Joan Nestle

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[A wonderful photograph of Joan Nestle, found on her website http://www.joannestle.com/]

Born in May 1940, Joan Nestle is a Jewish working class lesbian icon of the twentieth century. Nestle grew up in the Bronx, New York City, with her mother Regina working as a seamstress in the Garment District to support her family.

Nestle, in her seventy-five years, has been an activist, a writer, an historian, an archivist. She is a self-described “queer, pre-Stonewall fem [sic]” for whom “sex and politics are inseparable,” each informing “the other; passions spilling over into social visions; social visions carried on every entry” (Nestle, xii). Nestle actively defended femme-butch relationships and gender identities at a time when there was no space or tolerance to do so in mainstream America. She fought on behalf of  and alongside Black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, stood up for her community of working class lesbians, and was actively pro-sex during the sex wars of the 1980s.

Nestle even took on history itself, writing of how history is “a place where the body carries its own story” (Nestle, xv). She wrote herself and her communities into American history through her writing and teaching, claiming erotic writing as “a documentary [as much] as any biographical display,” a “people’s most private historic territory” (Nestle, xvi). Her writing did not, however, go without controversy, leading to her books being banned at various times and places during the sex wars and afterwards. Alongside her writing, she helped found and curate the United States’s oldest and largest lesbian archival collection, the Lesbian Herstory Archives (which were housed in her New York City apartment for decades).

Nestle is most definitely worthy of the title of Historical Hottie. We here at the Blog tip our proverbial hats to her beautiful spirit.

~ M

Bibliography

Nestle, Joan. A Restricted Country. San Francisco: Cleis Press Inc., 2003.

Joan Nestle

Dr. Hilde L. Mosse

Today’s Historical Hottie comes to us from Kaitlin, an MA History student who studies histories of immigration and ethnicity; class; and gender in 20th-century Canada. Here at Historical Hotties Blog, we want to make sure that there are more than just our two voices deciding on who we will feature each week. So look forward to more guest posts, and for now, enjoy what Kaitlin has wonderfully written up on Dr. Hilde L. Mosse:

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[Photo of Hilde L. Mosse, source http://www.rodagroup.com/hilde.html]

On Wednesday nights throughout the 1950s, you could find Hilde Mosse at 215 West 133rd Street, Harlem, New York. She served as head psyciatrist at the Lafargue Clinic, the first mental health clinic to offer accessible psychiatric services to the neighborhood. Harlem intellectuals Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and émigré psychologist Frederic Wertham founded the clinic with a team of volunteers and community members to meet the psychiatric needs of the community. Mosse was one of many intellectuals, doctors, clergy, and artists who worked to establish a progressive model of mental health care as an “integral part of the struggle for racial equality in the United States in the early post-World War II-era.”* A refugee from Nazi Germany, who honed her commitment to social justice through close involvement with the sex reform movements of the Weimar Republic, Mosse volunteered her time at the clinic each week until its closure in 1959.

In writing a post on Hilde Mosse, I am turning some attention to one of the many European émigrés who fled persecution based on their heritage, profession, or political beliefs. I admire Mosse for her commitment to social justice in the face of adversity. Her activism recognized the interlocking relationships among institutional racism, structural violence, and medical practices. Mosse is hot for her courage to adapt and pursue her political convictions throughout her personal and professional life.

Born into a privileged Berlin family in 1913, Mosse fled from Europe to America in 1938. In the isolation of exile, she worked tirelessly to help her family, friends, and peers escape Nazi persecution. The courage and resilience of those touched by this history is outstanding. Though Mosse is not particularly unique amongst the countless stories of escape and survival in these years, she is unusual for her success in pursuing her commitments to the “social and political ideals she had gained from volunteer work in a Berlin working-class district and the left-wing anti-fascist struggle.”** Though many historians argue that the spirit of Weimar Reform died with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Mosse’s investment in the Lafargue Clinic is one case where it carried on in exile.

In the aftermath of World War II, Black Americans were outspoken of the irony of fighting white supremacy abroad while living in an apartheid America. Harlem residents who had recently migrated from the South faced segregated housing and forced slum conditions in their new Northern homes; conditions which adversely affected their mental health. Harlem intellectuals and community members looked to psychiatry as a tool to alleviate the psychological brutality of living in an unequal society. This reality was recognized by the clinic’s blend of psychological traditions with pragmatic solutions to best meet their clients’ needs. It was a collaborative project between experts and residents in a quest for racial justice.

