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 Travelers, to other columns and history features by William Larsha, Sr.

NANTUCKET: BATTLE FOR EQUAL EDUCATION
 

By William Larsha, SR.



The year was 1841. The place was Nantucket, Massachusetts, an island town some 60 miles from Boston. The issue was school segregation which started in 1840, or in others words, denial of African Americans free access to public educational opportunities.

Nantucket, a town of some 300 Blacks and 7000 Whites by 1829, was the center of the world’s whaling industry, and was one of America’s wealthiest communities. It was also a stronghold of Quakers, the Society of Friends.

However, Blacks, who were not welcomed with open arms by the Whites majority, lived in a separate section of Nantucket called Newtown. Blacks owned their own businesses, shops, boarding houses, and stores. They built a Meeting Hall in Newtown which was used as a church; and a school which taught from grade levels one through nine.

The big event in 1841 was a town hall meeting called by supporters of the abolitionist movement. The meeting was to show opposition to public school segregation. A 17 year old Black, Eunise Ross, had been barred from attending Nantucket’s public High School.

The meeting hall, the historic Athenaeum Library, was packed and attended by Blacks, Whites and Native Americans. The featured speaker was leader of the Abolition of Slavery movement, William Lloyd Garrison.

At that meeting, Garrison delivered his usual fire power anti-slavery speech; attacking church and school segregation, and equating the intent of the leadership in Nantucket toward Blacks with that of the intent of slave masters in the south.

Among the Blacks were highly respected businessman, Edward Pompey; and Arthur Cooper, a runaway slave who had been sheltered by Blacks and White Quakers in 1822, and who had turned pastor of Newtown’s second Black church.
 

Also attending the meeting was Absalom Boston, a wealthy owner and Captain of an African American Whaling ship.

Many of the Blacks attending were well knowledgeable of the overall triumphs and tribulations of the Black presence in America. They knew of Ship builder and owner, Paul Cuffee, who in 1811 took Blacks back to Africa. Richard Allen who, in 816, help found the first independent Black domination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and later became America’s first Black Bishop.
They also knew of the first Black newspaper, Freedom Journal, published by John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish in 1827; and of the inventor and wealthy sailsmaker, James E. Forten, who help finance Lloyd Garrison’s famous newspaper, the Liberator. And never were they to forget the first National Convention of African Americans in this country, year 1830, at which Bishop Richard Allen chaired.

After Garrison spoke, a little known African American was introduced to take center stage. And indeed he did. His name was Frederick Douglas who had been out of slavery himself for only three years. Revealing his experiences as a slave and as a free man, Douglas both mesmerized and electrified the audience. It was his first address to a racially mixed crowd. But from the Athenaeum Library in Nantucket, Douglas marched heroically into history, becoming one of America’s greatest orators.

At the next election of School Committee members, both Blacks and White abolitionists campaigned together so as to play a dominate role in school affairs. But they were defeated by Whites who did not want to further the school segregation issue. However, the issue, for the abolitionist did remain alive.

In 1843, when the abolitionists came to the library to hold the next meeting, they were met with mob violence: bricked and stoned. And although White Nantucket disapproved of school integration, they really didn’t like mob violence. So later that year in the election of School Committee members, Blacks won seats.

On the School Committee, Blacks were able to change the system so as to allow some Black kids to attend early grade public schools, but not High school. Eunice Ross once again was denied an equal education. Black parents, then, had no alternative, they felt, but to pull their children out of Nantucket’s segregated public school system.

This event became the nation’s first racial school boycott – 1844.

In 1845, under the leadership of two Black businessmen - Edward Pompey and Captain Boston - the Massachusetts legislature was petitioned to enact an equal education bill. They were successful, for the legislature enacted a law which permitted parents to sue if public school systems denied their child an education.

And when the Nantucket School Committee refused to comply, Captain Boston in behalf of his daughter and Eunice Ross sued. It was the nation’s first school integration lawsuit. And Nantucket, under threat of being heavily penalized, began to desegregate its school system in 1846.

Eunice Ross, at 24, finally entered Nantucket public High School.


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