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Every small town has its honored citizens. You can find their names on plaques in the library and in the history of the town, bound in leather and getting dusty on the shelves. Parks are created in tribute to them, and streets are named after them, and the people of the town remember them, even if they don't always know why.
Deerfield, Massachusetts, remembers Lucy Terry Prince. She came to the town when she was only about five years old. Ebenezer Wells bought her off a slave ship to help him with his housework. She was baptized in the First Church of Deerfield on June 15, 1735. The town history remembers that, when she was grown up, "she was noted for her wit and shrewdness" and the boys of the town flocked to her house "to hear her talk," so we can assume that she learned her new language quickly and was a sociable child. When she was fourteen, she was admitted to "the fellowship of the church." When she was sixteen, nearby Indians attacked that part of Deerfield known as "The Bars," and teenaged Lucy wrote a poem commemorating the event. We don't know whether it was her first effort, but it was the first and only poem of hers that was preserved.
August, 'twas the twenty-fifth,
Seventeen hundred forty-six,
The Indians did in ambush lay
Some very valient men to slay,
Samuel Allen like a hero fout,
And though he was so brave and bold,
His face no more shall we behold.
Eleazer Hawks was killed outright,
Before he had time to fight
Before he did the Indians see,
Was shot and killed immediately.
Oliver Amsden he was slain,
Which caused his friends much grief and pain
Simeon Amsden they found dead
Not many rods distant from his head.
Adonijah Gillett, we do hear,
Did lose his life which was so dear.
John Sadler fled across the water,
And thus escaped the dreadful slaughter.
Eunice Allen see the Indians coming,
And hopes to save herself by running;
And had not her petticoats stopped her,
The awful creatures had not catched her,
Nor tommy hawked her on the head.
Young Samuel Allen, Oh, lack-a-day!
Was taken and carried to Canada.
The adolescent Lucy Terry's feelings for her neighbors were clearly not tainted with a sense of racial inferiority or even self-consciousness. The tone of the poem makes it obvious that young Lucy Terry considered the white people she described to be friends and neighbors. In fact, probably the most appealing quality of the poem is the evident affection the poet feels for her subjects. And the poem itself was treasured in Deerfield. Handed down from generation to generation, it was published in 1855 in History of Western Massachusetts by Josiah Gilbert Holland.
In 1756, when she was about twenty-six, Lucy Terry married Abijah Prince. At this time, she was free, although it is not certain by what means. Wells may have freed her, or Prince may have bought her freedom. He was an established man, having served four years in the militia during the French and Indian Wars and, perhaps because of his service, having acquired his freedom and three parcels of land in Northfield, Massachusetts. He was older than his new wife by about twenty-five years. Sometime during the 1760s, he and Lucy acquired a farm near Guilford, Vermont, and moved their family there. Later, Abijah Prince was one of the founders of the town of Sunderland, Vermont. The Princes seemed to fit in well at Guilford, a town of culture and learning, with a library and musical societies. However, in 1785, the Noyse familywhite neighbors of the Princesthreatened them with violence. Lucy and Abijah appealed to Governor Thomas Chittenden for protection, and he ordered the selectmen of the town to see to it that the Princes were bothered no more.
The Princes had seven children. Lucy applied for the admission of one of her sons, Abijah, Jr., to Williams College. George Sheldon, historian of Deerfield, writes, "He was rejected on account of his race. The indignant mother pressed her claim before the trustees in an earnest and eloquent speech of three hours, quoting an abundance of law and Gospel, chapter and verse, in support of it, but all in vain. The name of no son of Lucy Prince graces the catalogue of Williams College." In a later case, Lucy Prince won the day. A Colonel Eli Bronson tried to steal a lot belonging to the Princes in Sunderland, near the home of Ethan Allen. The case ended up in the Supreme Court of the United States. According to Sheldon, "our Lucy argued the case at length before the court. Justice Chase said that Lucy made a better argument than he had heard from any lawyer at the Vermont bar."
Lucy Terry Prince died in 1821. Her obituary in the Franklin Herald stated, "In this remarkable woman there was an assemblage of qualities rarely to be found among her sex. Her volubility was exceeded by none, and in general the fluency of her speech captivated all around her, and was not destitute of instruction and edification. She was much respected among her acquaintance, who treated her with a degree of deference." The obituary writer, please note, considered Prince's wisdom and eloquence extraordinary for a woman, not for an African American.
Why have we told the story of Lucy Terry Prince at such length and in such detail? Because the meaning is in the details, in the respect she was given by her neighbors, in the affection she held for them, in her expectation that her son would be admitted to Williams College. Lucy Terry Prince was a citizen. Like many white citizens of the colonies, she had come to these shores as an unfree laborer, but she had passed into freedom and earned a place of prominence in her community. There is meaning also, though of a different kind, in the threat of violence from white neighbors in 1785 and the fact that Williams College rejected Abijah, Jr.
