Nantucket Woman Ventures South to Teach Freed Slaves After the Civil War

Aug 28, 2017

Annie Nahar attended Nantucket High School, shown here in 1856.
Credit Nantucket Historical Association

Annie Nahar was born in 1844. Records of her life are spotty, but the little information available reveals a woman of remarkable courage.

“In Elizabeth and Abraham Nahar’s household, suddenly there was a 10-year old girl and an 18-year old girl, named Annie Mattie and Geostina, who hadn’t been there before,” said Nantucket historian Karttunen. “And because Elizabeth’s brother was very active in the Underground Railroad, we began to think maybe these children had been placed by Elizabeth’s brother and were being given protection.”

The Nantucket public schools were integrated in 1846. Annie Nahar attended Nantucket High School during the Civil War, and one of Annie’s teachers was a Quaker woman named Anna Gardner.

“Anna had been a teacher in the African school. One of the things that happened during the fight for integration was that she refused to teach in a segregated school any more. She very bravely as a middle-aged woman decided that she would go and establish schools for freedmen in the South,” said Karttunen.

Gardner encouraged other Nantucket women to join her, and Annie Nahar decided to go – the only woman of color to volunteer. She and a group of other island women ended up traveling to New Orleans to become teachers - an extremely risky endeavor, especially for Annie, a woman of color in the Deep South just after the Civil War.

“People would go by on the railroad and shoot into her school,” Karttunen said. “New Orleans was a pretty dangerous place in June of 1864 when she arrived. A couple of years later, there were terrific riots in New Orleans, and we think that’s probably why she left New Orleans for a couple of years and went to teach in San Antonio, Texas.”

The McDonough School in New Orleans, where Annie Nahar was a teacher and then principal.
Credit Frances Karttunen

Annie Nahar eventually made her way back to New Orleans, becoming principal of the McDonough School in New Orleans, which was established by a bequest of a wealthy slave-owner.

“McDonough was said to be a rather reclusive plantation owner who lived on his plantation in Louisiana quite all by himself with his slaves. And then when he died he left all the money from his plantation to be used for the free schooling of children regardless of race,” said Fran Karttunen.

After a year as principal at the McDonough School, Annie married, had a son, and moved to Queens, New York. Within ten years, she was widowed and went back to teaching in Queens. She taught there for another decade, eventually moved to Connecticut with her son.

Annie Nahar largely remains a mystery woman who grew up on Nantucket, and took on a very dangerous and courageous task to improve the lives of others. There are no surviving photos of her, nor did she leave behind any journals or other writings about her life. Her obituary mentions only that she was a resident of Queens, New York, and that there was a family plot in the local cemetery. It leaves out her accomplishments as a teacher of freedmen in the Deep South, and later as a school principal.

Annie never returned to Nantucket. She died in 1931.