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Volume 38 Issue 12 • July 17 - 23, 2008
now in our 38th season

Cyrus Peirce School

by Frances Kartunen

On the very south edge of Nantucket town there was a neighborhood known as “New Guinea.” The people living there were descendants of African slaves who had been brought to Nantucket in the 1700s and others who had fled slavery and joined them in the relative safety of Quaker Nantucket. They were free and hard-working people. On a visit to Nantucket in July, 1846, Charles Dyer wrote in his diary: “went all through “Guinea” among the blacks…they are a much more worthy set and more respected than the blacks of New York.”

In 1825, two years before the first Nantucket public schools were opened, members of the New Guinea community built and opened their own school. It was known as the African School. As many as fifty students at a time attended classes in the building known as the African Meeting House.

The trustees of the African School had difficulties paying teachers, however. Once the Nantucket public schools were opened, they accepted money from the Nantucket School Committee to help meet their expenses. Still they could not pay enough to keep a man as schoolmaster. The first of the schoolmarms was Priscilla Thompson a widowed member of the New Guinea community and charter member of the African Baptist Church. When Priscilla remarried, a young woman named Eliza Bailey took over. Then Eliza had to give up because of illness, and Anna Gardner took her place.

Priscilla Thompson died of tuberculosis in 1834 and was undoubtedly buried in the “Colored Cemetery” behind Mill Hill, but there is no surviving grave marker for her.

Eliza died in 1841 and was laid to rest in Prospect Hill Cemetery. Her headstone is inscribed: “In Memory of Miss Eliza Bailey, formerly teacher of the African School.”

Anna Gardner had been a student in Cyrus Peirce’s private school. When Nantucket High School opened in 1837, she attended high school while teaching at the same time in the African School. One of her students there was a gifted young woman named Eunice Ross whom Anna began preparing to go to high school. In 1840 Eunice took the high school entrance examination and was found “amply qualified for admission,” but the Nantucket School Committee denied her entrance.

Cyrus Peirce had protested racial segregation of Nantucket students even before admission to high school became an issue. His biographer, Samuel May, wrote: “The colored inhabitants of the town were not allowed to send their children into the public Grammar Schools; but a provision was made to educate them by themselves. Against this decision Mr. Peirce remonstrated and contended, with his wonted earnestness and determination. But the ‘prejudice against color’ was too mighty for his appeals to prevail.”

Enter Horace Mann. He was six years younger than Cyrus Peirce, educated at Brown University instead of Harvard. In 1833 he was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, and by 1837 he was President of the Senate. That year he also became Secretary of the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education.
As soon as Horace Mann became the Education Secretary, he came to Nantucket to observe how Cyrus Peirce put his teaching principles to work in the classroom. He was so impressed that Peirce was called off-island in 1839 and given responsibility for establishing the first state teacher-training institutions. These teacher-training schools were called Normal Schools.

At the time Eunice Ross was excluded from Nantucket High School, Cyrus Peirce had left to become Principal of the first Normal School in North America. In his absence the town became embroiled in a struggle over integration. Anna Gardner resigned from teaching at the African School and refused to take a different post as long as Nantucket’s schools remained segregated. Fiery letters for and against segregation appeared in the newspapers.

After three years of exhausting work establishing the first Normal School, Cyrus Peirce begged to be allowed to resign for reasons of health. He and his wife Harriet came back to Nantucket in 1842 seeking peace and quiet, but they found no rest on-island because Cyrus was elected to the School Committee.

Although Town Meeting had voted against integration, in 1843 the School Committee—including Cyrus—declared the former African School to now be a neighborhood school open to all and that all the other Nantucket schools were also open to all. Children from New Guinea chose to go to the other schools, and nobody was willing to attend what was now called the York Street Grammar School.

In 1844 there were new elections, and Cyrus lost his seat on the School Committee. The new School Committee members decided that the children of New Guinea had to go back to the African School, and one day the children were pulled from their classes and ejected from the schools they had been attending. Segregation had returned to the Nantucket schools and would continue for nearly two more years

In defeat, Cyrus and Harriet Peirce left the island and went back to Normal School teaching. After the Peirces left, Black families refused to send their children to school at all, and some White families kept their children out of the public schools in solidarity with the Black families. Finally in 1846 a different School Committee came to power, and under their leadership the Nantucket public schools were permanently integrated.

Of the time just after integration had been achieved, Joseph Farnham wrote: “There were many boys and girls of colored parentage who were schoolmates with us at the old South School. They were associated with us in our studies and in our classes; they mingled with us in our recreation in the schoolyard at recess; they joined us in our pastimes and in our sports.”

In those early days, the new students at the South School were not thought of as equals. Without even thinking, Farnham wrote that they took part in; “our studies,” “our classes,” “our recreation,” “our pastimes,” and “our sports.”

While Farnham’s classmates were no longer confined to the African School, segregation persisted, because the New Guinea neighborhood lay on the very south edge of the town, so almost without exception Nantucket’s black students were assigned to the South School. Among Farnham’s schoolmates in the 1850s were whaling captain Absalom Boston’s son Thomas and a girl named Annie Nahar. In the 1860s, in the wake of the Civil War, Annie Nahar left Nantucket and went to New Orleans to teach recently freed slaves. She was emulating her teacher Anna Gardner, who had left Nantucket for North Carolina and Virginia to organize freedmen’s schools.

Once the threat of slavery was lifted throughout the nation, New Guinea’s young men and women left the island in search of better opportunities. By the end of the 1800s, the old community of African heritage had nearly disappeared. Farnham wrote: “These respected colored people of the past, segregated in residence in my native town so many years ago, have passed on.”

At the beginning of the 1900s, their place was taken by Cape Verdean immigrants who came to Nantucket to work the commercial cranberry bogs. Their housing, too, was on the far south side of town, so their children also attended the South School.

When the Orange Street School closed in 1934, the replacement school was built on an empty ten-acre lot even further south than the old New Guinea neighborhood. Along with their white classmates, Nantucket’s African-American and Cape Verdean students were relocated far away from Nantucket’s downtown, but they were compensated for this isolation with a school building that was more modern and comfortable than the Academy Hill School.

In 1935 Nantucket named its racially diverse school for Cyrus Peirce, who had struggled for integration of the Nantucket public schools nearly a century earlier and lost to a segregationist school committee. Cyrus Peirce deserves to be remembered for many reasons, and this is one of them.

In 1955 a new high school was built next to the Cyrus Peirce Elementary School. In 1990 another new high school building went up, and the former NHS building became the Cyrus Peirce Middle School. Further out Surfside Road a new elementary school was built.

With education centralized in mid-island, all Nantucket students attend school in one locality, moving together from building to building on their way from elementary school through middle school to high school. The classes at all levels are more racially and ethnically diverse today than at any time in Nantucket’s history, and everyone is educated together.

From the vantage point of adulthood, Joseph Farnham wrote of the rivalry between North and South School students: “In retrospect this now appears to me weird and absurd, when I consider that we were a community so small that almost all knew one another and we all loved the island town where we were born.”

Now, all these years later, the memory of the old North School/South School rivalry is fast fading from memory and with it the school segregation that once was town policy and later had to do with where people lived. Although the North School and the South School have become history, the Cyrus Peirce School carries on.

Cyrus Peirce was accustomed to closing his classes with the words “Live to the truth.” When he died in 1860, his remains were brought to Nantucket for burial and these words were inscribed on his monument in Prospect Hill Cemetery.

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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