This remarkable woman lived for close to a century. During her lifetime, America changed. Race changed in America. By the year of Prince's death, slavery had been abolished in the North, and in the South it had become an institution of horrifying cruelty. If Lucy Terry Prince had been brought to this country and sold to a southern plantation owner in 1800, she would have occupied a status little higher than livestock. She would have entered into a world where beating a woman until she bled was considered routine labor management and selling away a child was good business practice. She would probably have married, but her marriage would not have been legal, and her husband might well have been sold. In that case, she would doubtless have been required to accept another man in her bed. She would almost certainly never have learned to read or write. She would almost certainly never have known freedom.
Slavery is slavery. The lack of freedom in itself, regardless of conditions, is an offense to human dignity. And conditions could sometimes be intolerable, even in the North and even in colonial days. Still, the possibility existed in the early years of this land for those who came here as slaves to become simply another part of the patchwork. White America destroyed that possibility. Slavery became not just unfree labor but one of the two great stains, along with the destruction of Native American culture, on this nation's honor.
Most Americans, when they think of the history of black women, think of that terrible stain. They do not think of Lucy Terry Prince. Or Phillis Wheatley, the second woman to publish a book in America, in 1773. Or Elizabeth Freeman, who sued for her freedom in 1781 and won, basing her case on the new constitution of Massachusetts. Or Elleanor Eldridge, who owned a wallpaper business and sold the best cheese in the town of Warwick, Rhode Island. These women make what happened in the antebellum years not just a disgrace but an American tragedy. They also make the rest of the history of black women understandable. The extraordinary achievements of black women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not grow out of degradation but out of a legacy of courage, resourcefulness, initiative, and dignity that goes back to 1619.
In the last two decades, the history of these women has been, and is being, uncovered in a completely unprecedented way. Historians are digging into the records of towns like Deerfield, Massachusetts, into court records and slave inventories and long-lost narratives. Much of the history of black women was lost forever because it was considered by almost everyone to be unimportant, but a great deal still remains and is being brought to light. We can see now that the courage, strength, and resourcefulness contemporary readers have come to expect from characters in the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and in the poetry of Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rita Dove are genuine. They existed in the characters and lives of thousands of black women from colonial America through the American Revolution to the terrible years of antebellum slavery. They are revealed in stories of Civil War spies and of resistance during the Jim Crow years, stories that move black women from the fringes of American history. A new look at the Civil Rights movement and an examination of the triumphs of recent years show what black women have to teach all Americans about survival. The history of black women in America is a remarkable story, covering almost four centuries, but there are themes that run through it from beginning to end.
The emphasis by black women on community developed in the slave quarters where they taught their childrenand especially their daughtersdifferent codes of conduct for their fellow slaves and for the white masters. It grew in the mutual benefit societies formed by free African Americans, especially women, in the eighteenth century. It continued through the abolitionist societies and black churches of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Then, out of the churches, mutual benefit societies, and literary societies came the black women's club movement of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Faced with a total lack of services from the U.S. government, black women in the clubs raised money to build hospitals, fund college scholarships, and take care of the aged and the children of the community. Because of this emphasis on community and the skills learned in these organizations, black women became the foundation of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. For the first time in history, a political movement relied on the organizing skills of women.
Interwoven with the theme of community is the priority placed on education. Again, the story begins in the slave quarters, where black women formed underground schools to teach reading and writing. It was illegal in most places in the South to teach a black person to read, but they managed it. That story goes on through the academies for free black children founded by young black women, some of them only teenagers. Then, after the Civil War, there were the floods of northern black women moving into the South to teach former slaves. There were the thousands of black women who functioned as leaders of their communities and who, during school desegregation and the combining of black and white schools, were the first to be fired. Today there are the forty or more black women who are college presidents and the black washerwoman who recently used her life savings to endow a scholarship at a southern university.
Against this background the third major theme glows with truth, especially in today's world. Black women's history teaches us that, as important as the community is, each individual's sense of worth and dignity must live inside that person. It must be nurtured and made strong, apart from the valuation of the world.
These are all themes that will shape our chronological narrative. And, oddly enough, given the tremendous sufferings of black women, another primary theme is triumph. Quite simply, the way black women approach life works. It cannot overcome all obstacles, but it has enabled black women to shape the raw materials of their lives into an extraordinary succession of victories, small and large. From the beginning, they have done more than find ways to feed a family with little or nothing in the house. They have found ways to educate children, resist the oppressions of slavery, support their churches, build hospitals, register voters, and get elected to the United States Senate. Theirs is more than a story of oppression and struggle. It is a story of hope.