What was the atmosphere on Nantucket when Frederick Douglass made his first visit?

Coming up to August 1841, intense debate was being carried on through letters published in the island’s newspapers.

A battle for school integration had been raging since Eunice Ross, a student at the African School, passed the examination for entry to Nantucket High School and was denied admission because she was black. Sometimes the newspapers went months without directly covering the struggle, but they did publish letters to the editors, and these letters were often racist. In 1841 the school integration issue was far from resolved. It continued on until 1846.

Another bone of contention was about who should engage in public speaking. On February 6, 1841, The Islander published a letter from someone who signed it “X.Y.Z.” The letter was in response to a letter by another writer who signed “J.” J. had written that he (or she) hoped and trusted “that women will never attend and take part in meetings of an association composed almost entirely of men.” Moreover, J. would not have women “go about lecturing,” because they would “unsex” themselves. X.Y.Z. asked if men were generally so rude that the only thing restraining their behavior was being outnumbered by women. As for being unsexed, X.Y.Z. cited the example of Lucretia Mott and other Quaker women ministers and asked if all these women were unsexed. As for the impropriety of women “lecturing,” X.Y.Z. cited abolitionist Angelina Grimke, who was making a career of public speaking. Continuing, she (or he) wrote in amazement, “A woman may talk to as many people as she pleases, if they are lounging on chairs, but it is highly improper for her to do so if they are sitting on benches and looking at her.” In conclusion X.Y.Z. wrote, “It seems to me that the attachment of impropriety to the attendance of women in public business meetings, to their talking and lecturing before all who choose to listen, is the result of pure, unadulterated prejudice, and the sooner such prejudice is removed, the better.”

Yet more fraught was the issue of anyone, man or woman, delivering a public address to an audience of both black and white listeners. Such audiences were characterized as “promiscuous.”

In 1837 a local Anti-Slavery Society had been organized, and it was promiscuous. Both white Anna Gardner and black Edward J. Pompey were active members. At first they met in the Atheneum, which was then a private institution. Within the year over a hundred of the Atheneum’s paying members petitioned the Atheneum’s board of directors to exclude the abolitionists from the hall. This generated a storm of letters to the editors of the papers, especially when the Atheneum went further and excluded anyone considered black from entering the building for any purpose. Somehow, both exclusions had been overcome by the time Anna Gardner took a hand in organizing the August 1841 meeting of Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Society and arranged for it to take place in the hall of the Atheneum.

Gathered in the hall when Frederick Douglass was prevailed upon to speak, were women, and men white and black—a promiscuous audience if ever there was one. And history was made that day.

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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