Looking up at the Atheneum entrance showing the greek revival columns.

2020 Nantucket Atheneum Board Chair Letter

January 2021

Dear Friends of the Atheneum:

This is my third annual letter to you as Chair of the Atheneum Board of Trustees.

It is an opportunity for me to report on the state of the Atheneum,
to share our plans for the coming year and to thank each and every one of you for your generosity and support of this very special institution. 2020 was a most unusual year which makes this report to you all the more important.

I am happy to report that the Atheneum weathered the challenges of 2020 remarkably well and, in many ways, enters 2021 stronger and better equipped to serve our community than ever before. Our leadership team is strong, our finances are strong thanks to your generosity, and we have built critical organizational muscles around our adaptability, creativity, and responsiveness. The Atheneum has a long and distinguished history of resilience and adaptation since its founding in 1834. I believe the performance of our public library in the past nine months is another proud chapter in that history.


The Atheneum closed its physical doors in mid-March in response to the pandemic. It was imperative that we find ways to remain open virtually, 24/7. To make that happen, our approach to everything we do had to change.

Our website and online meeting technology became critical delivery
mechanisms as all of our programming became virtual. Internet access was provided in the garden. Thanks to a grant from the Nantucket Fund for Emergency Relief, we purchased 20 laptop computers and 20 personal hotspots which can be checked out like a book, allowing patrons without reliable internet access to connect to the internet for school, work or personal use.

Our librarians continued to provide the same advice and expertise on every topic imaginable, just not in person. Our circulation team processed, cleaned and hand-wrapped thousands of items for pickup service. Our homebound delivery program made it possible for our elder and more vulnerable patrons to safely access books and audio from home. For the first six months, the staff personally called every borrowing patron to confirm check-out availability.

Since June, almost 3800 Grab and Go bags have been created; parents and caregivers wait for them to come out each day. These bags are immensely popular and are both educational and entertaining. The word has spread beyond Nantucket; seasonal residents and new patrons from off island have requested information on how they can create the bags.

The Atheneum Dance Festival has become a significant cultural event for the island but could not be held in its traditional form. Thanks to the creativity and determination of our Artistic Director, Tyler Angle, and the generosity of our Dance Festival Committee and the performers, the Festival was reimagined and delivered virtually over several weeks. More than 3,000 people from four different countries viewed the Festival on our new website, making this extraordinary series of performances both an artistic tour de force and a financial success.

Speaking of financial success, thanks to you our generous and loyal donors, the Atheneum finishes 2020 in excellent financial condition. Our Annual Giving results of over $600,000 not only exceeded our goal but was our best Annual Giving ever. This level of giving at any time would be gratifying but during the pandemic it is
inspiring. We cannot thank you enough for your loyal and generous support. Without each of you, none of this
would have been possible.


Like all of you, we are anxious for some return to normalcy including reopening the building for a limited number of patrons. In preparation for that, we have revamped all of our operating processes, created new work flows, and improved air circulation. We have done everything we need to be ready to move forward when public health considerations support such a move.

The Atheneum has been forever changed by the pandemic in some very positive ways. By necessity, we had to become stronger, more adaptable and more innovative in how we serve our community. Responding to the pandemic required us to change, to adopt different ways of looking at things, and to be creative and open to new possibilities.

We have learned so much about the importance and reach of virtual programs. Our virtual programs are now attended by three to four times the number of people than when they were delivered face to face. We now provide programming that is accessible across the country and the globe. We will not let this go when things return to normal.

We also learned that when we closed our physical doors, we needed to find new ways to reach all parts and members of the Nantucket community. If they could not come to us, we must find ways to go to them. We have a deepened appreciation of how much we all depend on each other. Expanding partnerships with other island organizations, strengthening our relationships in the community, and reenergizing our community outreach and needs assessment will be important priorities moving forward.


This year we said goodbye to four outstanding trustees whose terms expired. Thank you Sam Bailey, Annye Camara, Cathy Weinroth, and Marcia Welch for the energy, thoughtful guidance, commitment and support you brought to the Atheneum. We are deeply grateful for their service.

We are delighted to welcome our new class of trustees – Bianca Bosker, William Cohan, Duncan Macallister and Bonnie Sacerdote. We know that each of these outstanding individuals will make a difference moving forward.

In closing, let me first acknowledge and thank our extraordinary and talented board of trustees for their dedication, wise counsel, commitment to the Atheneum and generosity of time and resources. 2020 was a pivotal year for the Atheneum and the leadership and strength of our board of trustees made all the difference.

