Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement

Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement

by Jessie Morgan-Owens

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The riveting, little-known story of Mary Mildred Williams—a slave girl who looked “white”—whose photograph transformed the abolitionist movement.

When a decades-long court battle resulted in her family’s freedom in 1855, seven-year-old Mary Mildred Williams unexpectedly became the face of American slavery. Famous abolitionists Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Albion Andrew would help Mary and her family in freedom, but Senator Charles Sumner saw a monumental political opportunity. Due to generations of sexual violence, Mary’s skin was so light that she “passed” as white, and this fact would make her the key to his white audience’s sympathy. During his sold-out abolitionist lecture series, Sumner paraded Mary in front of rapt audiences as evidence that slavery was not bounded by race.

Weaving together long-overlooked primary sources and arresting images, including the daguerreotype that turned Mary into the poster child of a movement, Jessie Morgan-Owens investigates tangled generations of sexual enslavement and the fraught politics that led Mary to Sumner. She follows Mary’s story through the lives of her determined mother and grandmother to her own adulthood, parallel to the story of the antislavery movement and the eventual signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Girl in Black and White restores Mary to her rightful place in history and uncovers a dramatic narrative of travels along the Underground Railroad, relationships tested by oppression, and the struggles of life after emancipation. The result is an exposé of the thorny racial politics of the abolitionist movement and the pervasive colorism that dictated where white sympathy lay—one that sheds light on a shameful legacy that still affects us profoundly today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393609240
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 508,407
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.20(d)

About the Author

Jessie Morgan-Owens is the dean of studies at Bard Early College in New Orleans, Louisiana. A photographer with the team Morgan & Owens, she received her doctorate from New York University and lives in New Orleans with her family.

Table of Contents

Prologue Boston, May 29, 1855 1

Part 1 Bondage

1 Constance Cornwell, Prince William County, Virginia, 1805 11

2 Prudence Nelson Bell, Nelson's Plantation and Mill, 1826 28

3 Jesse and Albert Bell Nelson, Washington, 1847 43

4 Henry Williams, Boston, 1850 54

Part 2 Manumission

5 John Albion Andrew, Boston, 1852 69

6 Elizabeth Williams, Prince William County, 1852 77

7 Evelina Bell, Washington, February 1855 87

Part 3 Becoming Ida May

8 Mary Hayden Green Pike, Calais, Maine, November 1854 101

9 Julian Vannerson, Washington, February 1855 117

10 Richard Hildreth, Boston, March 1855 130

11 Charles Sumner, Washington, March 1855 141

Part 4 Sensation

12 "A White Slave from Virginia," New York, March 1855 163

13 The Williams Family, Boston, March 7, 1855 172

14 "Features, Skin, and Hair," Boston, March 1855 185

15 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Worcester, Massachusetts, March 27, 1855 195

16 "The Anti-slavery Enterprise," Boston, March 29, 1855 204

Part 5 Private Passages

17 Private Life, Boston, October 1855 223

18 "The Crime Against Kansas," Washington, May 1856 230

19 Frederick Douglass, Boston, 1860 245

20 Prudence Bell, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1864 254

Epilogue Hyde Park Massachusetts, 2017 271

Acknowledgments 279

Notes 287

Illustration Credits 311

Index 313

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