In Print : Integrating public schools on Nantucket
"A Line in the Sand, The Battle to Integrate Nantucket Public Schools, 1825-1847," by Barbara Ann White. Spinner Publications, 2009, 118 ppg. $20.
Nantucket - an idyllic setting, an insular and protected community - shares much in common with the Vineyard. But however isolated or eccentric they might be, neither island stands immune from the ills and frailties that affect the rest of the country.
"A Line in the Sand, The Battle to Integrate Nantucket Public Schools, 1825-1847," is a small softbound book filled with historic facts and accountings, and illustrated with archival photos, documents, and town records - such things as the ink-scrawled 1740 estate record of Samuel Barker that records the same value for "Negro Child Boston" as it lists for gingerbread.
Author Barbara Ann White, a teacher on Nantucket for 33 years, began her research in 1978, in the process of working towards her Master of Arts degree in Afro-American Studies at Boston University. The economy and clarity of "A Line in the Sand" is a tribute to her scholarship.
Organized into five chapters - Free Public Schools, The Rise of Abolitionists, An Island Divided, Winds of Change, and Resolution - the 118-page book examines Nantucket, with its Quaker Society, whaling industry, sailors, slaves, and its small black community that settled in a section of town called New Guinea. It is the story of the fractious balances among the privileged and the poor, the religious and the secular, the bureaucratic and democratic process. All that is described serves as a microcosm of the country's struggle over slavery, abolition, public education, and desegregation.
But the issues are easier to identify and define 30 miles offshore among Nantucket's discrete population, which in 1820 had 7,266 residents, only 274 of whom were black. (The number of blacks was reported to have doubled 20 years later.) From the salient bits and pieces that Ms. White uses to chronicle the island's history of growth, education, and integration, a broad picture emerges.
She writes: "[The school committee] stopped short of recommending a truly public school system though, presuming that parents who could afford a private education for their children would continue to do so, rather than embarrass themselves by looking to town-supported schools. A budget of $1,500 was approved to aid the poor in the education of their children, but once again, the frugal Nantucket Yankees spent only half the sum."
Without embellishments, she reports about the privileged merchants who, without access to university lectures and cultural stimulation, formed societies such as the Quaker Fragment Society, temperance societies, debating societies, the Nantucket Philosophical Institute, and the Atheneum Library.
It is a fascinating history. In 1772, when Prince Boston, a slave belonging to William Swain, was denied his payment for a share of his ship's profits, a lawsuit was initiated that wound up being supported by the island's influential newspaper, The Inquirer, and argued at the Supreme Court in Boston by John Adams.
The African Meeting House was established as Nantucket's black community had its own stores, churches, reform societies, and school - an island within an island. One result of the struggle to integrate the island's schools was the passage of the country's first law guaranteeing equal education regardless of race.
Incidents of bigotry and violence are included, along with stories of individuals such as Eunice F. Ross, a qualified black student who, in 1839, qualified but was then denied admission to the island's high school.
There are also episodes in which the white community rallied in support of persecuted blacks. In response to a bigoted letter to the newspaper by an islander known only as "Fair Play," Nathaniel Barney wrote: "Why was Eunice F. Ross refused her place in the High School? Did she enjoy an equal privilege with the 17 who were admitted when she was examined, none of whom was so well qualified as herself? Did she enjoy the benefit of our school law? But some will say a substitute is equivalent to the right which is denied? Certainly not those who are interested to proffer it. I reiterate it, because it is true, that they are entitled by law to equal, not equivalent privileges."
And as noted by Ms. White, "Fair Play," then penned the following rebuttal: "Whenever a class of persons from any circumstances whether conventional, or founded in nature, is so very obnoxious to the vast majority of our citizens as to threaten the destruction of our schools, the community has the right to obviate the difficulty by providing for such a class separately, but they must open up to the obnoxious class, and to all others, the full advantage secured by law."
"Fair Play" concluded: "The grand truth in this matter stands so boldly - it is this. Blacks and whites must forever be distinct races. The truth is felt, and acted upon almost universally. The exception is incipient abolitionists who atone for a deficiency of knowledge by a surcharge of zeal."
"Line in the Sand" is as readable as it is informative - a slim offering animated with historical truths, close to home. It seems a perfect project for Spinner Publications, Inc. a community-based, non-profit New Bedford publishing house founded 28 years ago, whose mission is described as a record of the history and culture of towns and individuals of southeastern New England.