Tuscaloosa author writes children’s book about biracial daughter

Posted in Articles, Family/Parenting, Media Archive, United States on 2019-01-12 02:16Z by Steven

Tuscaloosa author writes children’s book about biracial daughter

The Tuscaloosa News
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Kelcey Sexton, Staff Writer

Monique Fields, a children’s author from Tuscaloosa, stands with her first published book Saturday, July 21, 2018. [Staff file photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Monique Fields remembers when she got inspiration for “Honeysmoke.”

It was when her eldest daughter began asking questions about herself, namely about the color of her skin. They were questions that took her by surprise because Simone was only 3 years old.

“She started asking questions about who she is, and I didn’t really have any good answers for her,” Fields said.

It seemed early for her to be paying such close attention to things like that.

“Basically, she pointed to my face one day, and she said, ‘Mommy’s a black girl.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, Mommy’s a black girl,’ ” she said. ”(Then Simone) said, ‘Simone is a white girl.’ ”

Fields, 48, admitted she really didn’t know the best way to respond to that and told Simone, no, she was a black girl like Mommy.

“Which is not true and was not the thing to do,” she said. “Then (Simone’s dad) Ken said, ‘You have a little bit of both worlds. You’re a little bit of Mommy and a little bit of Daddy.’…

Read the entire article here.

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Alabama’s Anti-Miscegenation Statutes

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, United States on 2016-07-27 02:09Z by Steven

Alabama’s Anti-Miscegenation Statutes

Alabama Review
Volume 68, Number 4, October 2015
pages 345-365
DOI: 10.1353/ala.2015.0033

Jeremy W. Richter, Associate
Webster, Henry, Lyons, Bradwell, Cohan & Speagle, P.C., Attorneys and Counselors at Law, Birmingham, Alabama

In the immediate aftermath of the civil war and, more specifically, the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, various southern states began passing laws to preserve a now-fragile social structure. Beginning with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which liberated all slaves residing in rebel states or territories, the southern states’ social ecology had begun to unravel, and southern whites faced a situation in which the black Americans once deemed property were now citizens—equal in the eyes of the law.

Nevertheless, white citizens sought to maintain control over their black counterparts. In an effort to preserve their society, southern states in 1865 began to pass a series of laws, which varied by state and collectively became known as Black Codes. These laws were designed to exploit and control former slaves. For example, freedmen (as freed black citizens became known) who were arrested for vagrancy could be contracted out for labor; freedmen were, in some states, not allowed to raise their own crops and were precluded from entering towns without permission. Most significantly perhaps, the Black Codes enacted offenses containing differing penalties for black versus white citizens. These racially-discriminatory penalties were later outlawed upon the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and the enactment of the Reconstruction Acts.

Two centuries of slavery had, prior to 1865, created a caste system which maintained, at least officially, the distinction between white and black. With that barrier removed and the federal government attempting to institute legal racial equality, of primary concern to many was the preservation of the purity of the white race. In response, many states throughout the United States, largely regardless of geography, passed laws prohibiting the intermarriage of white and black citizens. In 1967, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and as such any such existing laws were overturned. At the time of the Loving v. Virginia decision, sixteen states still had anti-miscegenation laws in effect: Delaware, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.

The State of Alabama enacted its first anti-miscegenation law in the Penal Code of 1866:

If any white person and any negro, or the descendant of any negro, to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation was a white person, intermarry, or live in adultery or fornication with each other, each of them must, on conviction, be imprisoned in the penitentiary, or sentenced to hard labor for the county, for not less than two, nor more than seven years.

The Alabama legislature reinforced this statute in new penal codes that were enacted in 1867 (§ 3602), 1876 (§ 4189), 1886 (§ 4018), and 1896 (§ 5096). In 1901, Alabama drafted a new state constitution, wherein the anti-miscegenation statute was made a part of the state constitution: “The legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendant of a negro.” The final revisions to Alabama’s anti-miscegenation law were adopted in the Code of Alabama of 1940, which stated: “If any white person and any negro, or the descendant of any negro intermarry, or live in adultery or fornication with each other, each of them shall, on conviction, be imprisoned in the penitentiary for not less than two nor more than seven years.”

