Born on Nantucket on January 25, 1816, Anna Gardner grew up in an abolitionist Quaker family. She was one of twelve children born to Oliver Cromwell Gardner and Hannah Macy Gardner. Her father was an ardent supporter of human rights; helping in 1822 to shield a Nantucket resident, a former runaway slave and his family, from slave catchers sent from the South to retrieve them for their former owner. While she was only six years old, this incident and her family’s Quaker religion likely influenced Anna Gardner on her later path in life to fight for the rights and education of all humans – specifically blacks and women. At the age of eighteen, she began subscribing on her own to The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper (Anna Gardner, NHA Blue File).
At the age of twenty-two, Gardner began to teach at what became known as the African School (White 2005). She had fifty pupils in one room and taught all levels up to the ninth grade. Like Maria Mitchell and Lydia Folger Fowler, Anna Gardner had been a student of well-known island educator Cyrus Peirce, and from him she had learned and adopted his belief that memorization and strict discipline were not the keys to learning. According to Peirce, a student could be successful if she or he was instilled with a moral grounding and with a hands-on approach – learning by doing, as Maria Mitchell’s and Gardner’s own families believed.
Gardner’s star pupil, Eunice Ross, was preparing in 1840 to take the exams that would allow her entry to the island’s high school. Ross passed the exam but was denied entry because the island schools were segregated. Likely in response to this, Anna Gardner resigned her teaching position – not just in protest but to devote herself to the cause of equality for African Americans. Anna received a heart-shaped pin from her students in recognition and in honor of her quest for equal education. She would treasure this pin throughout her life, and today it is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association.
The following year, at the age of twenty-five, Anna Gardner initiated Nantucket’s first anti-slavery convention, assisted by many other islanders including her father and her uncle Thomas Gardner. Anna served as the secretary of the organization, and the first convention, held at the Atheneum (the island’s library), included speeches by many well-known abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. This Nantucket convention was Douglass’ first speech to a racially mixed audience (Anna Gardner, NHA Blue File). The second convention, also organized by Anna a year later, was not as successful as the first. During the second convention, riots broke out and the convention attendees were forced to seek a safe place in order to continue their meeting. The “safe place” was a boatbuilding shop on the edge of town called the “Big Shop.” It is said that men were posted outside to protect the convention goers. These riots were the result of high tensions among islanders concerning the controversies surrounding attempts to desegregate the island’s schools.
Not much is known about Anna’s activities after this, but in the 1860s she was one of the first people who volunteered to go into the South under the auspices of the New England Freedmen’s Union Commission in order to teach in the newly created Freedmen’s Schools. These schools were established under the auspices of the War Department with the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau – part of the federal government – and private organizations (White 2005; NHA Coll. 87, Folder 2; Anna Gardner, NHA Blue File). Anna stated in a lecture she gave later in life about her experiences that the Freedmen’s Commission was “guided and controlled mostly by” women and that it was the “first Society to sow the seeds of education among the freed men in that neglected vineyard of our common country” (NHA Coll. 87, Folder 2).
As she had been on Nantucket, Anna was a leader and a champion for those who could not speak or fight on their own behalf. Between 1862 and the late 1870s, Gardner taught in several Freedmen’s Schools. The schools were not only poorly equipped and located in unsuitable buildings, but they were also in areas of lawlessness, where residents did not approve of a woman teacher, especially from the North, and opposed the education of blacks. At one point, she found herself living and teaching in barracks attached to a military outpost and soldiers’ housing.
One of her schools in Charlottesville, Virginia had such a horrible stench that she trimmed the schoolroom with evergreen to get rid of the awful odors pervading it (NHA Coll. 87, Folder 2). Despite the poor environs, applications poured into the school, and in Charlottesville, Anna found herself with approximately eighty students, only about a dozen of whom could read. A few months later, Anna was able to take thirty of these students and form a Normal Class that she continued to teach. Another, younger, Northern woman taught the remainder of the students (NHA Coll. 87, Folder 10). Many of Anna’s scholars went on to teach others; her influence and teachings reached further than she would ever know. Her perseverance and organizational abilities first exhibited, honed, and supported on Nantucket, allowed Anna to accomplish what she did in the South, even in the hostile environment in which she worked. She believed that “the school-room should be a consecrated place” (NHA Coll. 87, Folder 2), perhaps somewhat like the meetinghouse which she attended in her youth for Quaker meeting – a place where one went to await and achieve enlightenment; a place where the seed planted by God, the teacher, sprouted.
After the slaves were freed, Anna turned her attention to women’s rights and to universal suffrage. In the late 1870s, Anna returned to Massachusetts where she worked with the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society and where she also became active in the Association for the Advancement of Women, speaking at the Fourth Women’s Congress in 1876 in Philadelphia (White 2005). Other Nantucket women, including Maria Mitchell and several of her sisters and the Reverend Phebe Coffin Hanaford, were active in the AAW, with Mitchell speaking at that same AAW meeting in 1876. Returning to Nantucket, Gardner helped to establish the Nantucket Sorosis. This women’s group was first founded in New York City and boasted several Nantucket women members who were actively engaged in its national membership, including Rev. Phebe Coffin Hanaford and Maria Mitchell. Gardner served as the Nantucket chapter’s secretary and president. During her time back on Nantucket, she wrote several works of poetry and the book Harvest Gleanings – a memoir of her teaching in the South. She lectured fairly often, many times for the AAW and Sorosis.
Anna Gardner was a woman who was well-respected and well-loved by her students and her community. “Black Annie,” as she came to be known later in life on Nantucket, devoted her life to the freeing of the slaves, the education of blacks, and the promotion of women’s rights. Her life was about seeking equality for others, not just for herself – something that she learned by growing up on the isolated, Quaker-influenced island of Nantucket. When she passed away on February 18, 1901 at the age of eighty-five, she left a lasting legacy, not just in the students whom she taught, but also in those her own students would teach.
Excerpted from The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island
By Jascin Leonardo Finger
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NHA − Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, MA.
NHA Blue Files – Anna Gardner.
Gardner Family Collection. Anna Gardner. Collection 87, Folders 2 and 10. Nantucket Historical Association. Nantucket, MA.
Stackpole Collection. Anna Gardner. Collection 335, Folder 321. Nantucket Historical Association. Nantucket, MA.
White, Barbara. 1992. The integration of Nantucket public schools. Historic Nantucket 40, no. 3.
White, Barbara. (2005) Anna Gardner: Teacher of freedmen, “a disturber of tradition.” James Bradford Ames Fellow 2004, unpublished manuscript.