Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain

Part of the goal we here at Historical Hotties hope to achieve is to expand our understandings of beauty by paying tribute to radicals, rabble-rousers, and revolutionaries of all sorts. But doing so causes us to walk a proverbial thin line – at once celebrating marginalized and oppressed people, and yet also trying to not (unintentionally) fetishize or bring further trauma to individuals and communities who – stripped of power in the societies they lived in – were often physically, emotionally, and sexually victimized by those who upheld systems of injustice. Our hope at Historical Hotties is that we manage to respectfully acknowledge the brilliance, beauty, and resilience of those who have come before us in their fights against injustice (in whatever form it may have taken) without adding to the continuing pain and trauma that the communities they hailed from are (or might be) experiencing today. At Historical Hotties, the criteria for being a historical hottie is not really based on looks, but instead on what I have outlined above. It is with this tension in mind that I wish to introduce to you today not one, but two women whom many of you have most likely never heard of: Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain.*

Harriet McClain and Adah Isabelle Suggs, respectively mother and daughter, were two enslaved women who lived for a time in Kentucky, United States. Their stories come to us through Adah’s own voice, as she gave an interview in her later years to the Federal Writer’s Project, which can be freely found online through the Library of Congress. However, while Adah herself gave the interview, it was mediated through an interviewer, Lauana Creel, who wrote the transcript of the primary source where I first encountered their stories. The interviewers who took part in “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project” were often paternalistic and racist in how they recorded the histories being entrusted to them, therefore we must proceed with caution when using these sources in order to not perpetuate the views held in the 1930s when these stories were recorded.

Adah Isabelle Suggs was born sometime before January 22nd, 1852 to Harriet McClain, who was enslaved by Colonel Jackson McClain and Louisa McClain, his wife. According to the interview Adah gave to Lauana Creel, when she was not yet five years old she had already begun to develop “ideas and ideals” as Harriet had taught her daughter how to knit, amongst other skills. Louisa, upon learning that Harriet was secretly teaching her daughter these skills, stole Adah from the care of her mother to live instead with herself and Colonel Jackson McClain.

When Adah was twelve years old (sometime during the late Civil War), Harriet attempted to escape with her daughter by taking a ferry across the Ohio River. Unfortunately, they were caught on the road to the ferry, which led to Harriet being imprisoned “in an upstair [sic] room” and further punished. Adah, knowing the location of her mother’s prison, would climb to her window when she could in order to spend what little time they could together. Eventually, the two escaped thanks to a dream that Harriet had wherein she was instructed on how Adah and herself could escape. Harriet recounted the dream to Adah, who then helped carry out the escape plan, freeing herself and her mother from enslavement.

Adah stole a knife from the pantry of the McClain household and gave it to her mother, who then picked the lock of the door that imprisoned her, allowing her to run free “into the open world about midnight.” Harriet then hid in a tobacco barn, waiting for Adah to meet her. When Adah was able to rid herself of the McClains for long enough to flee, she ran to her mother and the two then fled three miles to nearby Henderson, where they then hid under the house of a woman named Margaret Bentley until the next night. Once night fell, the two were “put… across” the Ohio River at Henderson by Union soldiers and ran to Evansville, Indiana. Harriet’s husband, Milton McClain, and their son Jerome had enlisted to fight in the Civil War for the Union Army in order to gain their freedom, and by extension gain the freedom of Harriet and Adah through Federal Statute granting the wives and children of enlisted enslaved men freedom.

After their escape and the reuniting of their family, Harriet and Adah soon became members of the free Black American community established in Evansville. Harriet eventually obtained a position as a housekeeper, and after “about two years” had saved enough money to send Adah to a “pay school.” Adah eventually went on to marry the formerly enslaved man Thomas Suggs on January 18, 1872, where afterwards they had fifteen children together. Adah lived the remainder of her life in Evansville, Indiana, where she was eventually interviewed as an elderly woman in an attempt by the Federal Writer’s Project to amass oral histories of enslavement.

Adah and Harriet, two women who openly rebelled against enslavement and racial injustice in the United States, cannot be celebrated enough in words. Over 150 years after Adah was born, the stories of these two heroic Black women continue to resonate and inspire us in 2015.

~ M

* A note on names: unfortunately, Adah Isabelle Suggs’s transcribed interview only refers to her mother as “Harriet McClain.” It was common for enslaved people to have the “family name” of the person/s who held them in enslavement, therefore I have no clue as to what Harriet’s family name may have been before this (if there was a “before” enslavement for her or not is unclear), or what her family’s original name was at any point. I apologize.

P.S. I highly encourage all of you to search the WPA Slave Narrative Project resources that the Library of Congress has made freely available to the public. They are searchable by name and key word, and found on an easily navigated site (even if a little dated). I do, of course, caution that the content of these life stories – while often remarkable – are also filled with explicitly described violence that took many forms. I therefore want to emphasize that for many people with more direct links to the history of enslavement, reading these oral histories will be extremely triggering.

Bibliography

Suggs, Adah Isabelle. Interviewed by Lauana Creel. WPA Slave Narrative Project, Indiana Narratives, Volume 5. Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA). Library of Congress. https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/S?ammem/mesnbib:@field(AUTHOR+@od1(Suggs,+Adah+Isabelle))

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Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain

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