Judicial Application of Anti-Miscegenation Laws in Alabama: Setting Precedent, 1868–1881

In addition to a law disallowing marriage between whites and blacks, the Alabama Penal Code of 1866 adopted laws governing adultery. Where Alabama Code § 3598 outlined the repercussions of adultery offenses generally, Alabama Code § 3602 specifically addressed the penalties for adultery between white and black persons:

If any white person or negro, or the descendant of any negro, to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation was a white person, intermarry or live in adultery with each other, each of them must, on conviction, be imprisoned in the penitentiary, or sentenced to hard labor for the…

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Interesting description of a group of people called Cajans around Mobile Alabama written before 1940

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2015-11-06 16:39Z by Steven

Interesting description of a group of people called Cajans around Mobile Alabama written before 1940

Alabama Pioneers

Donna R. Causey


Occupying the pine and oak woods of Mobile County in southern Alabama are a group of people of mixed racial blood known in that section as Indian Cajans.

Living in a little world of their own, set apart from the rest of the world by the color line and ideas of social inequality, this group of people lives near Mobile County, known for its thriving seaport, and is the home of a big percent of this Cajan population. These people have been so overlooked that no one really knows where they came from, nor how long they have been here.

It is evident that the Alabama Cajans are a mixture of a number of races and nationalities: English, American Indian, German, French, Italian, Mexican, Negro, and Russian. The name “Cajan” is probably a misnomer as the group is connected only remotely with the Acadians of historical fame; however, it has been brought over probably from Louisiana and Mississippi and is now in general use in south Alabama.

In the absence of a more accurate term “Cajan” is used in this account to designate the people of mixed blood in Mobile County who are classed as neither white, red, nor black, but constitute a unique race.

Numerous stories regarding the origin of the group are told; however, none is known to be authentic. A typical tale is told by some of the old settlers in the southern part of the County. During the War of 1812 numbers of English pirates were forced to flee for their lives, and they came to Mobile. From the town they moved out into this section to escape punishment. Here they married and intermarried with Spanish, French, Germans, American Indians, and Mexicans, and started the new mixed race of Cajans…

Read the entire article here.

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Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2015-09-21 00:28Z by Steven

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White

University of Alabama Press
264 pages
Quality Paper ISBN: 978-0-8173-5714-6
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8173-8619-1

Lila Quintero Weaver

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White is an arresting and moving personal story about childhood, race, and identity in the American South, rendered in stunning illustrations by the author, Lila Quintero Weaver.

In 1961, when Lila was five, she and her family emigrated from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Marion, Alabama, in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt. As educated, middle-class Latino immigrants in a region that was defined by segregation, the Quinteros occupied a privileged vantage from which to view the racially charged culture they inhabited. Weaver and her family were firsthand witnesses to key moments in the civil rights movement. But Darkroom is her personal story as well: chronicling what it was like being a Latina girl in the Jim Crow South, struggling to understand both a foreign country and the horrors of our nation’s race relations. Weaver, who was neither black nor white, observed very early on the inequalities in the American culture, with its blonde and blue-eyed feminine ideal. Throughout her life, Lila has struggled to find her place in this society and fought against the discrimination around her.

Read chapter four here.

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Race, Marriage, and the Law of Freedom: Alabama and Virginia 1860s-1960s

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, United States, Virginia on 2014-02-24 03:05Z by Steven

Race, Marriage, and the Law of Freedom: Alabama and Virginia 1860s-1960s

Chicago-Kent Law Review
Volume 70, Issue 2: Symposium on the Law of Freedom, Part I: Freedom: Personal Liberty and Private Law (1994)
pages 371-437

Peter Wallenstein, Professor of History
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


In 1966, one hundred years after Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification,’ Richard and Mildred Loving took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge their convictions for having violated Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage. In the months ahead, the nation’s high court would face squarely, for the first time, the question of whether laws like Virginia’s violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In June 1967, in a unanimous decision, the Court struck down all laws that made the racial identity of an American citizen a criterion for indictment and conviction for the crime of contracting a marriage.

The most private of relationships proved tightly entwined with public policy in the years after the end of American slavery. Sexual relations across racial lines-whether within marriage or outside itproved a topic of judicial interest into the 1960s for two reasons. First, many American states enacted and long retained statutes restricting such interracial relations, and second, some people sought to establish and maintain such relations whatever the law. Generalizing about the racial attitudes and behavior of white southerners, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal noted in the early 1940s that “the closer the association of a type of interracial behavior is to sexual and social intercourse on an equalitarian basis, the higher it ranks among the forbidden things.”

