A riveting collection of letters written at the time of the Civil War that chronicle the lives of two African American women from New England: one who went to the South to found a school, the other a domestic servant who stayed in the North, in New York and New England. Rebecca Primus, the daughter of a prominent black Hartford family, was one of the many women who traveled south after the Civil War to teach the newly freed men and women. She was sent by the Hartford Freedmen's Aid Society to Royal Oak, Maryland,...
A riveting collection of letters written at the time of the Civil War that chronicle the lives of two African American women from New England: one who went to the South to found a school, the other a domestic servant who stayed in the North, in New York and New England. Rebecca Primus, the daughter of a prominent black Hartford family, was one of the many women who traveled south after the Civil War to teach the newly freed men and women. She was sent by the Hartford Freedmen's Aid Society to Royal Oak, Maryland, where she helped to found a school later named in her honor, the Primus Institute. Addie Brown - a bright, spirited, intelligent woman - was a domestic servant who worked in various households in Connecticut and New York. The letters Rebecca Primus wrote to her family provide a rare glimpse into the life and thoughts of a dedicated nineteenth-century New England black woman; they reveal her confrontations with Southern prejudice, her struggles to educate the freedmen, the practical effects of the politics of Reconstruction, and such everyday events of life in Royal Oak as her long-running battle with the postmaster about the slow delivery of her mail, and the wedding of a seventy-two-year-old woman to an eighteen-year-old Dutchman that set the whole town talking. During this time, she received more than one hundred letters from Addie Brown - letters that reveal another side of black life. Addie writes of her struggles to make a living, of her difficult economic circumstances in New England, of her self-education, of her growing political consciousness (she refuses to sit in the colored seats at a white church and skips a town event because of a black-face minstrel performer), and of her love for Rebecca, which is complicated by the courtship of various men whom she feels compelled to consider for reasons of economic security.
An extraordinary historical find, the letters of these two 19th-century African-American women from radically different class and educational backgrounds offer a rare glimpse into the lives of black women during Reconstruction. A professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Griffin adds a meticulously researched and helpful explication of the historical context of the romantic friendship between the two women. Rebecca Primus left her comfortable life amid her prominent black family in Hartford, Conn., to teach freed slaves in Maryland. Over a 14-year period, she received 150 letters from Addie Brown, a laundress and seamstress in Connecticut and New York. While Brown's letters to Primus are included, Primus's correspondence to Brown has been lost; what appears here are 60 letters she wrote to her family. Primus took her duty to educate and be a role model to the newly freed slaves seriously. Her letters carefully document Reconstruction political activity by Maryland blacks and how those she taught built the Primus Institute in her honor. Meanwhile, Brown wrote to Primus of the black community's efforts to raise funds for the New York Colored Orphan Asylum, which was burned in the 1863 draft riots. More of Brown's letters were devoted to her courtship of Primus. That both women later married men Griffin attributes to the fact that the "Victorian heterosocial and homosocial worlds were complementary." She persuasively concludes that documents such as these demand a rewriting of American history. Agent, Loretta Barrett. (June)
What makes this collection of letters unique is that both Brown and Primus are African American women. Primus, the daughter of a prominent black Connecticut family, went South after the Civil War to teach freedmen. Brown was a domestic servant working first in New York, then in Connecticut. Their correspondence chronicles their close friendship over 14 years and also gives the reader a first-hand account of what it meant to be a black woman in mid-19th century America. The bulk of the letters in the collection are those written by Addie to Rebecca. They provide an intimate glimpse at the life of a black domestic worker during this time and also hint at a relationship that was more than just platonic, providing a complex view of these two women. Recommended for academic libraries.--Roseanne Castellino, Arthur D. Little, Cambridge, MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Precious little about the lives of "ordinary" black women had survived from the nineteenth century, and rarely are documents recovered that give late twentieth-century readers such remarkable insight into both the private and the public lives of such women. That these letters found their way to publication at all—much less through a mainstream publishing house—suggests how far curiosity about the social, political and cultural lives of black women in the nineteenth century extends beyond the academy. Critical attention to the words of Addie Brown and Rebbecca Primus will invite further study of their individual achievements as it adds historical specificity to our understanding of black women's lives in the decades that bracketed the Civil War.
—The Women's Review of Books
Letters exchanged between two 19th-century African-American women prove that you can't start a fire without a spark. "For years, we have been led to believe that ordinary black women left no evidence of their historical existence," writes Griffin (English/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Who Set You Flowin'? not reviewed). True. But when the evidence provided by letters such as those collected here proves to have little intrinsic interest, it's sort of like opening Al Capone's safe and finding nothing there. Griffin is so clearly pleased by the simple fact that 19th-century black women kept accounts of their lives in diaries, journals, and letters, she seems to neglect the question of whether particular examples of those accounts are worth reading. Rebecca Primus, an itinerant teacher in schools for newly freed men and women following the Civil War, and Addie Brown, a domestic, were lovers who spent much of their time apart, filling the absences with correspondence. Addie was an enthusiastic and prolific letter writer, though her syntax is one step above fractured. We hear less from the more educated Primus, much of whose correspondence, the author acknowledges, she was unable to find. This technical difficulty pales in comparison to the book's much larger problem, which is that there is no personal or historical context for the events that swirl around these two characters. At one point, Griffin quotes historian Eric Foner as saying, "In 1867 politics emerged as the principal focus of black aspiration." But the Primus-Brown correspondence never displays anything like that degree of concern. Seemingly divorced from history, their personal lives are of no more than passing interest. Strictly foran academic audience, with no broader appeal. (7 b&w photos, not seen)
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of "Who Set You Flowin'?": The African-American Migration Narrative, and the coeditor of A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. She lives in Philadelphia.