Second, my deepest thanks to our dedicated, hardworking, talented staff for all they have accomplished in this difficult year. And a special acknowledgement to our Executive Director, Ann Scott, who has been amazing during this crisis. Her efforts to keep the Atheneum running during the pandemic were simply outstanding. She was exactly the leader we needed during the pandemic; she is exactly the leader we need moving forward.

And finally, I want to thank each of you, our generous supporters and donors. You make possible everything we do and we are deeply grateful for your support. We cannot thank you enough.

There has been so much grief, pain and suffering this past year. Going forward, we are determined to continue to do our part to enrich and brighten the life of every person we touch.

Best wishes and many thanks,

Joan Gulley

2019 Nantucket Atheneum Board Chair Letter

2019 Nantucket Atheneum Board Chair Letter

December 2019

Dear Friends of the Nantucket Atheneum:

This is my second annual letter to you as Chair of the Atheneum’s Board
of Trustees. These letters are an important opportunity to provide an
update on the past year, our thoughts for the coming year and, most
important, to thank you for your generosity and support.


2019 has certainly been an important and eventful year for the
Nantucket Atheneum. Molly Anderson, our extraordinary Executive
Director for over 14 years, retired.

Molly brought wisdom, vision, amazing creativity and boundless
energy to the role. We cannot thank her enough for her
contributions to the Atheneum and our community.

We were thrilled to welcome Ann Scott as only the ninth Executive
Director of the Atheneum. Ann was the unanimous choice of the
Board of Trustees following a comprehensive, nationwide search.

As you would expect, Ann has an excellent background in library
management with over seventeen years of experience in a broad
array of library leadership roles. She is thoughtful, engaging, and an
excellent listener and communicator. Throughout her career,she has
demonstrated strong leadership, imagination, and the ability to build
highly effective connections with individuals and other organizations.
She appreciates Nantucket’s rich history, the importance of libraries
to their communities, and the indispensable role that the Atheneum
plays on our island.

Our Board is confident that Ann Scott is the right leader for the next
phase of the Atheneum’s history. We also understand that a
leadership transition provides an opportunity to recognize who we
are today, to build on our strengths and to position the Atheneum to
respond effectively to changes in the needs of our community and
our environment moving forward. We are excited about the


While we devoted considerable effort to the search for a new executive director, I am happy to report that the Atheneum had an excellent year by all measures. Our talented staff welcomed and assisted over 167,000 visitors to the Atheneum and delivered over 1300 adult, teen, and children’s programs
which were enjoyed by over 30,000 program participants. Our website was visited almost 700,000 times and our staff visited island schools and met with over 1000 children to promote summer reading.

Our immensely popular Geschke lectures covered topics this summer ranging from U.S. foreign policy to the impact of technology in our lives. Our meeting rooms were used over 1000 times by other island organizations in support of civic and community engagement. Our fundraising was at record levels and our endowment continued to grow. We are a strong, healthy institution however you choose to measure it.

The Atheneum Dance Festival, which has become a signature cultural event, brought world class performers to the island who delivered two sublime evenings of artistic achievement and a magical week of dance lectures, lessons, demonstrations, and children’s programs. Each year we think the Dance Festival cannot get better and then it does.

We observed the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birthday with a number of events culminating in a marathon reading of Moby Dick. And with hundreds of enthusiastic plungers continuing to jump in the harbor Thanksgiving morning, we recalled the words of a former Board chair when he asked, “Who does not love the Turkey Plunge?”

Day in, day out the Atheneum connects people, provides resources to learn, to explore, to grow and to enjoy. It is a warm, vibrant, place where everyone is welcome. It is a cultural center, a community center, a learning center, a center for exploration and innovation and so much more. You make that
possible with your generosity and support. We can’t thank you enough for the difference you make.


Every year we must get better in order to stay financially strong, relevant, and indispensable to the quality of life on Nantucket. Over the next few years, we intend to challenge ourselves in three areas.

First, to continue to meet community needs with free access to top quality library, resources, services and programs. We have done an excellent job over time in providing relevant programs and services to our community. But we must always challenge ourselves to better understand those needs, to identify underserved populations, to use new data sources and tools to measure and validate those needs and to insure that what we provide is making a difference. This will be a forever goal.

Second, to ensure the Nantucket Atheneum remains financially stable, resilient, and sustainable. Careful expense management, a well-managed endowment, excellent development efforts, and your generosity ensure that today’s Atheneum is financially solid. But we must do better if we are to insure the future of this precious organization. Every year we must raise over $1 million for operating expenses. We must accomplish more in every category of financial management and fundraising to insure the future of the Atheneum. Another forever goal.

Third, to increase awareness and strengthen perception of the Nantucket Atheneum among key audiences and stakeholders. The hallmark of a public library is universal access at no cost. Financial support is essential for free access and we must continue to expand our efforts to communicate the
unique public/private nature of our role. I suspect this will also be a forever goal.


