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Volume 38 Issue 20 • Sept 11 - 17, 2008
now in our 37th season

Nantucket Places and People
James Ross and His Legacy

by Frances Karttunen

New Guinea—with stores, boarding houses, and two churches clustered around today’s Five Corners and a cemetery tucked away behind Mill Hill—was Nantucket’s historically black neighborhood.  Among the residents of New Guinea in the 19th century, were at least three who had been born in Africa.  One of them was James Ross.

James Ross first appears in the Nantucket census records in 1810, already the head of a household of four people that included himself, his wife Mary, their three-year-old son and a newborn daughter.  Over the next decade, their family grew.  It was not until 1850, however, that the federal census asked about age, occupation, and place of birth of each member of the household. By then James Ross was somewhere between 64 and 70 years old and employed as a “laborer.” Most interestingly, he reported that he had been born in Africa.

If James was a fugitive from slavery, as his African birth implies, there was good reason for shrouding his past in mystery. When and how he took the name James Ross is as unknown as the route that brought him to Nantucket.

He had found his wife Mary Pompey on-island.  Their children were, in order of birth: James Jr., Maria, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Eunice. In contrast to the obscurity of James Ross’s origins, the Ross children’s accomplishments are particularly lustrous.  Eunice Ross is the most famous of James and Mary’s offspring, but let us take the Ross children in birth order.

James Jr., the eldest, married Sarah Brown in the South Church (then the 2nd Congregational Church, later the Unitarian Church) in 1831, and in the same year he bought land on West York Street from New Guinea merchant Edward J. Pompey.  The next year he divided the land and sold half to elders of the A.M.E. Zion Church for the site of their church building.  He also acquired land on Silver Street, where he and his wife operated a sailors’ boarding house.  Soon the value of his real estate exceede

d that of his father’s tenfold. In 1848 James Jr. and Sarah became charter members of the reorganized Pleasant Street Baptist Church (formerly the African Baptist Church).

As a young man, their son James Gardner Ross took up barbering, a prestigious profession for black men, and found a wife from very far away.  Rosa Ross, a tailoress by profession and described in the 1870 federal census as mulatto, had somehow made her way to Nantucket from St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic.  (Because of its utter isolation, St. Helena had been Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile from 1815 until his death in 1821.)

In the great exodus after the collapse of Nantucket’s whaling industry, the young Ross couple left the island to forge a new life.  James Gardner Ross entered Newton Theological Seminary, graduating in 1877, and then went on to a post at Emanuel Church in New Haven, Connecticut.  In 1885 he became the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.  On the twelfth anniversary of his pastorate there, the Jacksonville newspaper reported that, “Rev. Ross is much loved by his members and hosts of friends outside of his church.  The celebration on yesterday was a most fitting testimonial of the esteem in which he is held by his members, and the others were just as eager to enter into this token of respect.”

Maria Ross, who had been a babe in arms at the time of the 1810 census, also found a spouse from very far away.  In 1837 she married William Whippey (“coloured”), who was had been born in New Zealand in 1801, apparently the son of a Maori mother and one of the Nantucket whaling Whippeys.  Together William and Maria ran a boarding house for Pacific Islanders on-shore from Nantucket whaling vessels.  The sign for their boarding house survives to this day in the artifact collection of the Nantucket Historical Society.

After William’s death from tuberculosis in 1847, Maria kept the boarding house going for a while and then remarried.  Widowed again, she went to work as a stewardess on the Island Home, a steamboat running between Nantucket and Hyannis. She owned a house on York Street, and in 1900 she was still there, an aged woman making a home for herself and a niece.

Elizabeth Ross appears as a 13-year-old in the local 1830 census and then disappears from the records, perhaps having died young.

In her mid-teens, Sarah Ross became a live-in servant of the family of Benjamin Coffin and stayed on with them for 57 years.  Even after the deaths of the senior Coffin couple, she continued to go to live at their house in the summers when the Coffin children and grandchildren made annual visits back to the island.  Upon her death in 1896 at age 77, her obituary in the Inquirer and Mirror described her as “an esteemed member of the household, and a remarkable friend” of 63 years.

