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Some Afro-American Women of Mark

 February 16, 1892 — Brooklyn Literary Union, Brooklyn, NY


We have heard and read much of men of mark of our race, but comparatively little is known of able Afro-American women. It is my delight to present brief sketches of the lives of “Some Afro-American Women of Mark,” having gained my information concerning them from libraries, public and private, from correspondence and from personal knowledge.

Notwithstanding the obstacles that presented themselves to Afro-American women, some of them, self-prompted, and in some cases self-taught, have removed obstacles, lived down oppression and fought their way nobly on to achieve the accomplishment of their aim.

Slavery was the greatest barrier in the way of progress to the African race. History records the fact that slavery was introduced in America in 1620, in Virginia. The slave trade then began by bringing slaves from Africa. This trade continued to grow, and gradually spread throughout the Middle and New England States, except Vermont. Boston, Mass., held her slave markets in common with other cities. In the year 1761, a time when slavery had reached its zenith, was seen one of the most pitiable sights ever witnessed in the Boston slave market, that of eighty girls, of various ages, brought from Africa, each snatched from a mother’s fond embrace by hands most cruel, taken to a slave vessel, huddled together like cattle, with but little clothing to cover their nude forms, a dearth of food and nowhere to rest their weary bodies.
The portion assigned them, the hold of the ship, has been described as having been a room thirteen by twenty-five and five feet eight inches high. Can we imagine the trials, the tortures of these poor innocent girls so situated? As soon as the vessel reached the port of Boston, these girls were taken to the market and advertised for sale, to which sale purchasers flocked. Among the many attending this sale was a Mrs. Wheatley, wife of a Boston merchant. She, although in possession of a number of slaves, was desirous of finding a young slave girl with apparent docile qualities, in order that she might train her to be of service to her in her declining years.

Mrs. Wheatley carefully observed the various expressions of countenances, the many physical differences of this group, and was particularly moved by the meek and bright countenance of one half-sick, fatigued little girl about eight years old, who, to her mind, possessed the requisite qualities. She immediately purchased her, took her home, clothed and fed her, and gave her the name of Phillis Wheatley. Kind words, nourishment and warm clothing made such a marked change in the child that she was now a new being. Mrs. Wheatley, perceiving the child’s improvement physically. still knew that by nature Phillis was unfit for heavy domestic work, and had her taught that which was lighter. Phillis knew no language save that of her native land, and so Mrs. Wheatley deemed it necessary for her welfare, as well as that of the child, to have her taught to speak the English language, and so requested her only daughter, Miss Mary Wheatley, to teach her to speak the English language and, what was most uncommon, to read it.

This was in opposition to the principles of slavery; but Mrs. Wheatley dared to do contrary to the slave owners of her time, doubtless through the Divine inspiration of the Almighty, for God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Miss Wheatley kindly consented to teach Phillis. Much to her surprise, she found Phillis very apt and thirsting for knowledge. Daily she progressed, and in less than two years was able to read the most difficult portions of the Bible with accuracy. Most of her knowledge of writing she acquired through her own efforts, scrutinizing good writing and copying with rude materials upon rough surfaces when paper and pencil were beyond reach. Phillis, unlike other children of her years, sought pleasure in close application to study. Mrs. Wheatley and family determined not to curb the child’s ambition, but to provide her with books and writing material, which were to Phillis the means to procure the end.

Four years from the time Phillis was purchased in the slave market, she was able to write on many subjects that were hardly expected of one double her years. Her correspondence with some friends of Mrs. Wheatley, in England and with Obour Tanner, a fellow-slave, in Newport (supposed to be one of the girls brought from Africa with Phillis, also intelligent), evinced, from her power of expression and originality of thought, a mind of more than ordinary vigor.