This year we said goodbye to six outstanding trustees whose terms expired. Thank you David Ross, Bonnie Sacerdote, Norb Donelly, Douglass Ellis, Liz McHenry and Porter Dawson for the energy, thoughtful guidance, commitment and support you brought to the Atheneum. We are deeply grateful for their service.

We are delighted to welcome our new class of trustees – Deborah Manus, Linda McGrath, Alan McKelvie, Tom Roeder, and Nat Philbrick. We know that each of these outstanding individuals will make a difference moving forward.

In closing, let me first acknowledge and thank our extraordinary and talented board of trustees for their dedication, wise counsel, commitment to the Atheneum and generosity of time and resources. 2019 was a critical year for the Atheneum and the leadership and strength of our board of trustees made all the difference.

Second, my deepest thanks to our dedicated, hardworking, talented staff for all they have accomplished in this year of transition.

And finally, I want to thank each of you, our generous supporters and donors. You make possible everything we do and we are deeply grateful for your support. We are excited about the future of the Atheneum and look forward to seeing you soon at our fabulous public library.

Warm regards,

Joan Gulley

Ann Scott Named New Atheneum Executive Director

Ann Scott, formerly of the Basalt Regional Library in western Colorado, will become the Executive Director of the Nantucket Atheneum in mid-September. Scott recently served as executive director at Basalt and prior to that worked at the New Port Ritchey Public Library in Florida in a variety of roles.

Scott will take over from retiring executive director Molly Anderson, who started in May of 2005. Scott begins the new position on September 16 and Anderson will remain on the staff for a short transition period.

“We are confident that Ann is the right leader for the next phase of the Atheneum’s extraordinary history and will continue and expand the outstanding programs and services, strong connection to the community, and track record of innovation and imagination that have become the hallmark of of the Atheneum under the leadership of Molly Anderson,” said Joan Gulley, Atheneum board chair, in a prepared statement.

First an undergraduate at Hodges University, Scott earned a Masters in Library Science from Drexel University. She was the unanimous choice of the Atheneum board following a nationwide search, Gulley said.

The Nantucket Atheneum, formed in 1834 as a private, membership organization, has had eight librarians in its storied history, beginning with famous astronomer Maria Mitchell. The library trustees voted to make the Atheneum a free, public library in 1900 and it has served the community ever since.

In her role as the institution’s ninth director, Scott will oversee all aspects of the Atheneum, which include circulating collections of books and media for children, teens and adults, an archival collection of historic artifacts, stewardship of the historic 1847 building and garden, and the execution of more than 1,300 programs a year.

Please visit http://nantucket.s433.sureserver.com/ about/atheneum-today/the-islands-unique-library/ for more information about the Atheneum’s history.

Fredrick Douglass

A Degree of Freedom: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass

By Elizabeth Kelly
Atheneum Reference Librarian

Frederick Douglass by Samuel J. Miller, 1847-52

Frederick Douglass by Samuel J. Miller, 1847-52

On August 10th 1841, an ordinary steamboat made its ritual passage across the sound from New Bedford to Nantucket Harbor. Upon it, however, sailed an extraordinary man—one who would use the power of his own experiences to fight the institution of slavery. His name was Frederick Douglass.

Born a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland, Douglass’ early life was stifled by servitude. He was raised by his grandparents in a wood and clay cabin on the plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was sold to a neighboring farm when he was an infant and died when he was very young. Of her, Douglass has little memory. “I do not recollect seeing my mother by the light of day,” he writes, chronicling in his first autobiography how Bailey would travel twelve miles by foot to visit him after dark. These secret engagements were precious, and dangerous, for both mother and son. The identity of his father is unknown but widely speculated, even by Douglass himself, to have been a previous master.

The life of a slave was tormented by fear and hunger. In his most desperate moments, Douglass would long for the tablecloths to be shaken out so he could catch the crumbs and bones that had been intended for the cats. He witnessed the violent wrath of his masters, and their overseers, for offenses as minute as tardiness and physical exhaustion. In an unexpected twist of fate he was chosen to work for Hugh Auld, a ship carpenter in Baltimore. It was there he observed vast differences between city and rural slaves; markedly, the quality of his accommodations. Until the move to Baltimore, Douglass had never owned a pair of his own trousers.

Douglass viewed his tenure in Baltimore as a period of enlightenment. Most notably, it was where he learned to read and write. Sophia, Auld’s wife, was his first tutor. Unfortunately, her husband forbade the illegal lessons and suggested an education would impede Douglass’ ability to remain fit as a slave—a concept that stayed with him for the rest of his life. “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought.” He decided to become his own teacher by hiding books and befriending local boys to learn new words. These informal lessons were the foundation of a lifelong quest for knowledge and, with it, a quiet freedom.


