Famous Black Woman Spurned by Racist

Ida B. Wells Activist Against Lynching

Susan B. Anthony Champions Ida B. Wells

In 1895, Susan B. Anthony went out for the day instructing her (white)
stenographer to help her guest, journalist Ida B. Wells, to catch up on her
correspondence. When Susan returned, the journalist was doing her own typing
while the stenographer sat idle. Asked why she was not helping Wells, the white
woman responded with a racial slur.

On the spot, Susan fired her. Losing this employee came at quite a cost
to Susan, who had hired the stenographer to help handle an oppressive mountain
of paperwork.

Ida B. Wells was one of the most famous black women of the late
19th century. Three years before visiting Anthony, she owned a press
in Memphis, TN. There the lynching of three friends jolted her into activism. The black men started a grocery across the street from awhite man’s grocery, cutting into the latter’s profits. A mob of whites trashed the blacks’ store and, in the melee, three white men suffered injuries. In short order, the mob jailed and lynched the black grocers.

Investigative Journalism

After that, Wells wrote Lynch Laws in Georgia, showing that,
contrary to the popular belief, lynching was not reserved for black criminals.
Instead, her investigative reports showed, it was used to terrorize and subdue
African-Americans who threatened the economic and political clout of whites.

Her paper urged black townspeople to leave Memphis, prompting 6,000 people to do
so. Soon, she experienced death threats and the destruction of her office and
press. After she moved to Chicago, her stories received widespread coverage in
other black-owned presses nationwide. She never stopped fighting for justice
for African-Americans and women, and founded several national organizations.

Some statements by Susan B. Anthony have been interpreted as racist.
However, Susan’s treatment of Ida B. Wells, as well as Susan’s early career as an abolitionist, give some evidence to the contrary.

Mary Bowser, Confederate White House Spy

Even now, it’s hard to get a clear description of Mary Bowser, who greatly aided the North by spying on the Confederate White House during the Civil War. Maybe that’s because she wanted it that way.

Here is the closest we can come to facts about her life. Mary Bowser (AKA Richards) was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, VA, and later freed by Elizabeth Van Lew, heiress to the family fortune. Van Lew sent Bowser to school in the North and later as a missionary to Liberia, a nation of free blacks. Upon her return to the U.S., she lived in Van Lew’s household as a servant and was eventually hired out to work in the Confederate White House.

Successful Spy Network

Van Lew disguised her activities by presenting herself as mentally ill—“Crazy Bet,” they called her. She had a very successful spy network of a dozen men and women who were both white and black. Even though Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina knew that there was a spy in their midst, they never suspected Bowser, who appeared as an illiterate, dumb servant. After all, very few black men in the South could read and write, even less likely a woman.

Van Lew said, “Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion, and prudence which is wonderful.”

Teacher of Former Slaves

After the Civil War, Mary Bowser quickly went to work educating formerly enslaved people for the Freedmen’s Bureau; her only known correspondence was from this period of her life. During this time, she single-handedly taught a hundred Sunday school pupils as well as 70 day students and 12 adult night students. Two years later, after meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, she disappeared entirely from the historical record.

Here is a link to a historical novel about Bowser.

Here is a link to a historical novel about Van Lew.

One More River to Cross at Underground Railroad Heritage Area

 

When fleeing slaves from the southern U.S. reached Niagara Falls, they knew they had one more river to cross. But what a river it was with its roiling cataract. The new Underground Railroad Heritage Area in Niagara Falls, NY. chronicles some of the notable African-Americans who escaped across the river and helped others to make their way to freedom.

Recently I had the privilege of touring the new museum. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Underground Railroad” refers to a series of places where escaping slaves could receive shelter and assistance after leaving the South. Following the North Star, they headed for the northern U.S., where slavery was outlawed.

However, after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, bounty hunters could recapture slaves in the north and return them to bondage. For this reason, it was far better for these fugitives to go all the way to Canada. When they reached Niagara Falls, they had one more river to cross.

