Windham Life and Times – March 4, 2022

An Extraordinary African American Life: Nancy Gardner Prince (IV)

Nancy Gardner Prince continued to live in St. Petersburg, Russia where she made elegant children’s clothing “exquisitely crafted in the French and English styles,” that were purchased by the Czarina herself and other members at court. “The cold of climate did not agree with Nancy and after 9 1/2 years she departed St. Petersburg without her husband with the expectation he would follow shortly. She never saw him again. Nero Prince died in 1833 without returning to Boston.”

   Nancy Prince had no children of her own. “She held deep religious convictions apparently acquired from Backus (Tobias Wornton), her grandfather. She supported the anti-slavery movement. The remainder of her life was devoted to these missions, the anti-slavery movement, and the welfare of children; so important to her that it involved several trips to Jamaica and the West Indies. In Kingston, Jamacia she was an activist for children and here helped establish and orphanage.” 

    On her return from Russia, Nancy Prince “made her home at Rev. J.W. Holman’s, a Free Will Baptist until I sailed for Jamaica. There had been an anti-slavery society established by W.L. Garrison, Knapp and other philanthropists of the day. The design was the amelioration of the nominally free colored people of these States, and the emancipation of the slaves in other States. These meetings I attended with much pleasure, until a contention broke out among themselves; there has been a great change in some things, but much remains to be done; possibly I may not see so clearly as some, for the weight of Prejudice has again oppressed me, and were it not for the promises of God, one’s heart would fail, for He made man in his own image, in the image of God, created him male and female…”

    In her book she tells that “My mind, after the emancipation in the West Indies, was bent on going to Jamacia. A field of usefulness seemed spread out before me. While I was thinking about it, the Rev. Ingraham, who had spent several years there arrived in the city. He lectured in the city at the Marlboro Chapel, on the results arising from emancipation at the British Islands… He wished some one to go with him to his station, He called on me with the Rev. William Collier, to persuade me to go…I left America November, 16th, 1840 in the ship Scion, Captain Mansfield, bound for Jamaica…”     

    Prudence Fish, a historian of Gloucester describes Nancy Gardner’s story this way: “Just think about this story.  She was raised in the poorest conditions in Newburyport, then Gloucester.  Her life was a life of constant struggle and discomforts. In her younger days she endured cruel employers. Money Vose was an often cruel stepfather.  She was constantly worried about her siblings. Think of the financial burden she shouldered, the long walks to Salem and then to Boston in bad weather suffering frostbite in an effort to help feed her mother and siblings. Just think of young Nancy in the summer in Dogtown where she picked blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and whortleberries to peddle in Gloucester for money to feed the family. Then imagine the improbability of finding herself in St. Petersburg, Russia being presented to the czar sitting on his throne!  Consider the sights she saw; palaces in Russia, the cities of Europe she visited then living in the tropics with long ocean voyages back and forth.  It is hard to get one’s head around her story.  Imagine how she must have felt.”

     “Nancy Gardner Prince died in Boston in 1859. She was 60 years old. Her cause of death was listed as dropsy. That old fashioned term usually meant edema caused by congestive heart failure.”

      In discussing Black history with local historians, they emphasized to me that racism, poverty and injustice was the lot of basically all African Americans in New England in the 18th and 19th century. Certainly that was the case for many, even for those that rose above it. However, in my research, over and over again, I find incredible stories of New England Blacks moving beyond their adversity and lifting themselves up, demonstrating their perseverance and fortitude. The life of Nancy Gardiner Prince is one such story and the Lew family of Dracut/Lowell is another, and I’m sure there are many, many others yet to be rediscovered and told. The other finding that astonished me, was that many institutions, particularly religious institutions in New England were integrated. Nancy Gardner attended the white Congregationalist church in Gloucester with her grandfather, Tobias Wornton, who was “very active” and “well-respected.” The Lew family was active in the Pawtucket Church on Mammoth Road. Lew passed along the family’s musical gift to his children and the family was active in the church’s choir. It should also be noted that the church organized the first anti-slavery meeting in the area in 1832.” Here in Windham  there were pews provided for the African Americans. And we now understand that over 5,000 men of full or partial Black descent fought in an integrated army in the Revolutionary War. Later on, with the onset of the Abolitionist movement, African Americans began to establish their own institutions like churches in Boston and the Prince Hall African American Masonic Lodge. This all leads to my final point; we should never discard or hide our history because it is too “painful,” or “racist.” It is so important that we look at history through a neutral lens. If we are ever to understand who we are as a people and how we became who we are, history, in all of its gory and glorious details must be upheld and preserved. Black history was hidden in New England because it was inconvenient for the abolitionist with their religious fervor for freeing the slaves in the South to admit that some of their grandfathers had owned slaves. So all of this history that is just now being rediscovered was hidden with the same justification that is being used today to hide and destroy our common American experience. Growing up in a mostly white New England, my perception of Blacks in the cities was that they had come in the Great Northward Migration of the twentieth century. The fact is that many Black families have been in New England as long as mine and it’s important we understand this fact.  I am very thankful to the historians of local town historians who recorded New England’s African-American history, of which we would know very little without their care in recording history as it was.

Mrs. Prince ended her book with the poem…

The Hiding Place.

Amid this world’s tumultuous noise, For peace my soul to Jesus flies; If I’ve an interest in his grace, I want no other hiding place.

The world and all it charms is vain, Its wealth and honors I disdain: All its extensive aims embrace, Can ne’er afford a hiding place. A guilty, sinful heart is mine, Jesus unbounded love is thine! When I behold thy smiling face, Tis then I see my hiding place.

To save, if one my Lord engage, The world may laugh, and Satan rage: The powers of hell can ne’er erase My name from God’s own hiding place… Should dangers thick impede my course, O let my soul sustain no loss; Help me run the Christian race, And enter safe my hiding place.

Then with enlarged powers of love, I’ll triumph in redeeming grace; Eternal ages will I praise My Lord for such a hiding place.

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