After the clinic’s closure in 1949, Mosse went on to work in the field of child psychology. She maintained close ties with the director, Frederic Wertham, and helped him prepare evidence of the harms of segregated schooling. Recently, Mosse’s niece remembered,

 

“One of Hilde’s proudest moments was when a special letter was received by the Lafargue Clinic from the head of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Thurgood Marshall, future Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. The letter thanked Lafargue for their assistance with the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education.” ***

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[Photo of Hilde L. Mosse with client, source http://www.rodagroup.com/hilde.html]

 

Mosse’s privileged upbringing helped her throughout her life. It allowed her the best schooling and medical training, skills that carried over and helped her in America. Her English language skills, for example, helped her secure a teaching job upon first arrival. Though overqualified for the position, it was an opportunity that eluded many émigré health professionals. Despite this privilege, she faced the destruction of her life in Germany and met the challenges of rebuilding in a foreign country. Throughout these hardships, she maintained her political convictions and belief that society should be made more just through social actions. Mosse was one of the volunteers who made the Lafargue Clinic possible; recognizing her as a historical hottie is a reiteration of the importance of the communities and collaborations in enacting—through collective effort and perseverance—social change.

* Gabriel N. Mendes, Under the Strain of Color: Harlem’s Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry (Cornell University Press: 2015), 4.

** George L. Mosse, Confronting History: A Memoir (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000): 77.

*** Honoring My Aunt, Dr. Hilde L. Mosse. The Roda Group. Accessed June 02, 2016. http://www.rodagroup.com/hilde.html.

 

Bibliography

Ash, M. G. “Women émigré psychologists and Psycho-analysts in the United States.” In Sibylle Quack’s, Between sorrow and strength: women refugees of the Nazi period. Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1995.

Grossmann, Anita. Reforming sex: the German movement for birth control and abortion reform, 1920-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Honoring My Aunt, Dr. Hilde L. Mosse. The Roda Group. Accessed June 02, 2016. http://www.rodagroup.com/hilde.html.

Mendes, Gabriel N. Under the Strain of Color: Harlem’s Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry. Cornell University Press, 2015.

Mosse, George L. Confronting History: A Memoir. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Stewart, Catherine A. “Crazy for this Democracy”: Postwar Psychoanalysis, African American Blues Narratives, and the Lafargue Clinic.” American Quarterly 65, no.2 (2013): 371 – 395.

 

 

Dr. Hilde L. Mosse

Tituba

Histories of settler colonialism and enslavement are inseparable in the Americas. These twin genocides, at once separate and yet indispensable to one another, have forged to create the bedrock of the United States and many other modern-day countries in the Americas such as México and Brasil. Although we know relatively little about today’s historical figure, her life is demonstrative of how histories of settler colonialism and enslavement were intertwined in the Americas in the seventeenth century.

Tituba was an enslaved woman who was the first woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Her personal history, as with that of millions of enslaved people in the Americas, is murky as to her ethnic background and her exact biographical details. Born in the seventeenth century, there are two main theories as to where Tituba hailed from. The first, as put forward most prominently by the scholar Elaine Breslaw, was that Tituba was an Indigenous woman of Arawak descent, from the present-day region known as Guyana and Venezuela. The second theory was put forth by Peter Hoffer in 1997, and claims that Tituba was a Yoruba woman – as her name is a Yoruba word. Either of these theories could be true, or neither. She could have been an Arawak woman, a Yoruba woman, an Afro-Indigenous woman, or a woman from various other ethnic groups. Regardless, she was enslaved by Samuel Parris in Barbados and forcibly brought to Massachusetts.

In 1692, several young girls and women from Parris’s household – including his daughter Betty and niece Abigail – began to exhibit symptoms that were classified as bewitchment, and Tituba (along with two other women) was accused of witchcraft. Tituba was put on trial, and provided testimony saying that it was “the devil, for all I know” that had bewitched the four young girls/women. Tituba provided one of the longest testimonies in the Salem Witch Trials, one that went on to influence how the rest of the trials were conducted.