Douglass lived in Baltimore for seven years before he was sold back to the plantation. The experience was an unfathomable period of violence and abuse. He writes, “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” He had left the farm as a hopeful boy and returned a young man to a devastating reality.

Douglass’ horrifying treatment paralleled the fate of millions of slaves around the country and the globe. In 1833, the same year Douglass was sent back to the Maryland farm, the United Kingdom passed the Antislavery Act to abolish slavery within the British Empire. By comparison, abolition of slavery in the United States would not occur until 1865. For Douglass and thousands of other slaves, thirty years and an ocean would separate them from the legal right to be recognized as human beings.

The Road to Freedom

For a second time, Douglass was sent to the Auld’s in Baltimore. He took up caulking work in the shipyards where he met a laundress, Anna Murray, who had been born free. They bonded over the desire to escape the south and plotted an elaborate scheme together. Wearing a sailor’s uniform that Anna had sewn and with fraudulent “seaman’s protection” papers in his pocket, Douglass boarded a departing train. It was a journey wrought with risk. He met familiar faces along the way—all who could have easily betrayed his cover. The northern corridor was policed by bounty hunters on the lookout for their reward. Fortunately, he was able to elude capture and arrived safely in New York during the fall of 1838.

Anna followed shortly after and they were married the same year. The couple was assisted by David Ruggles, leader of the New York Vigilance Committee, who encouraged them to move to New Bedford, Massachusetts so Douglass could find more opportunities in ship work. They managed to scrounge up enough money with the hopes of settling into a new life together. “I was now my own master,” Douglass wrote, happy to have the hard but satisfying employment in New England. In 1839 he became a licensed preacher and, for the first time, was made fully aware of the abolitionist cause. By attending antislavery meetings held by the local African-American community, he would ultimately lead the conversation.

An Auspicious Address

William C. Coffin, a Nantucket banker, heard Douglass speak at one of the assemblies in New Bedford and, overwhelmed by the presentation, invited him to attend the island’s first Anti-Slavery Convention in 1841. He accepted, unaware that the event would change his life. After meeting Douglass at the ferry dock Coffin urged him to speak at the forum being held in the Great Hall of the Nantucket Atheneum. There is no official transcript of the speech, only a brief description of the event in his own words from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”:

It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease.

While humble in evaluating his own performance, Douglass’ discourse was met with tangible excitement. The room erupted with cheers. Later accounts of the evening would describe his speech as an eloquent, heartfelt monologue that illuminated the raw and vile nature of slavery. It was the first time the audience had ever heard the truth about the slave trade from someone who had survived it. He was only twenty-three years old at the time.

Nantucket is where Douglass first met William Lloyd Garrison, a religious activist, publisher, and founder of the American Antislavery Society. After hearing Douglass’ speech Garrison invited him to share his story at future abolitionist events. It was not an easy decision. By law, Douglass was still considered a fugitive slave and public appearances increased the threat of capture. Defiantly, he spoke as a lecturer for the Antislavery Society for many years and later supported the women’s suffrage movement in a similar fashion. A single speech had launched a former slave into the global fight for equality.

A Legacy to Behold

Douglass quickly became a household name. He had already written his first autobiography in 1845, an instant bestseller, and would go on to publish The North Star abolitionist newspaper. In February of 1846, Douglass became a free man. While touring Ireland and the United Kingdom, sharing his story and eluding stateside capture, his British supporters raised enough money to pay the Auld estate for his legal freedom. To commemorate this sovereign victory he adopted the date as his official birthday.

Celebrated for his commitment to humanitarian efforts, Douglass was also an ethical scholar, politician, and avid fan of photography. Hundreds of essays on education and technology were penned by his hand. He advised Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, served as counsel-general to the Republic of Haiti, and was nominated as a presidential elector for the state of New York. In 1877, under Rutherford B. Hayes, he was the first African-American to be appointed a U.S. Marshal. He also sat for 160 distinct portrait poses—more than any other 19th century American figure. One of which, taken at the very end of his life, depicts him with a smile.

Frederick Douglass died on of a heart attack on February 20, 1895. His funeral was held in Washington D.C. and attended thousands of mourners. Delegations from New York, Annapolis, Baltimore, and Philadelphia lined the streets to watch the procession. Speakers included Susan B. Anthony and May Wright Sewall. He was laid to rest in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY where he had previously lived for twenty-five years. Though born into a chained obscurity, Douglass would depart this world as a champion for humanity.