Feeling that she had acquired sufficient knowledge of the English language, being then in her seventeenth year, she directed her attention to the study of Latin. In this, as in English, her efforts were crowned with success. In a short time she translated one of Ovid’s tales so admirably that the writing attracted the attention of the learned people of Boston and England, who sought her at the home of the Wheatleys, and, conversing with her, found she was indeed a literary prodigy. This production, coming from a member of an enslaved race, gave rise to so many comments that all America, as well as England, was in a ferment, for it should be remembered that this period did not witness general culture among the masses of white people, and certainly no facilities for the education of the Negroes. The learned people of Boston invited her to their homes, loaned her books and papers. It is safe for me to say, that contact with the great minds of the time constituted one of the best parts of her education. Phillis was sensitive, and understood the prejudice existing against her race, and, while enjoying many privileges denied her kind, still maintained that meek manner characteristic of her when first seen in the slave market, and treated her fellow-slaves with the utmost consideration, winning from all affection. The inquisitive mind of Phillis was continually prompting her to seek the best works; from her study of the muses she acquired a taste for poetry, and successfully wrote many poems, which were characterized by a spirit of gratitude, simplicity, chastity, Christianity. Early she devoted herself to the service of the Lord, and was received in the Old South Church, Boston.

At the age of twenty Phillis was emancipated by her master. It was a source of great delight to her owners to see that, although Phillis had been declared free, she still remained the same, thanking God for His goodness in placing her in such considerable hands:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God; that there’s a Saviour, too.
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye:
“Their color is a diabolic dye:
Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain
May be refined, and join the angelic train.

Signs of precarious health, probably superinduced by too close application to study, became more marked and caused her mistress to become anxious about her. Mrs. Wheatley consulted her physician, who prescribed for Phillis a sea-voyage. Mrs. Wheatley’s only son was about to sail for England on mercantile business, and arrangements were made for Phillis to go with him.

Her poem, entitled “A Farewell to America,” dated May 7, 1773, is the day on which she is supposed to have sailed. George Williams, in his renowned “History of the Negro Race,” says, “She was heartily welcomed by the leaders of the British metropolis and treated with great consideration.” Under all the trying circumstances of high social life among the nobility and rarest literary genius of London, this redeemed child of the desert coupled to a beautiful modesty the extraordinary powers of an incomparable conversationalist. She carried London by storm. Thoughtful people praised her, titled people dined her, and the press extolled the name of Phillis Wheatley, the African poetess.
In England, her book of poems was republished through the earnest solicitation of her friends, and dedicated to the Countess of Huntington, with a picture of Phillis, and a letter of recommendation from her master, signed by many of the leading citizens of Boston. This letter was to repress all doubts that might arise concerning the authorship of the poems. Before she had regained her strength she received a letter from home, telling of the illness of Mrs. Wheatley and requesting her to return. As soon as possible, she was at the bedside of her loved one. Mrs. Wheatley expressed her relief at the presence of Phillis, and seemed perfectly satisfied. Day by day Mrs. Wheatley grew worse; finally the end came, March 3, 1774. This was, indeed, a sad hour for Phillis, for she realized that her best, her dearest friend was gone. Phillis remained in the Wheatley household and resumed her literary work.

When George Washington was appointed by the grand Continental Congress, in 1775, to be Generalissimo of the Armies of North America, Phillis sent him a letter extolling his merits, and also a poem written in his honor, which brought forth the following reply from Washington:

CAMBRIDGE, February 28, 1776.

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you inclosed, and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents.

If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.

I am,
With great respect,

No woman of the race, since the death of Phillis Wheatley, has attracted more attention by her poetic productions than Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. To her is given the honor of being the ablest female lecturer of her race. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore, of free parents, in 1825. She attended the school in Baltimore for free colored children, taught by her uncle, Rev. Peter Watkins, and continued there until her thirteenth year, at which time she was put out to work in a kind and respected family. Although free-born, she suffered much from the oppressive laws that bound her slave-brethren. Like Phillis Wheatley, she possessed an ardent thirst for knowledge. Before she had been employed in this family a year, her poetic productions, especially essays on “Christianity,” attracted the attention of her employers, who encouraged her ambition by giving her the use of their library during her leisure moments. As a result of her communion with the best works, she was able to write many poems, as well as prose pieces, which she had published in a small volume called “Forest Leaves.” This book attracted unusual attention as an earnest of what the writer could do. Feeling herself qualified, she took up teaching. In her own city the opposition was so bitter that she deemed it wise to go to a free State, and chose Ohio for her work.

