Today's Nantucket

Posthumous Honorary Diploma for African American Activist & Abolitionist

The Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) is partnering with the Museum of African American History Boston & Nantucket, the Town of Nantucket, and Nantucket Public Schools to present a posthumous honorary Nantucket High School diploma to Nantucket native and education advocate, Eunice Ross (1823-1895), during the 2024 graduation ceremonies June 14.  

“This year marks the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education which ended segregation in America’s public schools. Eunice Ross’s story highlights the inherent injustice experienced by generations of Black children pursuing their education,” said Dr. Noelle Trent, President and CEO, Museum of African American History| Boston & Nantucket. “The fight to end discrimination in public schools extends to all parts of the country. Honoring Eunice Ross acknowledges her sacrifice, and the long legacy of the civil rights struggle in this country,” said Trent.

Ross, a young African American woman, was instrumental in the integration of the Nantucket High School system. In 1839, at the age of 17, Ross passed the entrance examination required to attend Nantucket High School; however, her admission was rejected by the school committee based solely on race. At the time, the island’s Black students were confined to a one-room schoolhouse whose curriculum Ross had outgrown. Although her admission was denied and motions to overturn the Town Meeting decision failed, it sparked activists and abolitionists to fight for school desegregation, locally and nationally. The town’s refusal to admit Ross to Nantucket High School in 1840 resulted in the first law in the United States guaranteeing equal access to education.

“The awarding of this posthumous honorary diploma to Eunice Ross is so very important because it affirms Nantucket Public Schools’ dedication to fostering an inclusive learning environment where every student has the opportunity to thrive. We not only celebrate Ross’s enduring impact on our community but also acknowledge our ongoing commitment towards educational equity and justice in our schools and on our island,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hallett, Ed.D. Superintendent, Nantucket Public Schools.

Two books written by author, educator, and Nantucket Historical Association fellow Barbara Ann White which reference Ross, A Line in the Sand: The Battle to Integrate Nantucket Public Schools 1825-1847 and Live to Tell the Truth: The Life and Times of Cyrus Peirce inspired Dr. Kimal McCarthy, Nantucket’s first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, to pursue his education.

“Honoring Eunice Ross will mark an important moment in our community,” said McCarthy. “We have an opportunity to acknowledge the past, celebrate the life and contributions of a proud Nantucket native, and at long last right a wrong.”

Shantaw Bloise-Murphy, Director of Culture and Tourism for the Town of Nantucket believes that awarding Eunice Ross with this long deserved honorary diploma marks a significant historic moment in the community’s history.

“The Town of Nantucket and the School Committee’s courageous action in presenting this posthumous award will not erase the wrongs committed against Ross nearly 200 years ago. However, it is a step in the right direction, and frankly a long time coming. This community has always been inhabited by trailblazers and today we honor one of our very own, at last,” said Bloise-Murphy.

The presentation of Ross’ honorary diploma will be led by Hallett and accepted by Bloise-Murphy during the Nantucket High School graduation ceremony on Friday, June 14.

According to Niles Parker, Gosnell Executive Director, Nantucket Historical Association, recognizing the contributions of Eunice Ross is a milestone in the town’s rich history.

“By collaborating with the Town of Nantucket, Nantucket High School, and the Museum of African American History| Boston & Nantucket, we will focus attention on a courageous and accomplished young African American woman while showcasing a chapter in our shared history that resonates across the country. Eunice Ross’s fight for equality, and the story of those who supported her, is worthy of attention. It is part of the diverse fabric of Nantucket history and should not be forgotten,” said Parker.

Copies of the honorary diploma will become part of the NHA’s and the MAAH’s permanent collections.

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