Elizabeth Kelly is a Reference Librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum and year-round resident. She teaches workshops at the library on technology, database research, and bookbinding.

Maria Mitchell, Astronomer and Professor

Women in Atheneum History

By Caitlin Kelly
Atheneum Reference Librarian

Throughout its long history, Nantucket has produced no dearth of strong, influential women. The Nantucket Atheneum, in a slightly shorter time-span, has had the good fortune to showcase the talents and inspiring words of many such women. Below are the stories of the abolitionists, suffragettes, and one astronomer who graced the Great Hall with their presence and touched the Nantucket community.

Maria Mitchell, Astronomer and Professor

Celebrated astronomer, Maria Mitchell, began work as the Atheneum’s first librarian in 1836. Her mother, Lydia, had been the librarian for two of the island’s subscription libraries and Maria followed in her footsteps. Though untrained in cataloging and other skills required of librarianship, Mitchell’s patience and organization, honed by years of taking notes on the movement of the cosmos, made her well-suited to the librarian position.

The job was also well-suited to the young astronomer’s needs. During its nascent years the Atheneum was only open for a couple of hours a day, giving Mitchell ample time for studying the stars and poring through the library’s resources. Her brother, Henry, would later say “she in essence acquired a college education through the books at the Atheneum, where she taught herself mathematics, including calculus, and the most advanced astronomy of her day[1]”

Over her twenty-year tenure as the Atheneum’s librarian, Mitchell cataloged thousands of books and devoted herself to bringing materials into the library that would engender intellectual growth in her patron population. In her journal from 1855, she writes, “So I steadily advocate in purchasing books for the Atheneum, the lifting of the people. ‘Let us buy, not such books as the people want, but books just above their wants, and they will reach up to take what is put out for them[2].’”

Maria’s discovery of a comet in October 1, 1847 changed the way that both she and the Atheneum were perceived. Her discovery, which came only a few days before European astronomers noticed the same celestial body hurtling through space, earned her a gold medal from King Frederic VI of Denmark , fame as America’s first female astronomer, press in numerous well-respected science journals, entrance into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and part-time work for the Nautical Almanac. Her subsequent celebrity attracted tourists, academics, and flatterers to the Atheneum.

Mitchell was embarrassed by the attention of those she admired and found those whom admired her to be tiresome. In 1850 she noted, “My visitors….have been of the average sort. Four women have been delighted to make my acquaintance-three men have tho’t [sic] themselves in the presence of a superior being-one man offered me 25 cts because I reached him the key of the museum-one woman has opened correspondence with me and several have told me that they know friends of mine…I have become hardened to all-neither compliment nor quarter dollar rouses any emotion[3].”

She came to dread these visits, which she found exhausting and left her with little time for her Atheneum duties. She persevered, however, for several more years by hiring a handful of young Nantucket youths to help with library work[4].  She left her position in 1856, while her mother was in ill-health and a couple months before she embarked on a cross country trip. Of her departure, Atheneum trustee E. G. Kelley lamented ‘however meritorious her successor may be, [we] apprehend that the institution has sustained a serious loss in the withdrawal of Miss Mitchell[5].’

As a parting gift, the Atheneum’s trustees told Mitchell that she could take with her whatever science books she desired. After traveling much of the United States and Europe, Maria Mitchell became Vassar College’s first female professor and director of the observatory. Upon her death, in 1891, then-president of Vassar College, Dr. Taylor, reflected “If I were to select for comment the most striking trait of her character, I should name her genuineness. There was no false note in Maria Mitchell’s thinking or utterance…It was this perfect genuineness which gave her the strong hold she had on the admiration and affection of her students.[6]”

Lucy Stone, Suffragist and Abolitionist

Lucy Stone, Suffragist and Abolitionist

Lucy Stone, Suffragist and Abolitionist

A brief blurb in an 1853 edition of The Inquirer notes that famed suffragist, Lucy Stone, gave two speeches on women’s rights to the residents of Nantucket. The first lecture was described as “well-spoken of,” the second not described at all. The reporter failed to elaborate on the topics she spoke of, but noted that she wore ‘Bloomer costume[7].’

Forty years later Anna Gardner remembered “the pleasure” of listening to Stone’s lectures to a “large and intelligent” Atheneum audience. She noted that Nantucket had been one of the first places that Ms. Stone visited after entering the lecture field. Passionate about abolitionism as well as women’s issues, Stone helped to set up the first women’s rights convention in Worcester in 1850, aided in organizing the American Women Suffrage Organization, returned to the Athenum to speak at the island’s 1886 Woman Suffrage Convention, and, with her husband, supported and wrote for Women’s Journal until her death in 1893[8].

