History of Social Activism on Nantucket

Social Activism in Nineteenth-Century Nantucket

Before there were protest marches and sit-ins on live television, 24-hour news coverage, and social-media likes and retweets, nineteenth-century social-justice activists were able to develop, maintain, and expand a network of like-minded allies and supporters, both male and female, black and white. They nurtured this network by sharing ideas in progressive newspapers like The Liberator (1831–65), The Colored American (1837–42), and The Woman’s Journal (1870–1931); participating in regional, national, and international conventions; attending public lectures; embarking on collaborative speaking tours; and through frequent correspondence.

It is in the latter that the passion of nineteenth-century activists truly comes to life. The yellowed pages of letters written 150 years ago reveal that not only did Nantucket activists share similar values and support each other spiritually, politically, and intellectually, they shared the bonds of family and friendship. Some of the island’s most notable residents were friends with the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Horace Mann, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Abby Kelley, Susan B. Anthony, and many others. They didn’t always agree, but it is clear from their letters and diaries that there was a deep and abiding affection and spirit of comradery among these men and women.

Devout but liberal Quakers, Nathaniel and Eliza Barney were two of the island’s most dedicated advocates for social reform, which they supported through activism and financial contributions. Both were ardent abolitionists, helping to establish the Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 and organize the island’s first anti-slavery convention in 1841, which featured such notable speakers as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. It was also at this convention that a young African American man named Frederick Douglass (1818–95), just twenty-three years old at the time, stood before a crowd of black and white attendees and delivered what is considered his first public speech, marking his debut as an orator and launching his long career as leader in the fight for civil rights.

The Early Years of the Anti-Slavery Movement

In the eighteenth century, slaveholding Quakers were not uncommon, both on Nantucket and the mainland. Although the morality of slavery troubled many Friends, the transition from denunciation to social action would take nearly a century. The topic was particularly controversial among New England Friends, many of whom owned enslaved people. In 1716, the Dartmouth Friends Meeting inquired of its neighboring meetings, “Whether it be agreeable to Truth to purchase Slaves & keep them Term of life?” The Nantucket Meeting responded that the practice was
“not agreeable to Truth.”

Elihu Coleman (1699–1789), a leading member of the island’s Quaker community, was one of the first to publicly criticize slavery. His anti-slavery tract, A Testimony Against that Anti-Christian Practice of Making Slaves of Men (1733), put into writing the views of the Nantucket Meeting, declaring “that this practice of making slaves of men, appears to be so great an evil to me, that for all the riches and glory of this world, I would not be guilty of so great a sin as this seems to be.”

While Nantucket Quakers held firm to this conviction, the actual emancipation of slaves progressed more slowly. Slavery remained legal in Massachusetts until 1783. In that year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court interpreted a passage in the commonwealth’s Declaration of Rights, written by John Adams in 1780—“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights”—as the legal basis for statewide emancipation. Eventually, all enslaved people on Nantucket secured their freedom and their descendants became some of the most prominent black families on the island.

Social Activism in a Segregated Society

The end of slavery on Nantucket certainly did not mean the end of segregation, discrimination, or institutional racism. In 1786, three years after Massachusetts abolished slavery, the state legislature enacted an anti-miscegenation law prohibiting the intermarriage of members of different races. The law, titled “An Act for the Orderly Solemnization of Marriages,” stated “That no person by this Act authorized to marry, shall join in marriage any white person with any Negro, Indian or Mulatto, on penalty of the sum of fifty pounds …; and all such marriages shall be absolutely null and void.” The law remained in effect until 1843, when it was repealed under heavy pres-sure from anti-slavery activists.

On Nantucket, many public venues were barred to people of color. In 1841, Eliza Barney and Hannah Pierce, executive members of the Nantucket Women’s Anti-Slavery Society, reported that the group were forced to stop holding meetings at the North Congregational Church because black individuals were not allowed in the building.

While many of Nantucket’s educated, wealthy, white elites were vocal advocates for abolition and equal rights, they still lived in a segregated society divided by gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, Nantucket was home to two parallel communities—an affluent white Quaker community centered on Main Street, where prominent families like the Barneys, Hadwens, Starbucks, and Macys lived, and New Guinea’s community of color, centered on the Five Corners area. Each community was made up of homes, businesses, schools, and houses of worship largely segregated by race.

New Guinea was home to African Americans, Wampanoags, South Pacific islanders, Cape Verdeans, and Azoreans and contained a vibrant mix of dwellings, shops, churches, boarding houses, and a school. In addition to contributing labor and expertise to the whale fishery and its allied trades, the community also produced entrepreneurs, business owners, civic leaders, and social activists.