This Essay focuses on the most forbidden thing of all: marriage between African Americans and European Americans. The Essay details the origins and application of laws against such marriages, and tracks the history of challenges in the courts to those laws. Two states, Virginia in the Upper South and Alabama in the Deep South, together illustrate how the law related to sex, marriage, and interracial couples. Though the variations on a general theme are intriguing, the two states differed little in the outlines of their legislative or judicial histories on questions of miscegenation. Both states criminalized sexual and marital relations of an interracial nature. In both states, any number of cases developed at the local level, as the courts dealt with indictments for violating the antimiscegenation laws. At the appellate level some defendants brought appeals on constitutional or other grounds. The legal environment in each state was shaped by a decision from the other state.

Four cases, two from Alabama and two from Virginia, went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1883, Pace v. Alabama supplied a major precedent in favor of the constitutionality of antimiscegenation statutes. Virginia relied on Pace into the 1960s to justify its own antimiscegenation  laws. In two cases in the 1950s, Jackson v. Alabama and Naim v. Virginia, the Court skirted the issue and left Pace intact. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court finally reversed Pace and established a new law of race and marriage throughout the nation. Only in the 1960s, a full century after Emancipation, did the Supreme Court declare statutes against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Only then did the law of slavery and racism defer at last to the law of freedom and racial equality.

The law that the Lovings challenged in the 1960s had its origins in the seventeenth century. In Virginia, slavery and antimiscegenation legislation developed together. In Alabama, by contrast, laws restricting interracial marriage originated only in the 1850s. In both states, such laws reached their fullest development in the years between 1865 and 1883, that is, in the generation after the Civil War and Emancipation. Moreover, in both states the legal definitions of white and non- white shifted in the early twentieth century, such that residents with any discernible African ancestry were classified as nonwhite (something not the case in the nineteenth century).

When the Lovings married each other in 1958, no constitutional challenge to antimiscegenation laws had succeeded in any federal court. The American system of marital Apartheid no longer held sway in many states outside the former Confederacy, but in the South it showed no promise of relinquishing its control. That system had its origins, at least in Virginia, as far back as the 1690s. It had grown more powerful as slavery had. It had continued to grow more powerful into the 1920s and 1930s. As late as the 1950s, efforts to challenge the system in state and federal courts alike in both Alabama and Virginia had come to naught. Yet, the Lovings prevailed in their challenge. This Essay tells the history of the system they challenged and outlines the story of that challenge and its aftermath…

Read the entire article here.

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The Life And Times Of Adella Hunt Logan: Educator, Mother, Wife, And Suffragist, 1863-1915

Posted in Biography, Dissertations, History, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2014-01-23 21:34Z by Steven

The Life And Times Of Adella Hunt Logan: Educator, Mother, Wife, And Suffragist, 1863-1915

Florida State University
November 2012

Daria Willis

Adella Hunt Logan was a woman trapped between two worlds. She was a mulatto who suffered from the pressures and injustices of Jim Crow America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The impact of Adella Logan’s life is seen beginning in 1883 in Tuskegee, Alabama. She maintained a large family while making a lasting impact on the Tuskegee community, as well as the women’s suffrage movement. Adella often led a life full of contradictions that can be attributed to her social status as well as her mixed racial heritage. Nonetheless, her efforts at advancing the cause of lower-class blacks and the students and teachers at Tuskegee Institute cannot be denied. This study discusses Adella Logan in terms of race, class, and gender. It is the story of an African American woman, an unusual American family, and the world she lived in.

Read the entire dissertation here on of after 2020-01-14.

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Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America

Posted in Books, History, Law, Media Archive, Monographs, Religion, United States on 2013-09-24 01:13Z by Steven

Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America

Oxford University Press
352 Pages
15 b/w photos
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches
Hardcover ISBN: 9780195379792
Paperback ISBN: 9780199794454

Sharon Davies, Professor of Law; Gregory H. Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties; Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity
Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law

It was among the most notorious criminal cases of its day. On August 11, 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama, a Methodist minister named Edwin Stephenson shot and killed a Catholic priest, James Coyle, in broad daylight and in front of numerous witnesses. The killer’s motive? The priest had married Stephenson’s eighteen-year-old daughter Ruth to Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican migrant and practicing Catholic.