Anthony Involvement in the Underground Railraoad

The Anthony family approved of this civil disobedience of helping slaves escape. They hosted many antislavery dinners at their farm home in Rochester, and three of their children (Susan, D.R., and Merritt) campaigned against slavery with speeches, petition campaigns, and physical warfare. Among the family’s closest friends were Undergound Railroad “conductors” (owners of safe houses) Amy and Isaac Post and Frederick Douglass.

Active or Passive Escapees?

Sometimes conductors used the code word “parcel” for a fugitive needing assistance. This term erroneously suggests that freedom seekers were passive goods carried away from slavery by other (usually white) people’s initiatives. The term gives little credit to the courage and intelligence exhibited by fleeing slaves themselves. (I strove for the correct balance in The Truth About Daniel, when I wrote about the escape of Randall Burton on Martha’s Vineyard.)

The Underground Railroad Heritage Area tips the racial balance by showing black abolitionists at work, united in the effort to help freedom seekers cross their last barrier  to freedom, the Niagara River.. A daring feat, to say the least. More next time.

 

 

New Underground Railroad Exhibit at Niagara Falls

A whole new source of information on the Underground Railroad is opening next weekend in Niagara Falls, starting May 4. I’m excited because it will offer more in-depth background for my historical novels in The Dauntless Series, featuring abolitionists Daniel Read Anthony and his sister Susan.

Here’s the scoop on the new museum:

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

825 Depot Avenue W.
Niagara Falls, NY 14305

Why is this new museum important?

States bordering Canada, particularly in the East, were the last frontier for enslaved people seeking freedom before the Civil War. Niagara Falls, NY, just across the river from Canada, admitted many freedom seekers traveling through New York State. I am familiar with many such stories that took place near my home in Rochester, and always wondered what happened to those travelers after they left here.

Gala Opening

The opening weekend includes a gala on Friday, a dinner on Saturday, and community day (for the general public) on Sunday. Thereafter it will assume a regular schedule.Read all about it here.

Their website offers some intriguing and detailed stories about an organized group of African-American waiters who risked their lives and businesses to help enslaved people to cross the border. Click on the tab “Underground Railroad Sites” to read about these individuals and some of the places where those escapes occurred.

For those of us who love the grandeur of the falls at Niagara, it’s just one more reason to visit this well-known northern city. Hope to see you there!

The Anthony Connection

Daniel and Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, about 60 miles from the famous falls at Niagara. Each of them, but especially Daniel, lent a hand to escaping fugitives. It would not have been unusual for either of them to visit Niagara Falls, since it was already a well-known tourist attraction during their time. Already my mind is conjuring up images of them speaking to a waiter and setting foot on one of the paths that led to river crossings.

Agitators Prevailed

The story of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass packed a full house tonight, the opening of “The Agitators.” Rochester’s famous reformers really showed their mettle at this fine play at GEVA Theater. Actors Madeleine Lambert and Cedric Mays delivered the pair’s famous arguments with conviction and humor against a massive timeline that resembled the double arches of the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridge in Rochester.

“Agitation is the spark of all change”

This is one of my favorite quotes from the play, and served as the theme to portray the lifelong friendship between these reformers. Especially moving were the scenes where the pair toured Frederick’s burned-out home; where they fought over the enfranchisement of black men before women; and where he begged Susan not to hold a women’s rights convention in a southern state where black women were not welcome.

Personally, I enjoyed the proslavery mob scene and the final vignette about Ida Wells, which both figured prominently in my book Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All.

Want to read more about these two revolutionaries? Get your own copy of this easy read that portrays Susan’s entire life. Great for students, too!

Vineyard Woman with Nerves of Steel

Today’s heroine for Women’s History Month is Beulah Vanderhoop of Martha’s Vineyard, a maritime conductor on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. She had the courage it took to assist as many as eight ex-slaves to safety and in my novel, profoundly affected Annie Osborn of Edgartown.
Though Vanderhoop is firmly grounded in history, the details about her are many and somewhat conflicting. Depending on which account you believe, she was either full or half Wampanoag, a member of the Native American tribe who populated the Island long before white settlers. In a custom not uncommon on the Vineyard, she was married to an African-American from Surinam.