Here she became dissatisfied and left for York, Penn., to resume her work. Blessed with a spirit of philanthropy, a generous mind and a sound judgment, understanding the wrongs perpetrated on her kind, she set to work to devise some means of ameliorating the condition of the race. In order that she might concentrate her efforts in this direction, she gave up teaching and found her way into the lecture field from the following circumstance: “About the year 1853, Maryland, her native State, had enacted a law forbidding free people of color from the North from coming into the State on pain of being imprisoned and sold into slavery. A free man, who had unwittingly violated this infamous statute, had recently been sold to Georgia, and had escaped thence by secreting himself behind the wheel-house of a boat bound northward; but before he reached the desired haven he was discovered and remanded to slavery. It was reported that he died soon after from exposure and suffering.” In a letter to a friend referring to this outrage, Mrs. Harper thus wrote: “Upon that grave I pledge myself to the anti-slavery cause.” Soon after she left York and went to Philadelphia, then to Boston, to New Bedford. Here she was called upon to deliver an address on the “Education and Elevation of the Colored Race.” In this address she poured forth a stream of eloquence that astonished all present. This occasion marks the beginning of her public career. On she has continued, fearless in her outspoken opinions. She has lectured on freedom in every Southern city except in Arkansas and Texas; has held the position of Superintendent of Colored Work in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union for nearly seven years, and has lectured and written many poems on temperance, exerting a widespread influence.

None felt more keenly the death of John Brown, the noble hero who planned and died for the cause of emancipation, than Mrs. Harper. Tenderly she expressed her sympathy for Mrs. Brown in her bereavement, beseeching God to sustain her in the hour of affliction.

Mrs. Harper was married to Fenton Harper in Cincinnati, November, 1860. She still labored in the literary field, never giving up unless compelled to do so by other duties. On May 23, 1864, occurred the death of Mr. Harper. Some of her best productions are “The Slave Mother,” “To the Union Savers of Cleveland,” “Fifteenth Amendment.” “Moses,” a story of the Nile, deals with the story of the Hebrew Moses, beautifully portrayed by her from his infancy, when exposed on the Nile, found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter; his gratitude to the princess; his flight into Midian and his return into Egypt; his nomadic life, by means of which God prepared him to be the means of deliverance to His people; to his death on Mount Nebo, and his burial in an unknown grave, following closely the account of the Scriptures.

Mrs. Harper is now engaged in writing a book called “Iola,” which is a work on the racial question. May we not hope that the rising generation, at least, will take encouragement by her example and find an argument of race force in favor of mental and moral equality, and, above all, be awakened to see how prejudice and difficulties may be surmounted by continual struggles, intelligence and a virtuous character.

We also find in the lecture field, working for the best interest of her race, Mary Ann Shadd Carey, also an able writer and teacher. Mary Ann Shadd Carey was born in Delaware, and received a better education than was usually obtained by free colored people. As a speaker she ranks deservedly high; as a debater she is quick to take advantage of the weak points of her opponents, forcible in her illustrations, biting in her sarcasm.

The name of Charlotte L. Grimké, nee Forten, appears before me. A woman of rare intellectual gifts, a moral nature full of sympathy and benevolence for her race. Charlotte L. Grimke was born in Philadelphia. Like her predecessors, obstacles in the way of progress presented themselves to her. In her native city, then the most bitterly prejudiced of Northern cities, she was refused admission to institutions of learning, and was sent to school in New England — to Salem, Massachusetts. Here prejudice existed, but not so much as in Philadelphia. She was received into the grammar school at Salem. She was the only colored pupil in the school, and won the esteem of her teachers and fellow-pupils. A short time before graduation from this school, the principal requested each student of the graduating class, of which she was a member, to write a poem to be sung at the closing exercises, the successful competitor to be known only on that day. This proved a stimulus in drawing out the poetic genius of the young aspirants. The manuscripts were collected, each bearing a fictitious name. One of the many was selected and printed on the programme. This was the poem, entitled A PARTING HYMN.

To the surprise of all, this beautiful hymn was written by Charlotte L. Forten, the only colored pupil of her class, the only one of the school, convincing the prejudiced minds of the possibilities of her race.