Many of Nantucket’s people of color were actively involved in the social reform movements of their time, particularly abolition and the fight for equal education. Captain Absalom Boston (1786–1855), son of former slave Seneca Boston and Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag woman, was a third-generation Nantucketer and a leader in the island’s African American community. He was a founding member of the African Meeting House as well as a prominent landowner and successful businessman, operating a store and boarding house in New Guinea. Boston was also an ardent abolitionist and one of the first Nantucketers to subscribe to the The Liberator.

Captain Edward J. Pompey (1800–48) was another prominent African American businessman, civic leader, and whaling captain who was active in the anti-slavery movement and fight for equal rights. He served on the board of directors of the Nantucket County Anti-Slavery Society, attended meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society as a representative of Nantucket, and helped establish the New County Anti-Slavery Society, union between Nantucket’s all-female anti-slavery society and the local all-male society. Pompey also served as agent for The Liberator and The Colored American, an African American weekly newspaper published in New York City, and distributed other social reform literature, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s Thoughts on African Colonization.

The Fight for Educational Equality

In 1789, the state of Massachusetts mandated that all towns in the commonwealth must provide opportunities for public education. On Nantucket, however, private institutions of learning were already well established, thus the mandate was largely ignored. It wasn’t until 1825, after it was discovered that 300 island youngsters could not afford private tuition, that five public schools were created. One of these was the so-called “African School,” housed in the African Meeting House at the corner of Pleasant Street and York Street in the New Guinea neighborhood.
Like most schools on the island, the African School only educated younger gram-mar-school-age children. Nantucket’s first public high school wasn’t established until 1838. In 1840, Eunice Ross, a seventeen-year-old African American student, applied for admission. Although Ross passed the qualifying entrance exam, the school committee refused her admission based on race.

Two years later, on the second day of a sparsely attended Town Meeting, a motion was approved to desegregate the island’s schools. After news spread of the decision, residents demanded a revote be held the following day, which overturned the original motion. A fierce debate over school integration and warnings of amalgamation, or a mixing of the races, raged for several years, polarizing the small community and in-creasing racial tensions on the island. In an opinion pieced published in The Inquirer and Mirror on July 1, 1843, a Nantucket resident argues that school desegregation would ultimately result in amalgamation: “That God has drawn a distinction be-tween colored persons and white that must forever be observed; that it is utterly impossible for blacks and whites to live together on terms of equality without amalgamation; that the mixing together of black and white children in our schools involves the principle of amalgamation; that amalgamation is contrary to the law of God and the universal sense of mankind …”

Although several prominent white Nantucketers supported school desegregation, including Nathaniel Barney and local teacher Anna Gardner, it was islanders of color who led the movement for equal education. Fed up with the overt racism of their neighbors, Nantucket’s black community organized a boycott of the public schools. In 1844–45, Pompey petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature to amend the common school law so as to enable black and white children to attend the same schools. The petition was signed by more than 100 members of Nantucket’s black community, including Absalom Boston and Arthur Cooper, and was followed by additional petitions signed by both black and white members of the community, including a separate petition filed by Eunice Ross herself. The efforts of Pompey, Boston, Ross, and others resulted in a state law guaranteeing all Massachusetts children equal access to education.

That year, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed House Bill 45, guaranteeing all children equal access to education. The legislative victory did not result in immediate desegregation of Nantucket’s public schools, although it did provide the foundation for subsequent legal action. A lawsuit was soon brought against the town by Absalom Boston on behalf of his daughter, Phebe Ann Boston, demanding she be admit-ted to the public high school. The school committee continued to fight the mandate until 1847, when a majority of prointegrationists were elected to the Nantucket school committee. That year, several black children were admitted to the high school, including Phebe Ann Boston and twenty-four-year-old Eunice Ross. After years of protests, boycotts, petitions, and legal action, Nantucket’s public schools were officially desegregated thanks to the efforts of leaders like Pompey and Boston and the support of the entire New Guinea community and their white allies.

Female Activists and the Women’s Rights Movement

Nantucket’s prominent role in the anti-slavery and equal rights movements introduced island women to a broad ideology of social reform. After ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which granted African American men the right to vote, the women’s rights movement took on a renewed sense of urgency, viewed by many as the final hurdle to a truly democratic society.

In addition to her anti-slavery work, Eliza Barney was actively involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. In 1850, both Eliza and Nathaniel Barney attended the first National Woman’s Right’s Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Eliza was appointed chairman of the organization’s Educational Committee, serving alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In the April 1853 issue of The Una, the first periodical of the women’s rights movement, an appeal to the citizens of Massachusetts regarding women’s rights was endorsed by Eliza Barney, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelly Foster, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and several other prominent figures. Eliza and her daughter-in-law, Malinda Barney, were also both members of the Massachusetts Suffrage Association and the Nantucket Woman’s Suffrage League, frequently hosting meetings and events at Hadwen House and at 73 Main.

