Eunice Ross was instrumental in the integration of the Nantucket school system. The town’s refusal to admit her to the high school in 1840 led to the first law in the United States to guarantee equal access to education.
Describing Eunice Ross’s life is not easy. The petition she submitted to the Massachusetts legislature is the only written record she left behind. Her signature also appears on a handful of other petitions which give us a glimpse into the issues she found important.
Eunice Ross was born in 1823, the youngest daughter of James and Mary (Pompey) Ross. Her father was one of the few people listed on the Nantucket census as having been born in Africa and he is listed as a laborer. It is not clear how he came to the island, perhaps on a whaleship. James Ross owned his house and lived in the Newtown or New Guinea area of Nantucket with his wife and three daughters and one son.
Eunice Ross attended the African School at the corner of York and Pleasant Streets in the African Meeting House. The school was organized in 1825 by the New Guinea community one year before the island established the public school system. About forty students attended the multi-grade one-room classroom. It was absorbed into the town school system in 1826.
Nantucket did not, however, establish a public high school until 1839 defying Massachusetts law. The seventeen-year-old Ross had outgrown the curriculum of the African School. Under the tutelage of the school’s abolitionist teacher, Anna Gardner, she prepared for the entrance examination. Along with seventeen white pupils, she passed the exam, but was refused admission because of her color.
The issue of school segregation and the denial of Eunice Ross to the high school dominated Nantucket politics from 1840 to 1846.
The teenager was an activist even before she applied to integrate the high school. The year before she took the examination, Ross signed a petition opposing the annexation of Texas because it would expand slavery. Her siblings, Sarah, Elizabeth and James also signed it. The next year she signed a petition submitted by 616 Nantucket women that demanded the legislature to support the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C. Signatories included her mother, sister Sarah, and Anna Gardner.
Color divided Nantucket. New Guinea had separate institutions including two churches, a number of shops and a separate cemetery. As the issue of abolition heated up, some white churches barred their doors to abolitionist groups as did the Nantucket Atheneum, the private library in the center of town.
A vote at the 1840 Annual Town Meeting supported the School Committee’s decision to refuse Ross a place in the high school. In response, the African Meeting House refused to rent space to the town for a segregated school. In response, the town built a new school down the street in order to maintain segregation.
It is hard to imagine how the young girl must have felt being the focus of the bitter controversy in a small town. Did she isolated herself or did she go out with her head held high? Or, was it a combination of both?
In August 1842, the island hosted an Anti-Slavery Convention which attracted the most famous abolitionists of the era. It was largely organized by Anna Gardner who had resigned her teaching job in protest. The convention resulted in several nights of riots and the organisers had to change the venue three times for safety reasons.
Ostensibly about the radicalism of speakers like William Lloyd Garrison, the riots were really about the inflammatory subject of school integration.
A flurry of letters to the
Inquirer in 1843 focused on Eunice Ross which must have been difficult and embarrassing. For three months there were back-and-forth letters between a segregationist, writing as “Fair Play,” and abolitionist Nathaniel Barney, writing as “B.” “Fair Play’s” arguments were virulently racist claiming, among other things, that Ross’s color was “obnoxious to the great mass.” Barney answered point by point.
Despite being the center of the local battle, Ross advocated for justice at the state level. In 1842, she and her siblings signed a petition opposing segregation on state railroads. And in 1843, the year that she was the subject of vile letters in the newspaper, she signed a petition against the prohibition of interracial marriage. “Fair Play” had charged that interracial marriage would be the result of children sitting together in school.
In 1843 a radical School Committee was elected and schools were integrated contrary to votes by the Town Meeting. Fifteen black students were placed in two grammar schools, but there is no evidence that twenty-year-old Eunice Ross, or any other black student, was admitted to the high school.
The integration lasted only one year because the Town Meeting of 1844 swept the abolitionists from office and re-segregated the school system. The black students were publicly ejected from the integrated schools in the middle of a school day and escorted back to the segregated school on York Street.
The expulsion prompted drastic action. The black community embarked on an unprecedented boycott of the school system that lasted for almost two years, surely one of the earliest uses of a boycott for social justice. Abolitionists rented a school room and staffed it with volunteers to provide rudimentary education for the students.
Having exhausted political options on the island, the black community appealed to the state legislature. A petition signed by a combination of children and adults was submitted in January 1845 by “Edward J. Pompey and 104 others.” It stated that up to forty of their children were being denied an equal education.
More petitions followed. White Nantucketers submitted two petitions in support of the Pompey petition and two petitions opposed to Pompey’s petition.
The sixth and final petition is a unique and poignant document written by Eunice Ross in which she told her story. “…The undersigned has good reason to feel on this subject,” she wrote because she had been “refused admission by a vote of the Town, instructing the School Committee not to admit her, on account of her colour.”
The legislature passed the groundbreaking Chapter 214 of the Acts of 1845 which prohibited discrimination in public schools and guaranteed equal education to all students. It gave parents the right to sue towns for damages.
Remarkably, Nantucket decided to ignore the law. It was not until Captain Absalom F. Boston began legal proceedings against the town on behalf of his daughter, Phebe Ann, that the 1846 School Committee re-integrated the schools.
By then Eunice Ross was twenty-four. She never re-entered the school system, probably because of her age. Little is known about the rest of her life. There is evidence that she remained friendly with Anna Gardner. A reference in the New England Freedman’s Aid Society Records in 1865 shows that she was asked by Gardner to teach in a Freedman’s Bureau school in Maryland, but that she was unable to. It is telling that she was considered qualified to be offered the job.
She lived quietly in the heart of the Newtown community until her death in 1895, age seventy-two. Her obituary refers to her role in the segregation “outrage,” and notes she was “fond of the study of French, in which language she became proficient.” She is buried next to her sister, Sarah, in the “Historic Coloured Cemetery.”