She next entered the Normal School, from which she graduated, and was offered a position to teach in one of the schools, which offer she accepted, being the first colored woman to teach in a white school. She continued to teach until her health became impaired, and was advised, by her physician, to go South. After recuperating in Philadelphia for a time, she went farther South to teach the freedmen at Port Royal, on the coast of South Carolina, a deeply interesting work to her, and the years spent in that work the most delightful of her life; and while here, at the suggestion of her beloved and life-long friend, Mr. Whittier, she wrote some articles about life there. She afterward resided in Boston and Cambridge, where she became assistant secretary of the Teacher’s Committee of the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society. When this society disbanded, she went to Washington to reside, and there married Rev. Francis J. Grimké, who is well known to us as an eloquent divine. To him she has been a true minister’s wife, and has done much to make his ministerial career successful. She has contributed to the Anti-Slavery Standard, Boston Commonwealth, Boston Christian Register. She has made some translations from the French, among them one of the Eickmann Chatrien Novels, entitled “Madame Therese,” which was published by Scribner some years ago. Of late years Mrs. Grimke has been able to write but little, owing to her continued ill-health, which is the source of deep regret not only to herself, but to her many friends. One of her more recent writings, “A June Song,” was read at the closing exercises of the “Monday Night Literary,” at Cedar Hill, the residence of the Hon. Frederick Douglass.

H. Cordelia Ray, daughter of the late Rev. Chas. B. Ray, is a woman full of savoir-faire, and stands among our able women writers, not only in poetry, but in prose, excelling in poetry in the sonnet, in prose critical literature. Miss Ray was born and educated in New York City, and began to weave verses at the age of ten years. Among her poems are “The Mist-maiden,” “The Hermit of the Soul,” “Dante,” “Antigone and Edipus,” “Reverie,” “Hour’s Glory,” “Lincoln” (written by request and recited for the unveiling of the Freedmen’s monument at Washington in memory of Abraham Lincoln). This poem was quite widely copied in the papers.

Among the group of illustrative sonnets are, “Shakespeare, the Poet,” “Raphael, the Artist,” “Beethoven, the Musician,” “Emerson, the Philosopher,” “Sumner, the Statesman,” “Toussaint L’Overture, the Patriot,” “Wendell Phillips, the Philanthropist.” Miss H. Cordelia Ray teaches in Grammar School No. 80, New York City, of which Professor Charles L. Reason is principal.

In June, 1891, the University of the City of New York held their commencement exercises. At this commencement, first in the history of education, university pedagogical degrees were conferred. An event of historic interest. Fourteen members of the University School of Pedagogy received the degree of Doctor of Pedagogy, and twelve the degree of Master of Pedagogy. Of the twelve, I am proud to say, three were colored ¾ Miss H. Cordelia Ray, of whom I have just spoken, Miss Florence T. Ray and Miss Mary Eato. Miss J. Imogen Howard now attends the university, and will be the next to receive the degree of Master of Pedagogy.

Mrs. Sarah J. S. Garnet has proved herself the pioneer for the maintenance of colored schools, and an advocate of the higher education of women. Mrs. Garnet is a teacher of varied experience. She has filled the positions from the lowest primary grades. She was an assistant in Grammar School No. 1, Mulberry Street, New York, principal of Primary Department No. 3, Brooklyn, and afterward appointed principal of Grammar School No. 81, Seventeenth Street, New York, where she has served faithfully twenty-six years. Being a member of the National Teachers’ Association for many years, and many times the only colored representative from this section of the country, she has enjoyed extensive travel over our own country and is well up in points of interest and information as regards the educational system and general development of our own country. As a philanthropist, nothing of interest to the race within her power and ability to be achieved has been lost. All opportunities are carefully watched and treasured for opportune development.

In Philadelphia, we find Mrs. Fannie Jackson Coppin, principal of the Philadelphia Institute for, Colored, Youth, an acute thinker, an eloquent speaker, a benefactress to her race. Mrs. Coppin was born in the District of Columbia about the year 1837, and was left an orphan when quite young. She was brought up by her aunt, Mrs. Clark. In Washington the opportunities for education were limited, that is to say for the race. Anxious to gain knowledge, she left and went to New Bedford, in her sixteenth year, where she began the studies of the higher branches. She entered Oberlin College and graduated with honor. Through her untiring efforts, the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth was founded for the purpose of giving Negro children an industrial as well as an intellectual education. This institution is a success. Says John Durham, now minister to Hayti, of Mrs. Coppin and her work: “Long before the industrial-training idea threatened to become a fad, she had introduced it into this institute for boys and girls. Had she been other than an American colored woman, or had she not had to struggle against the characteristic conservatism of the Society of Friends, she would have been one of the most famous of America’s school reform instructors. As it is she works on modestly, indeed, too self-deprecating; eminent, but without notoriety.”