Anna Gardner, Teacher and Active Abolitionist

Anna Gardner was just six years old when fugitive slave, Arthur Cooper, and his family, took refuge in her parents’ attic while hiding from a bounty hunter. According to Gardner, the great fright of the family “was too indelibly impressed upon the mind of a child ever to be forgotten.” That experience and the guidance of her radical parents set her on a path to abolitionist activism. By her early twenties Gardner had taken a teaching position at the African School, become the second Nantucketer to subscribe to William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator, and taken office as secretary in the Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society.

Gardner gave up teaching at the African School in 1840 soon after her star pupil, Eunice Ross, was denied entrance to the newly constructed public schools. She focused her energies on her role as secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society and is credited with organizing the three Anti-Slavery Conventions held at the Atheneum in 1841, 1842, and 1843. These conventions, which are described at length on the Atheneum’s abolitionist history page, put Nantucket on the map as a bastion of anti-slavery sentiment.

Over the next two decades Gardner wrote a fair amount, publishing poetry and essays, frequently lectured on island, and continued working in schools. Then, in 1865, soon after the end of the Civil War, Gardner, then fifty years old, left the north east for Charlottesville, Virginia where she had been assigned to start a school for freedmen by Freedman’s Bureau. She worked there, training teachers and teaching freedmen and women of all ages, for over ten years. At the end of her tenure as a teacher Gardner retired to Nantucket where she continued to lecture, often at the Atheneum, and to fight for the rights of women and for the Temperance cause until passing at eighty-five [9].

Lucretia Coffin Mott, Suffragist and Abolitionist

Though she moved from the island at the age of eleven, radical abolitionist and feminist, Lucretia Mott, was greatly influenced by Nantucket culture and always considered herself an islander. Mott cited the independence allotted women on Nantucket as one of the reasons that she so fervently pursued women’s rights: she believed that all women should have such freedom.

In a letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton she writes that on Nantucket: “Women have long been regarded as the stronger part. This is owing in some measure to so many of the men being away at sea. During the absence of their husbands, Nantucket woman have been compelled to transact business, often going to Boston to procure supplies of goods –exchanging for oil, candles, whalebone — &. c — This has made them adept in trade. They have kept their own accounts, & indeed acted the part of men.  Then education & intellectual culture have been for years equal for girls & boys so that their women are prepared to be companions of man in every sense — and their social circles are never divided. Successive generations of this kind of mental exercise have improved the form of the head, and the intellectual portion predominates[10].”

Mott continued to travel to Nantucket into her seventies to visit her many relations in the community that she had always loved.

Though she did visit often, there’s not much record of Mrs. Mott lecturing on Nantucket. It would seem that she gave a sermon at the Unitarian Church in 1847 and didn’t speak on-island again until 1854. By the time Lucretia Mott came to speak at the Atheneum, she was already very well known throughout the country. She’d already led a full life, having born eleven children, become a Quaker minister, lectured across the country, been a contributing member of the Anti-Slavery Society, traveled to abolitionist conferences in Great Britain, and organized the Seneca Falls Convention. Nevertheless, the article that reported her speech at the Atheneum merely notes: “On Friday the Hall was well filled and Mrs. Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, gave a familiar lecture, in her own peculiar and pleasing style, of almost one hour and a half’s duration[11].”  Over one hundred and fifty years later, we can only guess at what her speech may have covered.

[1] Albers 1

[2] Albers 47

[3] Booker 114

[4] ibid

[5] Booker 132-133

[6] Nantucket Journal 4/9/1891

[7] Inquirer 2/23/1853

[8] http://www.dorchesteratheneum.org/page.php?id=43

[9] Inquirer and Mirror 2/23/1901

[10] 3/16/1855


newspaper article abolitionist meeting

The Abolitionist Movement

The Atheneum Celebrates Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Movement and Local Abolitionists

By Caitlin Kelley, Atheneum Reference Department

The Atheneum had the great privilege of working with PBS’s American Experience to include Nantucket’s rich abolitionist history in their television series, The Abolitionists.

While conducting research for this project, we found a rich trove of information on the three anti-slavery conventions held at the Atheneum, Frederick Douglass’ speeches in the Great Hall, and of the riotous mob that attacked the library with eggs and stones. The paragraphs included below are just a few of the many examples of Nantucket’s great history.

Frederick Douglass’ First Atheneum Speech at the Anti-Slavery Convention

In the spring of 1841, during an anti-slavery meeting at the Black Episcopal Methodist Zion chapel of New Bedford, William C. Coffin, a Nantucket banker, heard a young Frederick Douglass briefly describe his experience as a slave. Coffin was so impressed with the man’s oratorical ability that he invited Douglass to visit the island and be a guest at Nantucket’s first Anti-Slavery Convention.