Sharon Davies’s Rising Road resurrects the murder of Father Coyle and the trial of his killer. As Davies reveals with novelistic richness, Stephenson’s crime laid bare the most potent bigotries of the age: a hatred not only of blacks, but of Catholics and “foreigners” as well. In one of the case’s most unexpected turns, the minister hired future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black to lead his defense. Though regarded later in life as a civil rights champion, in 1921 Black was just months away from donning the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, the secret order that financed Stephenson’s defense. Entering a plea of temporary insanity, Black defended the minister on claims that the Catholics had robbed Ruth away from her true Protestant faith, and that her Puerto Rican husband was actually black.

Placing the story in social and historical context, Davies brings this heinous crime and its aftermath back to life, in a brilliant and engrossing examination of the wages of prejudice and a trial that shook the nation at the height of Jim Crow.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. The Best Laid Plans
  • 2. A Parish to Run
  • 3. Until Death Do Us Part
  • 4. A City Reacts
  • 5. A Killer Speaks
  • 6. The Building of a Defense
  • 7. The Engines of Justice Turn
  • 8. Black Robes, White Robes
  • 9. Trials and Tribulations
  • 10. A Jury’s Verdict
  • Epilogue
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A Race Question: A Negro Man With a White Wife—Some Nice Points of Law—Indians Have Greater Nuptial Privileges.

Posted in Articles, Law, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-28 22:36Z by Steven

A Race Question: A Negro Man With a White Wife—Some Nice Points of Law—Indians Have Greater Nuptial Privileges.

Columbus Enquirer-Sun
Columbus, Georgia
Saturday, 1886-11-20
page 8, columns 3-4

Source: Digital Library of Georgia

A very interesting case, both as to the facts and the nice legal points involved, was tried this week at the circuit court in Seale [Alabama].  A negro man was on trial, charged with living in adultery with an alleged white woman.  The prisoner had been living with the woman as his wife for quite a number of years, and had begotten by her a family of children.  As the parties were seated within the bar of the court, they formed an interesting group. The man was as black as midnight, and in appearance, showed prominently every characteristic of the African make up. The woman, on the other hand, was white of skin and had in every liniament of her features the Caucassian cast of countenance. Their two boys, aged respectively about 8 and 10, sat between the black father on the one side and the white mother on the the other, and were of a yellow or copper color.

The defense was based on the position that the woman, although white to all appearances, was yet of mixed blood. The state conceded that if the woman was of such mixed blood, as in contemplation of law, she would be deemed a negro; that then the man could not be found guilty. But the state insisted that if the woman was in fact, or in law, a white woman, that then her marriage with the defendant was unlawful and invalid, and the living together being admitted, the man would be guilty as charged.  So the case tuned on the point whether the woman was of white or mixed blood.

On this point the woman herself testified that as far back as could remember she was living with negroes; that she had never seen either of her parents, but that her mother was a white woman, and she had been told that her father was a bright mulatto or part Indian.

No other positive testimony was introduced. The state asked the court to charge the jury that if they believed the woman’s testimony that then they must find the prisoner guilty, and argued in support of the request that the woman having been shown to be of white maternity, that by legal presumption she herself ws white until the contrary was shown, or until she was shown to be of negro paternity; that this legal presumption put the burden of proof upon the defendant, which burden was not lifted by her vague and hearsay testimony as to the mixed blood of her father. The court charged as requested.

The defense insisted that testimony about one’s own nativity, such as age, place of birth, parentage, etc., was, in the absence of better testimony, a matter of common report, and as the woman had testified that she had been told that her father was of mixed blood or part Indian, that her testimony on that point should have its due weight, and ashed the court to charge that, looking at the whole testimony, if the jury had a reasonable doubt us to whether the woman was of white or mixed blood, that then they must acquit.

The court again charged as requested.

It cropped out incidentally in the discussion that although it is unlawful for whites and negroes to intermarry, yet one of aboriginal blood may marry either white or black according to his own supreme election and not be subject to any legal penalty. So that, if one is arraigned on a charge of miscegenation, they have only to induce the belief that they are of Indian origin and thereby escape the clutches of the law. There are some curious things in municipal as well as natural law. In this case the verdict was not guilty.

