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Anna Gardner.  Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Nantucket’s Daring Daughters: A Brief Look at Anna Gardner, 1816 – 1891

From time to time, I hope to introduce you to some lesser known members of our community who walked our streets long ago.  My focus will be heavily on women – an area of research for many years for me (for obvious reasons!) and I am going to give it the sub-title under “Nation of Nantucket” as “Nantucket’s Daring Daughters.” 

Nantucket born, Anna Gardner grew up in an abolitionist Quaker family at 40 Orange Street.  She taught at the African School for several years, having fifty pupils in one room and teaching all levels to the ninth grade.  Like Maria Mitchell, Anna Gardner had been a student of well-known island educator Cyrus Peirce, and from him had learned and adopted his belief that memorization and strict discipline were not the keys to learning.  A student could be successful if instilled with a moral grounding and with a hands-on approach – learning by doing, as Maria Mitchell’s and Gardner’s own family believed. 

Gardner’s star pupil, Eunice Ross, was being instructed in 1840 to take the exams to enter the high school.  When Ross passed the exam but was denied entry, because the island schools were strictly segregated, Anna Gardner resigned her teaching position — not just in protest but to devote herself to the cause of equality for African Americans. 

In 1841, at age 25, Gardner initiated Nantucket’s first Anti-Slavery Convention, enthusiastically assisted by Eliza and Nathaniel Barney and several others.  This gathering, held at the Nantucket Atheneum, witnessed the first speech by Frederick Douglass to a racially mixed audience, as well as speeches by several other famous abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison.  A second convention, held the next year, would not be as successful for it was organized during the heated desegregation debates concerning the public schools, and a near riot ensued outside the Atheneum.  The convention was subsequently continued at another location – the “Big Shop” on the corners of Milk Street and Quaker Road 

During and after the Civil War, Anna Gardner volunteered to travel into the South to teach in the newly created Freedmen’s Schools, which were established under the auspices of the War Department with the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau – part of the federal government – and private organizations.  Between 1862 and the late 1870s, Gardner taught at several Freedmen’s Schools that were not only poorly equipped and in unsuitable buildings, but also in areas of lawlessness whose residents didn’t approve of a woman teacher, especially from the North, and opposed the education of blacks.  In the late 1870s, she returned to Massachusetts where she worked with the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society and also became active in the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), speaking at the Fourth Women’s Congress.  Other Nantucket women, including Maria Mitchell and several of her sisters, were also active in the AAW.  Returning to Nantucket, Gardner joined the Nantucket Sorosis (a women’s organization that had many Nantucket women members, including Maria Mitchell and the Rev. Phebe Coffin Hanaford), serving as its secretary, and wrote several works of poetry, and the book Harvest Gleanings – a memoir of her teachings in the South.

The Nation of Nantucket

The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847.  It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820.  Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea.  I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels.  I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world.  My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well.  Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” .  And to read more about Nantucket's daring daughters, check out my new book The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island: How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women available at island bookstores and on Nantucket Chronicle's Marketplace.

Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999.  She holds a Master’s in History.  Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture.  The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents.  She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, their son, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.