Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement by Jessie Morgan-Owens
Then, Morgan-Owens piqued my curiosity when she noted that the most popular literary genre of the mid-1850s was the sentimental anti-slavery novel, and that most of those books were written by white women authors. I am an aspiring white woman author. Was there something empowering in wondering how I too could have assisted with such a great turn in our country’s history?
The writer most notably remembered today is Harriet Beecher Stowe. I confess I haven’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I understand its historical significance. What I didn’t know, however, before reading Morgan-Owens’ book, is that the fugitive slaves depicted in Stowe’s story passed for white, and it was their appearance, their relatability, that evoked sympathy of their harborers.
Following Stowe’s literary success, writer Mary Hayden Green Pike soared to success with her tale of Ida May: A Story of Things Actual and Possible. Ida May is a fictional story about a five-year-old white girl who was kidnapped from the north, painted a light brown color and sold into slavery. White readers at the time were scandalized into action. Could this happen to them? Had this happened?
In 1855, when Senator Charles Sumner crossed paths with a little slave girl named Mary Mildred Wiliams who appeared white, he pronounced her a real-life “Ida May” and used her as a political vehicle to gain sympathy for the abolition movement. And it worked -- to a point.
Sumner never wavered in his passion for the movement, but his ideals failed to align with those of African-American slaves. As Morgan-Owens eloquently describes,
“Sumner’s strategy generated sympathy, but at a high cost. By confirming racial difference -- white slave equals white sympathy -- he did not call for sympathy and, more crucially, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for persons of color.” (171)
Addressing a full audience in Boston’s Tremont Temple as the long-awaited last speaker in a lecture series on anti-slavery discourse, Senator Charles Sumner said, among other things, that,
“While discountenancing all prejudice of color and every establishment of caste, the Anti-Slavery Enterprise at least so far as I may speak for it -- does not undertake to change human nature, or to force any individual into relations of life which he is not morally, intellectually and socially adapted.” (213)
Morgan-Owens decodes his meaning further when she explains that “the phrase “relations of life” disassociated the antislavery enterprise from advocating for a wide range of other social rights for African Americans, such as rights to interracial marriage, to vote, and to own property...A pernicious thought poisoned the well. Sumner attacked slavery, but he tolerated segregation.” (213)
Abolitionist Frederick Douglas heard the speech and delineated his disappointment in a letter to his “comrade” Charles Sumner:
“I may be a little sensitive on the subject of our social position. I think I have become more so of late, because I have detected, in some of my old comrades, something like a falling away from their first love, touching the recognition of the entire manhood and social equality of the colored people. I do not mean by this, that every colored man, without regard to his character or attainments, shall be recognized as socially equal to white people who are in these respects superior to him; but I do mean to say that the simple fact of color should not be the criterion by which to ascertain or to fix the social station of any. Let every man, without regard to color, go wherever his character and abilities naturally carry him. And further, let there be no public opinion ready to repel any who are in these respects fit for high social position.” (214, letter from Frederick Douglas to Charles Sumner, April 24, 1855)
Reading Douglas’ words makes me wonder if Sumner fought against the lesser of two evils in order to ensure a victory. He had an argument against the institution of slavery. But he could not gain support for the elevation of his fellow man.
Jessie Morgan-Owens uses the story of Mary Mildred Williams to paint a more sickening story than the offenses of any one particular slave-owner or slave-catcher (as in The Underground Railroad or Sing, Unburied, Sing or Twelve Years a Slave). She gives you the entire twisted society on a platter, where Northerners and Southerners dine at the same table, and where, in the middle of it all, the Yellow House slave jail, “this place of terror and woe...was within plain sight of the U.S. Capitol”. (47)
This story reminded me of the sway Captain James Riley had over Abraham Lincoln as a young boy when he wrote about his experiences as a white slave on the Sahara after being shipwrecked there (as I wrote about in Your sacrifices are not in vain). We want our morality to be in the “right place”, but perhaps, like skin color, it isn’t always as black and white as it seems.
What then, can we learn from this? Is it wrong to have sympathy for those who look like you? What did those white women writers and white abolitionists really accomplish? And would they have engaged as many in the war against slavery had they embraced the notion of fighting for the civil rights of all people?
Perhaps I can take the lead from the author here, who, in her acknowledgements, explains:
“Mary was a child of a mixed race, whose family ought to have a place in American history, and whose childhood was marked by race in ways that I, as a woman raised white, cannot fully, viscerally understand. For this, I was particularly thankful for opportunities to share research with scholars of color, who gave open-handed feedback on this project. It is crucial to recognize where your knowledge simply cannot extend, and where the only remedy will be found in other people.” (283)
What might have happened if Charles Sumner had internalized Frederick Douglas’s requests and modified his speeches to reflect them?
And what can we learn from listening to marginalized voices speaking close to us?
As Morgan-Owens notes, the life of Mary Mildred Williams was mainly silent and was only unearthed by Morgan-Owens in an incredible feat of tedious historical research, making her point clear: we must prepare to be patient and persistent in our own search for truth and justice.
But Morgan-Owens does one thing further -- she explains that “in reparation for [her] ancestors’ part in Louisiana’s history of exploitation, known and unknown, [she] plan[s] to donate 25 percent of the proceeds of this book, and any future earnings from the telling of Mary’s story, to organizations that serve communities of color, and those that work toward liberation in our present moment.” (284)
And you, what will you do?
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.