Vanderhoop is the woman elsewhere identified by The Vineyard Gazette’s September 29, 1854 account of two women coaxing Randall Burton out of a swamp near Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) and taking him to her home on Gay Head (now Aquinnah)—a distance of some 15 miles; another account says that he was brought to her home on the Wampanoag settlement at the furthest reach of the island. One version has her sailing him six miles across Vineyard Sound to New Bedford, while another suggests that another tribal member did it.

Beulah welcomed Burton into her home and fed him. One can imagine his appetite after being nearly starved hiding for months in a Florida swamp, stowing away on board a north-bound ship for at least five days, and then hiding in the Vineyard’s swamp for three days. All accounts agree that his enjoyment of his meal was short-lived, however, for the pro-slavery sheriff did his best to gather a posse, paying $1 to every man who would help him hunt and recapture the fugitive.

Though the sheriff wanted to search the Wampanoag homes, he had to leave the settlement empty-handed and come back six hours later with a warrant. That delay was enough for some of the Natives to arm themselves with guns, pitchforks, and clubs against the sheriff’s return and for others to undertake the arduous crossing of Vineyard Sound and Buzzard’s Bay, which can involve difficult headwinds and dangerous shoals. For a modern account of such a crossing, as well as some beautiful photos, click here.

True to form, some accounts say that Burton moved on to Canada, while others say that he remained for seven years gainfully employed in New Bedford, just across the Sound from the Vineyard. Personally, I like the one that says that every year he visited Beulah to thank her.

Photo by Jeanne Gehret

Abolition Families Join Forces in Rochester, NY

In 1847,  two prominent abolition families became neighbors when Frederick Douglass settled in Rochester, NY near the Anthonys. There, he began publishing his abolitionist paper The North Star (later called Frederick Douglass’ Paper).

Douglass established his writing and speaking career in New Bedford (near Boston). Eventually, however, his rising fame threatened or inspired jealousy in some of the luminaries of the movement—most notably William Lloyd Garrison—so he set out in search of a new home.

Continue reading

Black History Month: Another Rochester Hero

I’m still processing, both mentally and photographically, what I saw this week at the Talman Building. But here’s one tidbit I brought back for you: my heroine Harriet Jacobs, who self-published this book before the Civil War, had a reading room one floor above Frederick Douglass’s office in the Talman Building. What an amazing, brave woman she was!

If you want to experience for yourself how small a space Harriet hid in for seven years, visit the very worthwhile Underground Railroad exhibit at the Rochester Museum & Science Center. If you can spare the time, plan to spend at least an hour there.

We have much to consider this month! More on Harriet–and Douglass and the Talman Building– later, I promise.

 

Black History Month: Harriet Tubman

History books used to state that the African-American slaves gained their liberty through the intervention of various whites, from President Lincoln with his Emancipation Proclamation to John Brown with his fiery sword. Now we are beginning to realize that those enslaved people were anything but inanimate “parcels” on a carefully laid-out railroad, but were highly involved in achieving their own freedom. The next few posts will explore this theme because  the Underground Railroad plays a prominent role in The Truth About Daniel, just released this month. First, let’s begin with that giant of freedom, Harriet Tubman, whose image will soon be featured on the $20 bill.

Tubman was most active during a ten-year period starting in 1849, when she made her own escape from bondage. By 1856, her face was plastered on a “Wanted” poster offering a $40,000 reward to stop her forays that led hundreds of other blacks to a new life in the North. All told, she made the perilous journey back into slave country at least 19 times by 1860, a year before the Civil War began; before and during the war she freed about 1,000 slaves. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery himself, said that except for John Brown, no one had endured more perils and hardships to help others in bondage than Harriet Tubman.

Here’s a photo I took in 2013 at the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, NY, which has since become a national historic landmark. Here she housed numerous impoverished black people and raised pigs to feed them. She called this charitable enterprise her “last work” and died at the age of 93.