On February 24, 1932, the following obituary appeared in the Hartford Courant:
Mrs. Rebecca Thomas, 95, widow of Charles H. Thomas, of 115 Adelaide Street, died Sunday morning at the Municipal Hospital after a long illness. She leaves three nieces, Ms. Edna Edwards of Hartford; Mrs. Jessie H. Harris of Cambridge, Mass.; and Mrs. Nellie Singleton of Detroit, Mich. The funeral will be held Tuesday afternoon at 1:30 P. M. at Johnson's funeral home, 19 Pavilion Street, and at 2 o'clock at the Talcott Street Congregational Church. Rev. James A. Wright will officiate. Burial will be in the family plot in Zion Hill Cemetery.
The paragraph gives details relating to the commemoration of Rebecca Primus Thomas's death and her relationship to others, but it relays very little about the woman herself. As with so many women, especially so many African American women, the significance of her life and deeds is lost to history in this final public document of her life. To a knowing Hartford reader, the name and address might provide a hint that she had been part of one of Hartford's oldest and most prominent black families. That she was the widow of Charles Thomas connected her to another well-known black Hartford resident. More information about her life and commitments might have been evident in the name of the church.
However, even these identity markers link the value of her life to the deeds and reputations of others. Most important, there is no mention of her career as a teacher of freedmen.
Until recently, historians did not acknowledge black women's role in Reconstruction. Even W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended to the words of blackparticipants in his important Black Reconstruction, published in 1935 (only three years after Primus's death), failed to note the work of black women teachers. Du Bois applauded the efforts of the New England schoolteachers, but for him these instructors, dedicated and innovative, were for the most part white.
Forty-five years later, the white feminist historian Jacqueline Jones published the first full-length study of New England teachers who went south to found schools for and to teach the freed people. In Soldiers of Light and Love, Jones, like Du Bois, leaves out the efforts of black teachers. Not until the publication of Linda Perkins's 1984 article "The Black Female American Missionary Association Teacher in the South 1861-1870" and Dorothy Sterling's We Are Your Sisters (1984) did black teachers begin to receive scholarly attention. The absence of primary sources left by these women was one of the reasons for the inattention to them.
Nevertheless, Rebecca Primus was one of many northern black women who went south to teach the freed people. As with most of her peers, Rebecca saw her teaching as a political and moral calling. She set forth on a mission that would influence her tremendously. The teachers who headed south organized schools that held day sessions for children, night sessions for adults, and Sabbath schools. In addition, they visited freedmen's homes and became respected members of the communities they inhabited. Their mission was one of education and "uplift." Rebecca Primus fit the profile of other black schoolmarms who were "northern born, middle class, single and childless." Most were in their twenties and had above-average education. Most had taught in their hometowns before going south. Many of them suffered greatly from the stresses associated with their jobs. Others were the victims of violence and harassment. Primus documents all of these circumstances.
What were the factors, the conditions, that might have led Miss Primus to take up the difficult mission of relocating to the South? The answer to this question can best be found in the community that produced and nurtured her. Rebecca was born in 1836 to Holdridge Primus and Mehitable (Jacobs) Primus. She was the eldest of four children; her siblings were Nelson, Henrietta, and Isabella (Bell). Her paternal great-grandfather was an African slave who won his freedom by fighting in the American army during the Revolutionary War. Her maternal grandfather owned a cobbler shop.
In 1860, all the Primuses but the youngest, Bell, were gainfully employed. Holdridge Primus was a clerk in a well-known Hartford grocery firm, Humphrey and Seyms. His wife, Mehitable, sometimes worked as a seamstress. Nelson was a painter; he worked for a carriage maker, George Francis, and eventually moved to Boston to pursue his career as a portraitist. Henrietta was a domestic in the home of a local white businessman, Henry Ferre. The Primus family owned their home at 20 Wadsworth Street. Rebecca would return to this home after the death of her husband in 1891, living there until 1902. As property owners who were able to maintain steady employment, the Primuses were clearly part of Hartford's black middle class. However, Henrietta's employment as a domestic suggests the fluidity of class and the precarious nature of middle-class status in the African American community.
Though they lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, the Primuses were part of a cohesive black community that centered around the activities of the city's black institutions. They were members of the Talcott Street Congregational Church, one of two black Hartford churches. Rebecca continued to teach Sunday school there until her death in 1932. James Pennington, the nationally known black abolitionist, had been minister of the Talcott Street Church, which had been a site of abolitionist meetings and organizing. Furthermore, Rebecca Primus probably attended one of Hartford's African schools, where Pennington and the essayist Ann Plato had been teachers. It seems that Rebecca might have taught in one of these schools as well. In her letters she speaks of her Hartford classes; she would not have taught in the city's white schools. As early as 1861, Addie writes to her, "I see you still have your private school."
All of this is to say that Rebecca Primus grew up in a city with a small black population (it numbered just over seven hundred in 1860, slightly more than two percent of the total Hartford population), but she worshiped in, was educated in, and was employed by black institutions with an explicit political focus--that of black freedom and uplift.