It is said that the science of medicine has been regarded as ranking among the most intricate and delicate pursuits man could follow. Not long ago, woman began to feel that the science of medicine was not too intricate, not too delicate for her to follow, and so set herself to work to gain admission to some of the schools of medicine, that she, too, might become equipped with the necessary medical training, that would enable her to relieve the wants of suffering humanity. Nowhere was greater opposition to be found than in the profession and in the community.

It was doubted as to whether she was physically able to endure the hardships necessarily implied in an active practice. Slowly the portals of medicine opened to her, and earnestly she pursued her study. Afro-American women, best fitted by nature and education, have, like their white sisters, labored, although in the presence of more opposition, and met with success in the science of medicine. Those of mark are: Dr. Consuello Clark, Cincinnati; Dr. Caroline Anderson, Philadelphia; Dr. Hall Tanner and Dr. Susan McKinney. Dr. Susan McKinney leads the van in opening a sphere of usefulness. Dr. Susan McKinney, nee Smith, was born in Brooklyn, her father being the late Sylvanus Smith. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in mentioning and giving accounts of some able and noted colored people in Brooklyn, gave this interesting account of Dr. Susan McKinney:

“Dr. McKinney is a striking instance of force of character, conquering extraordinary, almost obdurate obstacles, and achieving success in the midst of difficulties that would dismay a giant. She not only had to overcome the prejudice against female practitioners, but those against her race. Her spirit was equal to the task, however, and at this moment her reputation is such that any woman, irrespective of color, might be proud of it. Dr. McKinney was a student in the Woman’s Medical College, New York, under Dr. Clement Lozier, a professional woman of liberal ideas, a strong battler against the prejudice of caste, who first advocated the admission of colored women into the college. Shortly after Dr. McKinney’s graduation she commenced to practice, an uphill course. Patients were slow in coming; her own race apparently mistrusted the skill of a colored medical woman. While she belongs to a class, that of Homeopathy, at that time discountenanced by the masses, she persevered and is now well established.”

In former years she had sustained herself as a teacher in a public school, this city, out of the earnings of which position she defrayed her college expenses. That experience nerved her to struggle desperately for a standing in the medical profession at a juncture when to be courageous appeared foolish, so hopeless seemed the future. Dr. McKinney is one of the doctors on the medical staff of the Woman’s Dispensary, on Classon Avenue, a member of the King’s County and the New York Staff and City Society of Homeopathy, and a member of the Alumni Society. She has lectured on subjects bearing on her profession in several cities. One of the faculty of the college from which she graduated took the pains to look her up and engage her to attend a female member of his family, giving as his reason for so doing that she was, he thought, the brightest member of the class from which she was graduated. This was a high authority, and, therefore, complimentary to Dr. Susan McKinney.

The race points with pride to Edmonia Lewis, the greatest of her race in the art of sculpture. Her latent genius was stirred at the sight of a statue of Benjamin Franklin, in Boston. “I, too, can make a stone man,” she said. She expressed her desire in this direction to William Lloyd Garrison, “that great Apostle of Human Liberty,” and begged his advice. William Lloyd Garrison encouraged her and gave her a letter to the greatest sculptor of Boston, who, after reading the note, gave her a model of a human foot and some clay, and said, “Go home and make that; if there is anything in you it will come out.” Delighted, she went, and worked out a copy. As soon as it was finished she returned to the sculptor. He was not pleased with it and broke it up, telling her to try again. She was not discouraged, for she was determined to achieve success in this art. Again she tried and obtained victory. “She has won a position as an artist, a studio in Rome, and a place in the admiration of lovers of art on two continents.” Her studio in Rome is an object of interest to all European travelers. The most prominent of her works are, “Hagar in the Wilderness,” a group of “Madonna with the Infant Christ and two adoring Angels,” “Forever Free,” “Hiawatha’s Wooing,” a bust of Longfellow the poet, a bust of John Brown, and a medallion portrait of Wendell Phillips. There are other Afro-American women of mark, brief accounts of whose lives I would be pleased to give, but the limited space will not permit.

We young women of the race have a great work to do. We have noble and brilliant examples of women, who, under all trying circumstances, have labored earnestly for the elevation of their race, their sex. Let us strive, with the advantages of a higher education, to carry out the aim of our noble predecessors ¾ the success of the futurity of the race.



Source: AME Church Review 8, no. 4, April 1892, pp. 384-38.


Also: The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, (New York: Penguin) 2017, pp. 586-588.