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Volume 38 Issue 19 • Sept. 4-10, 2008
now in our 37th season

Nantucket Places and People
Three School Marms

by Frances Karttunen

When the African School began holding classes in the African Meeting House on the corner of Pleasant and York Streets, the intention was for there to be a schoolmaster, but in all the years of the school’s existence, no man took the helm for more than a matter of months. Deacon Wilson Rawson—a member of the first Congregational Church and of Nantucket’s Union Lodge—took an active interest in public education and has been credited with helping with the initial establishment of the African School, but there is no evidence that he actually taught there.

The building was still unfinished when it was dedicated in January 1825, but by April classes were underway, and a circuit-riding school inspector named Frederick Baylies came to evaluate New Guinea’s experiment in public education.  Having looked over the building and interviewed the students, he reported that Nantucket’s African School was large and “respectable.”  He probably provided some sort of list of what should be taught, but he had to travel on to the other schools under his care and leave the day-to-day instruction to 25-year-old Priscilla Thompson.  She was generally in charge of thirty to forty students.

Priscilla was the daughter of black Revolutionary War veteran Peter Boston and his Mashpee Wampanoag wife Rhoda Jolly.  Her first cousin was whaling captain Absalom Boston. The grandparents they had in common, Boston and Maria, had been slaves of William Swain.

In 1818 Priscilla Boston and John Thompson were married, but Priscilla was soon widowed and childless, living all alone.  From a financial and a social standpoint, teaching under the mainly long-distance supervision of Frederick Baylies was a lucky break.

In 1829 Jacob Perry briefly took over from Priscilla Thompson.  Characterized in the local newspaper as “an intelligent and worthy man of colour,” he was highly praised for his management of the school that spring, but by May 2nd it was reported that his salary was inadequate and that for economic reasons he would “be forced to leave the island to seek in some more genial clime a bare subsistence.”

In 1832, Priscilla—having recently signed the 1831 charter of Nantucket’s African Baptist Church—remarried.  Her new husband was New Guinea businessman Frederick Quoin, an active dealer in real estate within Nantucket’s black community.  Just two years later Priscilla died of tuberculosis.

Around the time of her death an advertisement was placed in the newspapers for a female teacher for the African School.  Within a week Eliza Bailey was appointed.

The story of Eliza’s family dynamics is the stuff of historical romance.  Her mother, Abigail “Nabby” Folger was one of twelve children born to a couple descended from the first English settlers of Nantucket.  Nabby took up with a “stranger” (the local term for people without Nantucket forebears) not once, but twice.  Married to John Gurrell while still in her teens, she bore four children.  John held a legal liquor license from the town and does not appear in court records for any sort of trouble, but on the day of the birth of their fourth child, William, John and Nabby’s Gurrell’s marriage was dissolved. 

In 1811, Nabby was brought before the grand jury for running an “Ill-governed and Disorderly House” in her dwelling where she admitted people, both black and white, at night as well as in the daytime for tippling, carousing, and general misbehavior “to the great Damage and Common Nuisance of all the subjects of the Commonwealth.”  It was alleged that she also sold hard liquor without a license.  Hiller’s Lane was, for a while, known as Nabby Gurrell’s Lane, so that may have been the site of this scandalous misbehavior.

In the meantime Nabby had given birth to the first of three children she had with Benjamin Bailey.  There is no extant record of their marriage, but the three children all bore the surname Bailey.  The eldest was Eliza.

Growing up on Nantucket, half-siblings William Gurrell and Eliza Bailey took radically different pathways.  William Gurrell, a member of the island establishment, became a segregationist.  Eliza Bailey became teacher of Nantucket’s black children.

Her tenure was brief.  Two years after she was appointed to the position, epilepsy made it impossible for her to continue.  In 1841 she died at age 29. Inscribed on her headstone in Prospect Hill Cemetery are the words, “formerly a teacher at the African School.” 

Anna Gardner, daughter of Friends Oliver Gardner and Hannah Macy Gardner, took over the teaching position vacated by Eliza Bailey.  Back in 1822, when Anna was only six years old, her parents had concealed fugitive slave Arthur Cooper and his family in their house.  The Coopers’ terror during the time they hid in the Gardners’ attic while a slave catcher was on-island seeking to apprehend them made an indelible impression on young Anna.  Her commitment to the abolition of slavery and education for all dated from that early childhood memory.

Anna’s Macy grandparents, moreover, had employed young Absalom Boston before he went to sea, and years later he still often dropped in to visit.  Anna Gardner claimed that she first learned of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, from Absalom Boston, and for a while she and he were the only two subscribers from Nantucket.

Because of her lifetime commitment, Anna came to be known as Black Annie, “not in a tone of disrespect by any means,” according to the Inquirer and Mirror, “but designating her as the Anna Gardner who was the friend of the colored man.”

Like Priscilla Thompson and Eliza Bailey before her, Anna was in her early twenties when she took over teaching in the African School.  When the Town of Nantucket opened a public high school in 1838, Anna enrolled herself and carried on teaching in the African School while at the same time studying in high school.  Soon she began preparing her star student, Eunice Ross, for the high school entrance examination.  When Eunice took and passed the exam but was barred from entering Nantucket High School because she was not white, Anna resigned from teaching at the African School and refused to take another position in the town’s segregated school system.

It took a school boycott, years of rancorous Town Meetings and school board elections, barrelsful of printer’s ink, and a new law passed by the Massachusetts Legislature to bring about the integration of the Nantucket Public Schools in the mid 1840s.

The 1840s were tumultuous years for the Town of Nantucket in other ways as well.  As an active member of the Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society, Anna Gardner assumed a major role in organizing meetings that brought to the island abolitionists Fredrick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, among others.  Frederick Douglass delivered his first speech to a mixed race audience at the 1841 anti-slavery convention, held at the Nantucket Atheneum, and the convention was deemed a great success.  The following year, however, the Reverend Stephen Foster (not the composer of the same name) denounced northern clergy, including the ministers of Nantucket’s churches, for collusion with the institution of slavery.  A riot ensued, and the convention was driven from one meeting place to another by an angry mob throwing eggs and cobblestones.

It was a time of personal trauma for Anna Gardner as well.  As her energies were absorbed by the demands of the school integration struggle and the fight for abolition of slavery throughout the nation, she had stopped attending Friends Meeting and had been formally disowned on October 31, 1839.  Eventually she found a spiritual home in the Unitarian Church.

With school integration finally achieved in 1847, Anna was offered the position of Principal of the York Street Grammar School.  She declined, and four years later that school was discontinued.  Eventually she became Principal of the Polpis School, which had acquired a reputation for being unmanageable.

A lifetime of teaching under trying circumstances prepared Anna Gardner for her greatest contribution to education.  In 1865, in the wake of the Civil War, she went to the South to organize schools for people newly freed from slavery in Virginia and South Carolina.  Other Nantucketers were inspired by her example to go to teach in freedmen’s schools, among them Maria Mitchell’s brother, William Foster Mitchell, and a young woman from New Guinea named Annie Nahar.  Thanks to the successful integration struggle that had taken fire when Anna Gardner sent Eunice Ross to take the Nantucket High School entrance exam, New Guinea’s girls and boys—including Annie Nahar, Absalom Boston’s youngest sons Oliver and Thomas, and Eunice’s nephew James Gardner Ross—were all spared the experience of segregated education on Nantucket.

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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