Nantucket Atheneum when it was built in 1834

Figure 1. The Nantucket Atheneum as it looked when it was founded in 1834.

Proprietors of the Nantucket Atheneum, including founders, Charles G. Coffin and fervent abolitionist, David Joy, had voted to allow the Anti-Slavery Convention to take place at their sanctuary of learning and culture. The event was held in August over a three day period. Abolitionist orators came from various parts of New England and New York to attend one of the first mixed-race, anti-slavery assemblies in the country. Among them were William Lloyd Garrison, William M. Chase, Charles B. Ray, John A. Collins, James N. Buffum, Paul C. Boward, and Edmund Quincy.

In the evening of the second day of the convention, Frederick Douglass was urged to give a speech. Having never given a full address before, Douglass described the request for him to discourse as “a severe cross,” which he “took up reluctantly” (Douglass 119). In an autobiography he wrote, “The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down” (Douglass 119).While Douglass may have trembled with nerves over the course of his speech, one man who witnessed the event noted that Douglass spoke with “such intellectual power-wisdom as well as wit-that all present were astonished” (May 294).

Video: John Stauffer On Picturing Frederick Douglass

Recorded Aug. 11, 2016, the 175th anniversary of Douglass’ first public speech, which he delivered at the Nantucket Atheneum.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

At the conclusion of Douglass’ speech, William Lloyd Garrison, who was slated to speak next, leapt to his feet to address the audience. “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” he asked (Starbuck 625). A crowd of five hundred people resoundingly shouted “A man! A man” (625) “Shall such a man be held a slave in a Christian land?’” he asked (625) “’No!’ ‘No!’ again shouted the audience, in a voice that seemed to make the rafters ring. Raising his tones to their fullest power, he again exclaimed. ‘Shall such a man ever be sent back to bondage from the free soil of old Massachusetts?’ With a tremendous roar the whole assembly sprang to their feet and continued shouting ‘No!’ ‘No!’ ‘No!’ and Garrison’s voice was drowned” (626).

Second Anti-Slavery Convention, Stephen Foster’s “Brotherhood of Thieves” Speech, and Mobs on Nantucket

Nantucket’s second Anti-Slavery Convention was held in 1842. This assembly, like the first, was held at the island’s Atheneum. Early in the convention radical abolitionist Rev. Stephen Foster delivered a speech of “great energy and vigor,” which incited great anger among a small group of Nantucketers (Austin 2). The contents of his speech were published in a pamphlet the following year titled: The Brotherhood of Thieves; or a True Picture of the American Church and Clergy. Both speech and publication lambasted the clergy for their inaction against slavery, calling them, “a generation of vipers” and their followers, a “brotherhood of thieves.” News of his harsh proclamations quickly spread through Nantucket (Foster 6, Woodward Section C).

The Big Shop, Nantucket

The “Big Shop” as it appeared after the south half was converted into a dwelling in 1848.

The following evening William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Stephen Foster sought to address to the assembly once more, but were prevented from being heard when the Atheneum was beset upon by an angry, riotous mob who, amid hoots and “hideous” screeches, pelted the handsome structure with rotten eggs, bricks, and stones (Austin 2). The Convention was forced to leave the Atheneum the following day, lest the group take up financial responsibility for damages done to the building. A handful of other venues, including the Town Hall, were also set upon by the mob. On the last day of the convention attendees “were consequently obliged to avail themselves of the liberal offer, by its proprietor, of a large boat-builder’s shop, on the outskirts of town,” called Big Shop. (2)

Nantucket’s Third Anti-Slavery Convention

Nantucket’s third Anti-Slavery Convention, held over a weekend in June, 1843, was attended by Frederick Douglass, Cyrus Peirce, famed Nantucket educator and president of the island’s Anti-Slavery Society, Rev. Stephen Foster, George Bradburn, David Joy, and many others. This convention lacked the mob drama, which plagued the second one, and aside from some heated disagreements between attendees, was deemed to “on the whole to have given general satisfaction” (“Liberator”).

During the convention’s sessions board members were appointed, attendees debated the word choice to be used in the group’s resolutions, and lamentations were made over a fellow abolitionist’s arrest. Though Rev. Foster again made harsh allegations against the clergy, it was voted that clergymen from the community should be invited to the convention so that they may have the opportunity to “participate in its proceedings so far as they may feel interested” (Pierce). It is unclear, however, as to whether or not any church officials chose to do so.