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City’s black founding father

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2012-04-14 02:36Z by Steven

City’s black founding father

Decator Daily
Decatur, Alabama

Deangelo McDaniel, Staff Writer

Minister, historian reconstructing life of ex-slave who became successful farmer

First in a two-part series

The Rev. Wylheme Ragland would like to spend one day with Robert Murphy.

So would local historian Peggy Allen Towns.

“Just one day,” Ragland said emphatically. “Just one day.”

Murphy, who died June 8, 1918, is one of Decatur’s black founding fathers, Towns and Ragland proclaim.

The former slave is buried in the Cowan section of Decatur City Cemetery and so are many of the secrets that would reveal the River City’s pre-Civil War and Reconstruction history.

Ragland, a United Methodist pastor at the church where Murphy was a trustee, and Towns are determined to reconstruct his life.

Doing so, they say, would fill significant gaps in Decatur’s history and dispel myths about the role of blacks and what happened here in 1864…

…But to understand and appreciate Murphy’s journey you have to go back to Virginia in 1795 when Mary, a slave, was born to the Kimble family.

Mary was his mother.

Traveling from Virginia through North Carolina, she arrived in the Tennessee Valley with the Kimble clan before 1820.

The slave-owning family purchased land in Trinity that extended to the Tennessee River.

In 1831, Murphy was born to Mary and his mother’s owner.

The Kimble family intermarried with the Murphys, who also owned a plantation on the Tennessee River. At some point before the Civil War, Mary and her son became the property of James Murphy

“Where was your home before and during the Civil War?” a government lawyer asked Murphy in 1906.

“About six miles from Decatur,” Murphy answered. “I belonged to James Murphy.”

As was the case for some mulatto (mixed-race) slaves, Murphy had extraordinary privileges for a slave, especially in 1864 when the Union Army fortified Decatur. He told the government he was able to travel between Decatur and Athens where his wife, Harriett, lived.

“My master did not care where I went so long as I did not go to be a soldier,” Murphy said in 1906…

Read the entire article here.

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Letters from a Planter’s Daughter: Understanding Freedom and Independence in the Life of Susanna Townsend (1853-1869)

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United States, Women on 2012-04-07 02:00Z by Steven

Letters from a Planter’s Daughter: Understanding Freedom and Independence in the Life of Susanna Townsend (1853-1869)

The University of Alabama McNair Journal
Volume 12  (Spring 2012)
pages 145-174

R. Isabela Morales

Wealthy Alabama cotton planter Samuel Townsend had already fathered eight children by the time Susanna Townsend was born in 1853—her mother, like all the mothers of her half-brothers and sisters, was an enslaved African-American woman on one of Samuel Townsend’s large plantations. Samuel’s fourth daughter and youngest child, Susanna was a vulnerable young girl born into the turmoil and turbulence surrounding the probation and execution of Samuel Townsend’s will when, to the shock of his white relatives, Samuel left the bulk of his $200,000 estate to his nine enslaved children. Susanna, seven years old when she and her extended family were emancipated, may have remembered little of the courtroom drama that ended in 1860, when the Probate Court of Madison County declared Samuel’s will valid. But the nominally favorable courtroom ruling did not mark the end of Susanna’s liminal existence. Until her death, Susanna Townsend lived in a borderland of race, class, and family status. A reconstruction and examination of a life (1853-1869) that straddled the Civil War provides insight into meanings of freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency in the post-emancipation moment—as well as revealing interactions of gender, race, and power in the creation of the archive.

Mr Cabaniss i write to you in haste, Susanna began in her letter of 4 June 1868. There was a man in Cincinnati, the nicest young man i ever did see, who wished to have her for a wife, and if Cabaniss could simply send her some money for a dress and shoes (common enough apparel, for she was very plain in dressing), and if he would pay their train fare to Kansas, Susanna could marry the man within the month. She did not want a large wedding—no church service at all, in fact—but would take her vows in the mayor’s office and be off to her new life as fast and far as the train cars could take her. If Alabama lawyer S.D. Cabaniss, executor of her father’s estate, would only write her by the tenth of June, Susanna would be ready, for her fiancé was in a hury to move. He was a gentleman, fifteen-year-old Susanna Townsend assured her attorney, and also, she added almost as an afterthought, he is a white man.