Tituba’s life has been subject to the whims of historians, authors, artists, and the general public since the seventeenth century. Her origins, her testimony, her involvement in witchcraft have all been historicized according to the sociocultural and racial context of those writing her story. At times depicted as Indigenous, at other times African, and at other times of mixed background, Tituba’s story has been twisted to suite the modes of the moment in which any given historian, author, or artist has depicted her. Tituba, as with the broader history of witchcraft in the Americas, is a complicated figure. What constituted as witchcraft? What type of person was accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials? How does the perception of Tituba’s “racial” origin matter to accusations of witchcraft? How should we understand her testimony – that of an enslaved woman of colour/Indigenous woman accused of a spiritual, gendered crime? In what ways do particular gender identities become intertwined in histories of colonial witchcraft? Where do Euro-centric understandings and histories of witchcraft fit (or collide) with other ways of knowing and communing with spiritual worlds that originate in Indigenous traditions or West African traditions?

These are questions that continue to perplex historians of witchcraft and practitioners of various traditions referred to as “witchcraft” alike.

~ M

Bibliography

Barillari, Alyssa. “Tituba.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/tituba.html.

Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

 

Tituba

Viola Liuzzo

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[A photograph of Viola Liuzzo as a young woman, retrieved from the Levi Watkins Learning Center Digital Library http://www.lib.alasu.edu/lwlcdigitallib/liuzzo/bio.html]

Viola Liuzzo, born in Pennsylvania in 1925, was a woman whose life was launched into the public eye with her unfortunate and tragic death. Living a relatively quiet life until a few weeks prior to her death, she was a part-time university student, homemaker, and mother to five children. Throughout early 1965 she participated in marches in support of the Civil Rights Movement while living in Detroit, Michigan. However, when she witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday on television and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pleas for “all Americans [to] bear the burden” in the “struggle… for the soul of the nation,” she left her student- and family-life and traveled to Selma, Alabama. Once in Selma, Liuzzo lent her car and ability to drive to the Movement, along with greeting newcomers in the Movement’s hospitality suite.

On the night of March 25, 1965 Viola Liuzzo was horrifically murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. While driving with Leroy Moton, a nineteen year old Black activist, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, four members of the Ku Klux Klan — one of whom was Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., the top FBI informant for the Alabama KKK for five years– fired shots into Liuzzo’s moving vehicle. Liuzzo died instantly, with Moton escaping with his life only by pretending to be dead. They were targeted because Liuzzo, a White woman, and Moton, a young Black man, were breaking Jim Crow social mores that dictated the lives of everyone in the South by riding alone in a car together.

The FBI began an investigation into Liuzzo’s death, but Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. had all charges dropped against him and instead was revealed to be an FBI informant, eventually being given a $10,000 reward by the FBI for “his services.” Within hours, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke publicly about Liuzzo’s tragic murder, her White womanhood playing a key role in the attention that was paid to her death. Despite her death serving as a catapult to change legislation regarding the deaths of Civil Rights activists in the United States, it also brought unwanted attention to Johnson’s Administration and the FBI, with questions circulating as to why Rowe was illegally involved with the KKK and had not stopped the attack against Liuzzo and Moton. In the words of historian Gary May, “[t]o divert attention away from his informant… Hoover [the Director of the FBI at the time] created a more alluring subject for media attention. He and his men worked quickly to transform Viola Liuzzo, mother of five and part-time college student, into a blond seductress who came south not to fight for civil rights but instead to sleep with black men… None of this was true, but Hoover’s files eventually wound up in Klan literature” with the “killers’ attorneys distribut[ing] the hate-filled pamphlets to reporters,” making “Liuzzo’s character a major issue when their clients came to trial” (146).

Liuzzo’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, ending with her untimely death at the hands of White terrorists, is demonstrative of how White womanhood was understood during the 1960s in relation to Black masculinity; to activism and its often deadly consequences; to Southern narratives of sexuality; and to the ways in which White Americans were awoken to the oppression Black Americans faced often only through the violence that televisions projected into living rooms across the United States. It is important for us as historians to tell the stories of women like Liuzzo, while simultaneously being cautious to not replicate the imbalanced attention that was paid to her death versus the deaths of countless Black American activists that often go unnamed in modern histories of struggle and oppression in the United States.

~ M

Bibliography

Federal Investigation Bureau. Accessed March 25, 2016. https://vault.fbi.gov/Viola%20Liuzzo.