The last speeches of the weekend included one by Frederick Douglass, on the appropriateness of the Sabbath as a day to devote oneself to the “dissuasion of American slavery” and some by Rev. Foster (Pierce). The first of his speeches posited that “public prayers and church ceremonies, are in direct violation of the spirit and letter of Christ’s teachings; that living a life of impartial and universal love, and serving our fellow beings is the worship most acceptable to God” (Pierce). Many attendees were opposed to portions of this speech. In the last speech of the convention Foster told of his experience in being imprisoned for “attempting to speak in churches without permission from authorities” and his reasoning for doing so (Pierce).

Frederick Douglass’ 1850 Speech at the New Atheneum

In 1850 Frederick Douglass lectured with J. C. Hathaway at Nantucket’s recently re-built Atheneum, the first having been consumed by the Great Fire of 1846. The two spoke to a large assembly of the evils of the Fugitive Slave Law. According to the Weekly Mirror, Mr. Hathaway had a “good voice” and spoke “with force” (“Weekly Mirror”). They reported too that, “Douglass came down upon the audience with the strength of his native eloquence, and put the Fugitive Slave Law in such a light as to convince one that the breaking of that law was really a virtue” (“Weekly Mirror”). A number of resolutions were passed over the course of the meeting condemning the new law as cruel, unjust, and in violation of the Constitution. It was decided that submitting to such laws was cowardly and that those in attendance would do all they could to repeal it.

Frederick Douglass’ Last Visit to Nantucket and His Final Speech at the Atheneum

Nantucket Atheneum 1885, Harry C. Platt Photographer

Figure 2. The Atheneum photographed in 1885 by Harry C. Platt

Word of Frederick Douglass’ visit spread quickly through the island. He had not visited the island in thirty-five years, a period of time during which Nantucket had changed very much.  The aging abolitionist spoke first at the Unitarian Church. After being introduced to the assembly, Douglass asserted, “he had not come to ask a hearing, but to stand once more on the island of Nantucket” (“Nantucket Journal” 2). “He proposed to show in the course of his remarks the progress of events since he [first] came to Nantucket forty-four years ago, untaught and unlettered from the plantation” (2). He endeavored to speak on the history of the Netherlands, with the intention of drawing parallels between “the people of the Netherlands and the slaves of the South,” but soon realized that his audience had little interest in this topic (2). He switched the course of his speech and told instead of the dedicated work of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and others. He emphasized that without their efforts, slavery would not have been abolished and Lincoln would not have been made president. He encouraged people of the assembly to be patient with recently freed slaves, many of whom struggled to make their way in a land that was hostile to them. He spoke of improvements in the way that he has been treated in America and abroad, noting that now his is a respected American citizen. He expressed his sadness “to find so few of my old friends left.” At the “close of the meeting hundreds pressed forward to shake hands with the distinguished speaker” (2).

Douglass’ last speech on Nantucket was held at the Atheneum. He began his talk by reminiscing about the path of his early life, “his escape from slavery, and his subsequent career” (“Nantucket Journal” 2) The remainder of his speech focused on the sacrifices of radical abolitionist John Brown, whose unsuccessful raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, in West Virginia, led to his capture and subsequent hanging. His lecture “was acknowledged to be one of the most interesting of the course” (“Inquirer and Mirror” 2).

Works Cited:

“A Distinguished Visitor Hon, Frederick Douglas Revisits Nantucket, the Scene of His Debut as a Public Speaker.” Nantucket Journal 20 Aug 1885, Morning. 2. Print

“Atheneum Lecture Course.” Nantucket Journal [Nantucket] 27 Aug 1885, Morning 2. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. 2nd. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 119. Print.

Foster, Stephen. The Brotherhood of Thieves: or, A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy: A Letter to Nathaniel Barney, of Nantucket.  2. Concord, NH: Parker Pillsbury, 1884. Web. http://medicolegal.tripod.com/thieves.htm

“Fugitive Slave Bill.” Weekly Mirror [Nantucket] 19 Oct. 1850, Print.

“Lecture.” Inquirer and Mirror [Nantucket] 29 Aug 1885, 2. Print

May, Samuel J. Some Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict. Boston: Fields, Osgood, & CO., 1869: 294-295. Print.

Pierce, Cyrus. “Proceedings of an Anti-Slavery Convention in Nantucket.” Liberator [Boston] 14 Jul 1843, Print.

“Reflections, Suggested by and Anti-Slavery Meeting.” Liberator [Boston] 14 Jul 1843, n. pag. Print

Starbuck, Alexander. The History of Nantucket Country, Island, and Town. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1969. 625-626. Print.

Woodward, Hobson. “Island Celebrates Career of Frederick Douglass.” Inquirer and Mirror [Nantucket] 8 Aug 1991, Sec. C. Print.