This might appear to have been a small, constrained existence for Sarah, but her great accomplishment was her life-long support of her younger sister Eunice.

Eunice Ross—the youngest of five siblings, everyone’s little sister—attended the African School in the African Meeting House at Five Corners.  To begin with, the African School seems to have been on par with Nantucket’s other schools.  It had been built and opened by Nantucket’s black community a whole year ahead of Nantucket’s public schools, and at least in principle it offered a grammar school curriculum.  Once the Nantucket public school system got up and running, the African School was included in its annual budget, the town paying rent for the use of the Meeting House to the African Baptist Society.

But all was not well.  The salary provided for a schoolmaster was inadequate to maintain the one man who tried to take it on.  Instead, daily instruction fell to a series of women teachers: Priscilla Thompson, a black widow and member of the African Baptist Church, who left teaching when she remarried; followed by Eliza Bailey, who could not continue because of epilepsy; and then Quaker teacher Anna Gardner.  That these women were dedicated teachers is beyond doubt.  On Eliza’s headstone in Prospect Hill Cemetery is inscribed “formerly teacher at the African School.”  Anna Gardner went on to a lifetime of organizing freedmen’s schools in the wake of the Civil War.  But in the first half of the 1800s, it was tacitly assumed that instruction by any woman was inferior to instruction by a man.  Grammar school though the African School may have been designated, it was assumed to be at best a second-rate dead-end.

And then Nantucket opened a public high school.  Twenty-one-year-old Anna Gardner immediately enrolled, studying at NHS while teaching at the African School.  She also began preparing her chosen protégé, Eunice Ross, to take the high school entrance examination.  In 1840 Eunice passed the exam but was barred from entering Nantucket High School.  This initiated a school integration struggle that consumed most of the 1840s. Anna Gardner resigned from her teaching position; the African Baptist Society refused to continue to rent its premises for a segregated school; black families boycotted the public schools and some white families joined the boycott. Nasty letters were published in the i sland’s newspapers, and school committee elections became increasingly fraught.

Five years into the struggle, Eunice wrote an eloquent petition to the General Court of Massachusetts in which she simply stated that she had been “found amply qualified for admission into the High School at Nantucket and was refused admittance by a vote of the Town, instructing the School Committee not to admit her, on account of her colour.”  At the same time a  supporting petition was sent to the State House signed by 104 members of Nantucket’s black community.  Among the signers were Eunice’s parents, her brother and his wife, and her sisters Maria and Sarah.

Ultimately the Nantucket public schools were integrated, and people have assumed that Eunice sailed triumphantly into high school.  But the truth appears to be that after so bruising a battle and so many years of waiting, Eunice chose not to enter NHS.  She seems to have become reclusive, living at home with her parents in 1860, and later in a house on York Street.  She is missing entirely from the 1870 and 1880 censuses as though she had finally succeeded in making herself entirely invisible.  Like Emily Dickinson she kept to the house and, according to her obituary, occupied herself with reading literature.  In the meantime Sarah played the role of Lavinia Dickinson, working outside and earning the money to sustain the two of them. The sisters remained unmarried to the end of their days.

In 1895 Eunice Ross died at home on York Street.  According to her obituary, “Miss Ross was particularly fond of the study of French, in which language she became proficient.”  Sarah hardly survived her little sister by a year, and the two are buried side by side under twin gravestones in the old Colored Cemetery

James Sr. and Mary Ross had both died in 1855 and were undoubtedly laid to rest in the same cemetery, although there is no extant grave marker there for them.  Their children’s and grandson’s careers are evidence that James and Mary inculcated in their children kindness, love of learning, and determination to seize opportunities to move ahead.  From James Ross, too, it seems that his children learned a special kind of fearlessness—to embrace the unexpected—whether a profession, an ambition, a foreign language, or a spouse from far over the sea—and to stand steadfastly in support of one another. The long voyage from Africa had been but a beginning for James Ross and his descendants.

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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