Susanna’s wishes were modest: a simple gown for a simple wedding ceremony, a husband who says he will [do] his best for me as long as he lives, a small sum of money out of her inheritance to visit her extended family in Leavenworth County and buy a little house in Kansas if there is no more than three rooms and an acre of grown [ground]. The attorney Cabaniss owed Susanna twelve thousand dollars out of her father Samuel Townsend’s property—Samuel, a wealthy cotton planter from Madison County, Alabama, had bequeathed his $200,000 estate to Susanna, her eight elder siblings, and their mothers in 1856. On paper, at least, Susanna was a privileged young woman with every opportunity. In reality, her future was far less certain.

Susanna Townsend was a former slave living and working in Reconstruction-era urban Ohio, the daughter of the white planter Samuel and the fourth of his seven enslaved African-American mistresses. The Civil War had drastically devalued the Townsend property, and neither Susanna nor any of her half-siblings would ever receive a quarter, if that, of their inheritance in the following years. She was mixed-race—perhaps, as a Freedman’s Bureau agent later said of her half-sister Milcha, “the woman is nearly white”—but whether or not her appearance could fool Cincinnati society, her father’s attorney knew she was the daughter of an enslaved woman. If S.D. Cabaniss replied to Susanna’s  June letter, the archive holds no record; he certainly never sent money by the tenth of that month. In five months, Susanna would give birth in her half-brother Wesley’s home outside of the city—a hint at her urgency to marry and leave the state. In another six, Susanna would be dead.

In her sixteen years, Susanna straddled slavery and freedom, the antebellum South and the post-war Northwest, a life of in-between’s on the borderlands of race and society. She had an uncertain place within the extended Townsend family: as the youngest child with no living parents and no full siblings, she could neither support herself independently nor depend on her extended family supporting her indefinitely. She had an uncertain inheritance: when the Civil War broke out, the new Confederate government prohibited Cabaniss, living in Alabama, from sending any money into the Union. For Susanna, this ban meant serious financial insecurity. Finally, she had an uncertain racial status within the society at large. Because she was a “white-looking” woman of some promised financial means, Susanna upset categories of a social hierarchy that equated African ancestry with powerlessness and inferiority. Despite these potential advantages, as a fifteen-year-old mixed-race girl, Susanna remained subject to the machinations of the senior white lawyer. Occupying these in-between spaces meant a life of inherent instability—poignantly expressed in her letter of 4 June, in which she explains her young man’s offer of marriage and promise of security: He says I have been going around long enough without anyone to take care of me.” The liminality of her circumstances drew Susanna Townsend to this seemingly desperate point in the summer of 1868, when vistas of possibility for her future could be opened or closed by a single stroke of her lawyer’s pen.

In fiction, all tragedy has meaning. But what meaning can be drawn from the life and death of a teenage girl like Susanna Townsend? Her time was short, a fleeting sixteen years easy to overlook in the contemporary convulsions of war and the national drama of Reconstruction. Her biography is not so extraordinary; she was neither the only child of sex across the color line or the only mixed-race woman who would attempt to “pass” across that line. Nine letters in her own words exist, both on fragile paper in a university manuscript library and in high-quality pixels online, but still she is elusive. Susanna’s letters reveal only pieces of her mind—the pieces she deliberately crafted for the eyes of her father’s attorney. What was Susanna truly thinking, hoping, and wishing for when she wrote to Cabaniss on 4 June 1868? What is at stake when we speculate? And for us of the twenty-first century, does it even matter? The significance of Susanna Townsend’s story lies in these very questions: this micro history is as much about the problems and impossibilities of reconstructing Susanna’s life as it is about Susanna herself. This story fits into the existing historiography in that it is a gendered analysis of her life in urban Ohio during Reconstruction. Its specificities, however, raise new questions about freedom in this particular socio-historical context. Her letters and words, evasive as they may be, are a lens through which to draw inferences about how the daughter and former slave of an Alabama cotton planter understood her emancipation, pursued independence and self-sufficiency, and exercised her freedom on the borderlands of society…

Read the entire article here.

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