Education Reform

School Desegregation

Portrait of Anna Gardner, ca. 1880-90, by Wendell Macy. Gift of Captain Oliver G. Fosdick. 1901.16.1

Anna Gardner, the six-year-old who had witnessed the rescue of the Cooper family, became an activist for abolition at an early age. She was 18 when she subscribed to W.L. Garrison’s The Liberator, three years after she started a school for young children of color. In 1836, she became the teacher at the African School, housed in the African Meeting House in the New Guinea neighborhood. Eunice Ross, a pupil at the African School, sat for the entrance exams with Anna’s encouragement for the recently opened Nantucket High School in 1840. She passed, but was nonetheless denied admittance “on account of her color.” Gardner resigned her teaching post in protest. For five years, the School Committee and town at large struggled to reach consensus on the issue. There could be no middle ground—either schools were integrated or they weren’t.

When Phebe Ann Boston was also denied access, her father Absalom, ship’s captain and pillar of New Guinea society, and scholar/activist Edward J. Pompey petitioned the Legislature to provide access to education for all children. European American citizens (voters, they pointed out, as the citizens of color could not claim) submitted both supporting and rebutting petitions, which you can view and hear below.

The petitions led to House Bill No. 45, which passed in less than a month in 1845. Long accustomed to defying the state on free, public education for all, Nantucket defied this new regulation as well, until a new election replaced the entire School Committee which then, at last, moved to integrate the Nantucket schools.

Phebe Ann attended the High School, though there is no evidence that Eunice Ross, by that time in her mid-twenties, ever did, though she lived on Nantucket for many years.

During the Civil War, Anna Gardner went to North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina to help found and teach in schools for freedmen’s children. She stayed through Reconstruction, returning home in the 1870s to help push for women’s right to vote.

1845 Petitions for & against Integrating Nantucket Schools

Petition drives were widely used to promote reform movements in the nineteenth century.

Early in 1845, six petitions were submitted to Boston. Four advocated school integration and the passage of a law guaranteeing equal access to education. Two defended the school’s policy of segregation. The final petition was submitted by Eunice Ross, in which she told her own story.

The State legislature took the side of those who argued for equal rights and passed Chapter 214 of the Acts of 1845. This groundbreaking law prohibited discrimination in the public schools of Massachusetts and guaranteed equal education to all students.