May, Gary. Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Stanton, Mary. “Viola Liuzzo.” In Encyclopedia of Alabama. Last updated January 7, 2013. Accessed March 25, 2016. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1377.

Viola Liuzzo

Ah Toy

Today’s post pays tribute to Ah Toy, the second recorded Chinese woman to have arrived in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the first Chinese sex worker (that we know of) in San Francisco. Ah Toy was born in 1828 in Southern China and travelled to the United States with her husband, who passed away en route to California. Born into relative wealth in comparison to many of the Chinese (im)migrants who traveled to the United States during the Gold Rush, Toy quickly became an influential social and economic presence in San Francisco.

Toy was an independent sex worker who established herself before the Tong controlled era of the 1850s took hold of San Francisco and wider Gold Rush California. She gained respect and a substantial amount of control over her livelihood (and wider control in the political scene in San Francisco) due to this. Toy’s life traces the difficulties that Chinese (im)migrants experienced in the United States, and specifically those of Chinese women and Chinese sex workers. The “yellow peril” sentiments amongst the White population forced Chinese women to navigate the stereotypes and violence that resulted from these attempts at securing a White supremacist state amidst the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to California and the broader American West.

Toy was both romanticized by many within the society around her and also stigmatized due to the “yellow peril” sentiments that were taking shape in the 1850s. Toy was able to negotiate the many myths surrounding Chinese sex workers, and Chinese women more broadly, to work in her favour, and was even able to manipulate the court system and vigilante police force, as can be seen by her famed relationship with John A. Clark, a prominent vigilante police officer of the time.

After establishing herself as an important political figure through her sex work, Toy went on to open a series of brothels in San Francisco and became deeply involved in the sex trade, bringing in girls and women from China to work for her. Unfortunately, some of these girls were purported to be as young as eleven years old, demonstrating the intersecting set of power dynamics that Toy and others were complicit in while trying to secure respect and safety for themselves. Toy’s life can therefore serve as a window into a complicated era of settler colonialism, anti-Asian racism, and frontier mythology, wherein the history of Chinese (im)migration to the United States points to the messy and complex negotiations of oppression, survival, and control that were at play during the era in California.

Toy’s place in this history can be looked at from multiple perspectives, but begs us here at Historical Hotties to ask ourselves a difficult and uncomfortable set of questions. How do we complicate narratives surrounding sex work in the historiography of California, the Gold Rush, and Chinese immigration to the United States without resorting to tropes of victimhood or predation? How do we understand someone like Ah Toy, whose lived experiences attest to the power and control she gained from sex work but who at the same time became a part of a tangled system of immigration, sex work, exploitation, and liberation? Where do people like Ah Toy fit in the broader project of settler colonialism in the American West? How has the historiography of Asians in America and Asian Americans served to replicate “yellow peril” myths and stereotypes of submissive East Asian women (for example) that continue to this day? How does a story such Ah Toy’s add to our understandings of racism and patriarchy in the American West, the responses of Chinese women to “yellow peril” racism amongst White settlers, and colonialism as a transnational project involving both people of colour and White people in the United States? Lastly, how can we incorporate and understand histories of sex work/ers as integral to — Capital A, Capital H — American History and treat these histories with just as much nuance as we do the histories of other labourers?

~ M

Bibliography

Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: A Highly Irreverent History. New York: Signet, 1964.

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

 

Ah Toy

Women’s Political Council (WPC)

This week’s post is dedicated to the heroic Montgomery, Alabama-based Women’s Political Council (WPC).The WPC was begun by Mary Fair Burks in the fall of 1946, after Burks spent much of her life protesting Jim Crow laws by refusing to abide by them throughout the city. According to historian Danielle L. McGuire, “[a]fter a run-in with a white police officer… Burks decided to broaden her attack and form an army of women dedicated to destroying white supremacy” (76). In Burks’s own words, she was a “feminist before [she] really knew what the word meant” and felt that she had to spread her lone-woman protest to a broader, community-based one as when she “looked around[, …] all [she] could see were either masks of indiferrence or scorn” (McGuire, 76).

At the first WPC meeting in 1946, forty Black women attended and all shared their stories of experiencing racialized and gendered violence at the hands of White police officers in Montgomery. Initially beginning with sharing their experiences with each other, the women of the WPC spread their activism to include voter registration. It was thanks to these amazing women and their partnerships with other Black organizations that the rates of voter registration increased during the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama. During the 1950s, the WPC continued to grow in strength and became known as the “most militant and uncompromising voice” for Black Americans in the South.

