to interact on social levels? Would blacks be encouraged to pursue their livelihoods free of overt discrimination? Would whites, who controlled the legal process, vigorously defend blacks before the courts?

In Nantucket between 1773 and 1863 there existed a model of black/white cooperation premised upon a fundamental belief that slavery was morally wrong. While a majority of whites were willing to accede political equality to blacks, a considerable number of individuals could not accept social equality as an acceptable public policy. Yet by 1863, the year that Patience Cooper began her prison term, Nantucket had faced and resolved these important public policy issues, in large measure because of black political activism and Quaker morality. The nation might have been spared tremendous financial and human losses if it had embraced this racial paradigm, which grew out of the struggles of Nantucketers between 1773 and 1863.


Robert Johnson Jr. is chair and associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has coordinated the James Bradford Ames Fellowship program since its inception. The program, established by Adele Ames in memory of her husband, funds research into the history of blacks and Cape Verdeans on Nantucket Island.

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