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Volume 38 Issue 18 • Aug 28-Sept 3, 2008
now in our 38th season

Nantucket Places and People
Much More Than a Barber on Main

by Frances Karttunen

In April 1928, in a news article under the headline “Old Store Buildings Razed on Main Street,” the Inquirer and Mirror reported the demolition of two old buildings to make way for a new brick commercial building.  According to the I&M, “The little group of buildings on the south side of Main street were only temporary structures placed there after the fire of 1846 in which to do business.” One of the two buildings had lately housed the Union Club, and the other had been occupied by generations of tinsmiths by the name of Austin.  Over the past eighty years the roofs and fronts had been maintained, but—wedged in as they were—there had been no way repair the sides, which were thoroughly rotten by the time they were finally taken down.

In a June 1928 letter to the editor, Lilla Barnard Starbuck wrote that the now-demolished building next to the tin shop had originated as a little grocery store operated by her grandfather on Liberty Street.  Sometime after 1849 it had been moved to Main Street, where it became a barbershop “carried on by Rev. Mr. Crawford for many years.”

What was a clergyman doing operating a barbershop?  He was a Baptist minister who served his church for 42 years, “the longest ministry ever on the island.”  Yet in all those years, even the years when he served not one, but two Baptist churches on-island, his congregation was unable to pay him a living wage, so he augmented his income by cutting hair on Main Street.  According to Joseph Farnham, the Rev. Crawford was “as faithful, sincere, and helpful in his ministerial labors as he was neat, finished, and expert in his tonsorial art.  His was always a popular barbershop.”

As for his own appearance, Crawford was described as “a little under average height, thick-set and rotund,” fair with light brown hair and blue eyes. This accords perfectly with his photo, so it comes as a surprise to learn that he was the pastor of Nantucket’s black Baptist church.  James Crawford could easily pass for white, and once in his life it had been crucial that he do so. But otherwise he was, as Mary Eliza Starbuck put it, “Loyal to his kind, and in no way ostracized himself from them or their interests.”

Born on a Virginia plantation in sight of Chesapeake Bay, the child of an enslaved woman named Mary and her master—Mary herself being the mixed-race child of her mother and a white master—James Crawford was, as Mary Starbuck put it, “an ex-slave, but as white as most of us were.”  At age 16 he had slipped the bonds of slavery by going to sea.  After some years as a merchant seaman, he settled in Providence, Rhode Island, where he “engaged in the jewelry business,” began barbering, gave covert aid to other fugitive slaves, and undertook a transformative course of self-education.

Before, he had been unable to read and write, but in the future he would be described as “a highly intelligent and well-educated man.”  Having overcome illiteracy, he dedicated himself to Christian evangelism and was licensed as a Methodist preacher.

In 1848 he came to Nantucket and met the members of the African Baptist Church at Five Corners, who prevailed upon him to become their pastor despite the difference in denomination.  The first thing he and his congregation did together was reorganize as the Pleasant Street Baptist Church with thirty charter members, including his wife Ann.  In succeeding years more members, including the Crawfords’ daughter Juliana, were received into the church through baptism.

Lilla Starbuck wrote of the Rev. Crawford officiating at “the most beautiful baptism I ever saw.”  On a fair June day the candidates for baptism assembled at the Creeks.  The pastor of the Summer Street Baptist Church stood out in the water a ways, and the Rev. Crawford conducted each person to be baptized out to him and then back to the shore while a choir sang hymns, “and the music blended with the Sabbath calm of air and sea and sky.”

Ann Crawford, the pastor’s wife, was one of three Williams sisters from Charleston, South Carolina. In the South there were always some free blacks, and their mother Nancy Williams seems to have been one.  Ann and her sister Julia found their way north, where, in the 1830s, Ann married James Crawford and Julia a little later married Henry Highland Garnet.  Garnet, like his brother-in-law Crawford, had escaped from slavery and become a clergyman. He was to become a prominent orator and abolitionist.

Diana Williams remained in South Carolina with her daughter Cornelia, whose surname was Read.  Around 1857 Diana and Cornelia set out on a sea voyage, possibly to meet Julia and her husband in Jamaica, where Henry Highland Garnet was about to begin missionary work.  Upon arrival in Jamaica, however, the Garnets received the terrible news that Diana and Cornelia had been taken into custody on the high seas by a man named John Maffitt and were to be sold into slavery.

Maffitt, who had a commission in the American Coast Survey, had a reputation for freeing Africans bound for slavery in North America, quite the contrary to seizing free blacks in order to sell them—Diana in Charleston and Cornelia in Wilmington, North Carolina.  What made him behave as he did?  The answer may lie in the name Read.  John Maffitt’s wife was a Charleston widow, whose previous husband was a Read.  If there was any suspicion that he had fathered Cornelia, it was in the interest of the Maffits to separate mother and daughter and confine them in such a way that they could never press for a settlement from the estate Caroline Laurens Read Maffitt had inherited from her late husband.

When James Crawford got the bad news from his brother-in-law, he wrote to Maffitt to find out what he could do to secure the release of his sister-in-law and niece.  Maffitt demanded a payment of $1900.  Very soon after that, Maffitt wrote again to say that Cornelia had already been bought, and he expected to close a deal on Diana very soon. On Nantucket and in England Quakers helped to raise money to buy Diana’s freedom immediately, and then the Rev. Crawford set out on a successful speaking tour that took him all over New England and even to Canada to raise the thousand dollars demanded for Cornelia.

With money in hand, Crawford went to North Carolina, pretending to be a white master looking to buy a young woman slave.  Carrying off the ruse, he paid the man who had bought Cornelia and set out North with her by train—he riding in a whites-only carriage and Cornelia traveling in a baggage car.  Once safely back in Nantucket, Crawford told of the terror he had felt for himself in case he was exposed as a black man passing in the South and for Cornelia alone and unprotected.

The Crawford household in Nantucket’s New Guinea neighborhood now included James Crawford, the sisters Ann and Diana, the young cousins Juliana and Cornelia, and also Crawford’s mother Mary, who in old age had been released from slavery by her master and sent to her son.  The happiness of the family united in freedom was darkened however, because Mary was suffering from dementia, and Ann Crawford was terminally ill.  When Ann died, Diana took her place as the pastor’s second wife, but Diana only outlived her sister by two years.  Mary Crawford lived on until 1864, looked after by her son and granddaughters.

The bereaved Rev. Crawford married once more.  Four years after the death of his mother, he wed the widow Rebecca Elaw Pierce.  Rebecca was the daughter of the famous black woman Methodist preacher Zilpha Elaw, who had visited Nantucket in the 1830s.  Zilpha Elaw moved on to London, where she ended her days, but Rebecca married and raised a family on Nantucket.  She was in her mid-fifties with grown sons when she became the pastor’s wife.  A good marriage it was, according to all reports.  Rebecca Crawford was praised as “a Christian woman in the highest and truest sense” and “unequalled in the art domestic and in cookery.”

They shared their lives for fifteen years, and then James Crawford lived on alone yet again for another fifteen, serving the Pleasant Street Baptist Church and at times also the Summer Street Baptist Church almost to the end of his days. 

Frances Karttunen’s books, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available at Nantucket bookstores.

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