An Inter-Racial Love Story in Fact and Fiction: William and Mary King Allen’s Marriage and Louisa May Alcott’s Tale, ‘M.L.’

An Inter-Racial Love Story in Fact and Fiction: William and Mary King Allen’s Marriage and Louisa May Alcott’s Tale, ‘M.L.’

History Workshop Journal
Volume 53, Number 1
pages 17-42
DOI: 10.1093/hwj/53.1.17

Sarah Elbert, Professor Emerita of History
The State University of New York, Binghamton

William G. Allen, the child of a free mulatto mother and a white father, was born about 1820, raised by a free black family,and taught probably by ‘educated foreigners’; among the Federal Troops stationed in Fortress Monroe. In 1838 a New York clergyman accepted Allen in his newly-opened school and then recommended his pupil to Gerrit Smith, a prominent New York abolitionist who supported black students at Oneida Institute in upstate New York.  There Allen developed close ties to leaders of the black abolitionist movement. Allen taught fugitive slaves in Canada and co-edited the National Watchman, an abolitionist newspaper in Troy, New York. By 1847 Allen was in Boston clerking for Ellis Gray Loring, an abolitionist lawyer, and also lecturing, writing, and agitating for immediate abolition, racial equality, ‘amalgamation’, and Africa’s importance in the history of world civilization.  Appointed a professor of Greek Language and Literature at New York Central College in McGrawville, upstate New York, he was among pioneers in coeducation and inter-racial education. Allen courted Mary E. King, a white student there. The couple first met little opposition from her family but their toleration quickly vanished when the couple’s engagement prompted an anti-abolitionist and certainly an anti-‘amalgamation’ mob of 500 ‘gentlemen of property and standing’ who prepared to tar and feather Allen and roll him in a nail-studied barrel.  Allen fled to Syracuse, New York, where Jeremiah Loguen and the Reverend Samuel J. May (uncle of Louisa May Alcott) we reactive radical abolitionists and conductors for slaves escaping on the ‘Underground Railway’.  King and Allen then married in New York City and fled to England. Allen lectured in Leeds, Bradford, and Newcastle in 1853 and he wrote their story in ‘The American Prejudice against Color’ and ‘A Personal Narrative’. The pamphlets published in Dublin and London were sent to Samuel J. May and Louisa May Alcott was visiting the May family during the months of the Allen-King incident and its sensationalist treatment in the local papers. Alcott fictionalized the King-Allen romance in her story ‘M.L.’, (now reprinted in Louisa May Alcott on Race, Sex and Slavery, Northeastern University Press, 1998).  Professor R. J. M. Blackett traced the Allens’ years in England and Ireland but found no record of the couple or their children after 1878, when they were living in Notting Hill, London, impoverished and dependent upon friends for support.  Both were dedicated teachers, devoted to the education of poor boys and girls. Allen was the principal of the Caledonian Training School in Islington1863, but Englishmen too were not lacking in racism and his school was resented by competitors who drove him out. (See Blackett,’William G. Allen: the Forgotten Professor’, Civil War History26:2, pp. 39–51). This article brings together Alcott’s tale and the events upon which it was based, in the context of abolitionist culture and activity in upstate New York and New England, and of Alcott’s life, politics, and writing.

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