At the local level, Eliza led the struggle to secure voting rights for island women, casting a ballot in the first election for school committee members in which women were allowed to participate. In Massachusetts, school suffrage was achieved in 1879, although turnout remained extremely low due to a variety of reasons, including a cumbersome yearly registration process, prohibitive poll taxes, and uncontested candidates, all which discouraged participation.

Other native Nantucketers who fought for equal rights for women include Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880), Anna Gardner (1816–1901), and Reverend Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford (1829–1921). Mott was born on Nantucket, and although she moved with her family to the mainland at age eleven, it was here that her religious, social, and political views were established. In 1840, Mott and her husband traveled to Lon-don to attend the first World Anti-Slavery Convention. When they arrived, Lucretia discovered that as a woman she would not be permitted to vote, serve on committees, or speak before the gathering. It was here that Mott met a young Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was also barred from the proceedings. The women became close friends and allies and began working together to reform the position of women in American society. Mott’s activism reached its height in the summer of 1848, when she, Stanton, and several other women organized the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, with Mott as the keynote speaker. The resulting Declaration of Sentiments, signed by 68 women and 32 men and considered one of the most significant feminist documents in American history, demanded that women be extended the same civil and political rights as men.

Nantucket native Anna Gardner (1816–1901) was an educator, author, and equal rights activist. Descended from some of the island’s oldest families, she grew up in an abolitionist Quaker household. In 1822, her family was one of several who helped Arthur Cooper and his family evade slavecatchers, an event that made an indelible impression on the young girl. Gardner became actively involved in the anti-slavery movement at an early age, subscribing to the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, as a teenager. At twenty-two, she accepted a position as teacher at the African School, which she resigned in 1840 when her pupil, Eunice Ross, was denied admission to the public high school. This experience instilled in Gardner a lifelong commitment to the desegregation of public education. In 1841, Gardner helped organize Nantucket’s first anti-slavery convention. She was also active in social reform organizations at the regional level, serving as secretary of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Later in life, she turned her attention toward women’s rights and suffrage. She was active in the Association for the Advancement of Women and helped establish the Nantucket chapter of Sorosis, a women’s literary society that also promoted equal rights and suffrage.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, cousin to Lucretia Coffin Mott, was a Nantucket-born Universalist minister, author, poet, abolitionist, temperance reformer, and champion of women’s rights. Born to a Quaker family at Siasconset, her island upbringing had a profound effect upon her life. In 1849, she married Joseph Hanaford, a homeopathic physician, and converted to the Baptist faith. Her religious beliefs and personal convictions eventually led her to Universalism and to the ministry. Hanaford gave her first sermon on Nantucket at her father’s encouragement. Her official call to the pulpit came a year later when she was invited to preach in South Canton, New York, by Reverend Olympia Brown, the country’s first fully ordained female minister and a vocal abolitionist and women’s rights activist. With Brown’s encouragement, Hanaford entered a Universalist seminary. In 1868, Hanaford became the first woman in New England ordained as a Universalist minister and the third ordained female minister in America. She was also the first woman to serve as chaplain to the Connecticut State Legislature.

In addition to her work in the ministry, Hanaford was an ardent abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, serving as the vice president of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1874 and active member of the American Equal Rights Association. Hanaford was also a prominent public lecturer, touring the country to speak on a variety of topics ranging from temperance and women’s rights to poetry and religion.

Hanaford’s husband had difficulty dealing with his wife’s success, and they separated shortly after her ordination. The separation may also have been prompted by Hanaford’s relationship with a woman named Ellen Miles. The Hanaford and Miles lived together for the next forty-four years, until the latter’s death in 1914. The closeness of their relationship was at least partly responsible for Hanaford’s dismissal from a Universalist congregation in New Jersey, which did not approve of the “minister’s wife,” as Miles was described in one newspaper account.

Into the 20th Century and Beyond

The mid-nineteenth century was a turbulent time for our young nation. The decades leading up to and immediately following the Civil War brought progressive change, but as with all change, also met with fierce opposition. After the formal abolition of slavery and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, people of color faced racial discrimination and continued to struggle for equal rights—a battle that continues today.

In the late nineteenth century, women, too, continued to fight for suffrage and equal rights. Decades of struggle still lay ahead, however, as it was not until 1920 that all American women secured the right to vote with passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. Six years later, Anne Ring became the first woman on Nantucket to be elected to the board of selectmen and one of only a handful in the state.


The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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