History Insider: Sacred Ground

by: John Stanton

From the sacred ground beneath the gravestones, in the little burial plot off Vesper Lane, flow dozens of stories of courage and hope, that describe the struggle to be free. Some of the men and women buried there fought battles for equality that are still being waged today.

There is the story of James Crawford, escaped slave, barber, minister and man with the courage to travel back into the belly of the beast to buy the freedom of an enslaved woman.

The years just before the first shots were fired in the Civil War were not a good time for a former slave to be passing as a white man and traveling through a world where at any moment he could be captured and returned to slavery. Yet there he was, traveling through North Carolina with $1,000 in hand, to buy the freedom of a woman named Cornelia Read.

There are 120 gravestones and markers in what was once called Mill Hill Cemetery, but is now known as the Colored Cemetery. Taken as a community, many of the lives remembered there describe the decades just before the outbreak of what we now know as the Civil War. It was a brief time when social reform seemed possible.

“There was a great deal of optimism and they felt like the generation that was going to enact these ideals. They were going to change the world and abolition was going to come about and suffrage was going to come about. There was real hope,” Barbara White said.

White, a retired public-school history teacher, is the author of “A Line in the Sand: The Battle to Integrate Nantucket Public Schools,” and “Live to the Truth,” a biography of Cyrus Peirce, founder of the first public teacher training school in the United States.

There is the story of Absalom Boston, captain of the whaling ship Industry, with its all-Black crew. Like many Black men of his day, Boston found his way into a life at sea. He went around Cape Horn in 1809. He went out whaling again, after the War of 1812 ended, on the ship Independence.

When the whaleship Loper, with a white captain and an allBlack crew, returned to Nantucket with a full load of oil in record time, there was Boston on horseback leading them in a parade through downtown.

“We have all this controversy over monuments these days, but for me these are the ultimate monuments,” Nathaniel Philbrick, winner of the National Book Award for “In the Heart of the Sea,” said. “I find that graveyard so evocative. These are eternal stories.”

Edward J. Pompey, like Boston, captained a whaling ship. He was the local agent for the Liberator, which was William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper. Both Boston and Pompey used their position and wealth as whaling captains to become leaders in the community on shore.

“They had wealth, owned shops and boarding houses,” White said. “They played in real estate. They had some money and so they had a little bit of a buffer. There was a Black middle class here. Lots of the African Americans here worked in the whaling industry or auxiliary industries.”

Boston and Pompey, leaders in the island’s abolitionist movement and in the push to integrate education, were examples of the power of social change that can flow from Black entrepreneurship.

“It is the eternal struggle of America,” Philbrick said. “You can talk about the right and wrong sides of history, and I think people like Absalom Boston and others buried there are on the right side. They were working toward a future we haven’t arrived at yet. But hopefully we’re getting there.”

When Boston’s daughter, Phebe Ann, was denied an education at the island’s public high school, he threatened to bring a lawsuit against the town to integrate the schools. Everyone knew he had the wherewithal and the determination to do it.

“Educate us in your school!/ Remove the scorn from minds of fools!/ Give us those rights the state denies./ Then o’er rank prejudice we’ll rise.”

That rhyme ran in a local newspaper called The Islander, in January of 1842. In 1843 Nantucket schools had been desegregated, but by 1845 the pendulum had swung back in favor of segregation.

“I think it’s important for everybody to know this history,” White said. “You cannot teach any period or major issue in American history without teaching about class and color. Health care, schools, the judicial system, I don’t think there is a subject that isn’t impacted by our racism.”

Crawford, Boston and Pompey are only a few of the names on the gravestones, whose stories offer an education so many years later. It was an optimistic generation, one which worked for change but one which ran directly into the devastating wave of history. Change was going to happen, until it didn’t. The Civil War. The failure of Reconstruction. The rise of the Klan. Lynching. Jim Crow. The battles never really ended.

“Optimism and disappointment are part of America,” Philbrick said. “With each generation some things move in a positive direction and there are always steps backward.” ///

John Stanton is a writer, documentary filmmaker, associate editor of The Inquirer and Mirror and editor of Nantucket Today.