Although the WPC’s accomplishments in regards to voter registration in the Black community were very important, it was their protest of their mistreatment on city buses that they gained the most attention for. It is thanks to the WPC that the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott took place in 1955. Even before this famous direct action took place, the WPC had been planning a bus boycott to demonstrate against their mistreatment on city buses. The December 1st, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks finally gave the WPC the opportunity to put their plans into action.

The women of the WPC fought for the dignity and respect that Black women were denied in the mid-twentieth century. Their battles, from voter registration to bus segregation, demonstrate the intersecting systems of oppression that affected Black women. The WPC fought against patriarchy and White supremacy, illuminating the radical and vanguard role that Black women have played in the fight for Civil Rights in the United States. We here at the Historical Hotties Blog tip our proverbial hats to the amazing and inspiring women that often put their lives on the line in their fight(s) against injustice and state-sanctioned oppression.

~ M

Bibliography

McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Women’s Political Council (WPC)

Jack Greenberg

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[A photograph of a young Jack Greenberg, found on the Smithsonian’s educational website http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/5-decision/challengers.html]

Where to start with Jack Greenberg? Greenberg served as the second Director-Counsel —  after none other than Thurgood Marshall — of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) from 1961 to 1984. The NAACP LDF was founded in 1940 with the mission of “achiev[ing] racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society” under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall.

Greenberg was born to a Jewish family in the Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York in 1924. At the age of twenty-four in 1949, he joined LDF, initially because Marshall needed an assistant well-versed in American law to help him fight the legal, state-sanctioned system of Jim Crow in the United States. At the age of twenty-seven, Greenberg became the youngest lawyer who brought one of the most important civil rights cases of the twentieth century — Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954 (commonly referred to as Brown v Board) — before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approached Greenberg as Director-Counsel of LDF to take on cases involving the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC). Part of his legal representation of Dr. King included representing him in Birmingham, Alabama, winning him the right to march from Selma to Montgomery. Greenberg continued to fight for the rights of Black Americans for decades, being integral to “landmark legal cases” in relation to employment, education, housing, and voter registration during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these cases include Meredith v Fair, 1961 (the integration of the University of Mississippi) and Griggs v Duke Power Company, 1971 (employment discrimination). Greenberg retired from LDF in 1984, later serving as dean of Columbia College.

Greenberg’s activism is, however, important to contextualize within broader histories of racialized oppression in the United States and the solidarity between non-Black Jewish Americans and Black Americans.* As noted in the freely accessible LDF @ 70 document published by the NAACP LDF, “Greenberg saw a resemblance between anti-Semitism and black oppression in the United States. Raised in a family committed to fairness and justice, Greenberg became part of the black world of the Civil Rights Movement.” Greenberg’s work in the Civil Rights Movement is representative of the important coalitions that have historically existed between two (often overlapping) groups of marginalized and oppressed peoples in the United States: Jewish Americans and Black Americans. The solidarities formed are much longer, and much older, than can properly be explained here, but it is nonetheless important to recognize them as interlocking histories of injustice and resistance.

By highlighting Greenberg today, we do not intend on decentering the Black Americans that fought valiantly during the Civil Rights Movement (and continue to fight today in the Black Lives Matter Movement, for example). We wish to instead highlight people like Greenberg who were not Black but dedicated their lives to the fight for the rights of Black Americans. The experiences of Greenberg’s own community in relation to anti-Semitism in part spurred him to fight for the civil rights of Black Americans, and he should continue to be a shining example for those of us who wish to stand in solidarity with Black folks who are struggling against systematic oppression today.

~ M

* It is important to make this distinction, as often times Black Jews are completely erased from histories of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, and the fight against these injustices, in the United States. This erasure of Black Jews from modern American history is not something that we at Historical Hotties Blog want to perpetuate, and therefore feel it necessary to address.

 

Bibliography

Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

LDF. “History.” Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.naacpldf.org/history.

LDF. LDF @ 70 Defend, Educate, Empower: 70 Years Fulfilling the Promise of Equality. 2010. http://www.naacpldf.org/files/publications/ldf@70_0.pdf.

Jack Greenberg

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))

Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain