NY Times Publishes New Obituaries for African Americans It "Overlooked" When They Died-Includes Civil War Era Figures Black History Month

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Pat Young

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The New York Times is publishing obituaries for People of Color and women who were "Overlooked" when they died. Until recently, the Times viewed white men as the primary subjects of public eulogy. Now it is seeking to ameliorate the discrimination that even followed women and non-whites to the grave.

Here is a set that were published this week for Black History Month:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/obituaries/moses-fleetwood-walker-overlooked.html

The Civil War Era figures are:

Margaret Garner-Enslaved Woman

Mary Ellen Pleasant-Black Abolitionist

Elizabeth Jennings-NYC Civil Rights Leader
 

Pat Young

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From the obituary for Margaret Garner:

Margaret Garner, who was born as an enslaved girl, almost certainly did not plan to kill her child when she grew up and became an enslaved mother.

But she also couldn’t yet know that the physical, emotional and psychological violence of slavery, relentless and horrific, would one day conspire to force her maternal judgment in a moment already fraught with grave imperative.

In January 1856, when Garner, known as Peggy, was 22 and pregnant, she decided to flee the plantation where she was enslaved, in Boone County, Ky. She escaped with her husband and his parents, as well as their four children, and crossed over the frozen Ohio River to the safe house of Elijah Kite, Garner’s cousin, a free black man living in the free state of Ohio. Like hundreds of other enslaved black men, women and children, Garner and her family planned to use the Underground Railroad, which was then at its peak of operation, as the pathway to freedom.

Motherhood, across race, language, country and culture, is understood to be complicated and powerful: a tsunami of gut and joy and fear and heartache. Garner found herself in that fleeting, lightless instant of a mother’s incongruous love on a frigid night, when slave catchers surrounded her cousins’ home and when she made the decision, in one soul-chilling moment, to slit the throat of her 2-year-old daughter rather than return her to slavery.

Garner had already started on her three other children — she intended to kill them all, and then herself — when the federal marshals stormed the house to enforce the legal fact that she was not a mother or a wife, but the property of the man who owned her. She was immediately placed in prison.

Garner’s story has been preserved in history as both sensational and singular. It writ large a question that had been unanswered in the homes and hearts of whites in pre-Civil War America: Was slavery a fate worse than death? Garner, with knife in hand, gave an answer that was impossible to ignore.

Scholars have written books examining the series of events that led up to that fateful night. For more than 150 years, poets and painters have mythologized her in their work. Most notably, Garner’s case was the basis for Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved,” which was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and later became the inspiration for the 2005 opera “Margaret Garner,” composed by Richard Danielpour, with a libretto by Morrison and starring the renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Garner.
 

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From Mary Ellen Pleasant's obit:

When the abolitionist John Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859, for murder and treason, a note found in his pocket read, “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” Officials most likely believed it was written by a wealthy Northerner who had helped fund Brown’s attempt to incite, and arm, an enormous slave uprising by taking over an arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. No one suspected that the note was written by a black woman named Mary Ellen Pleasant.

In 1901, an elderly Pleasant dictated her autobiography to the journalist Sam Davis. As Lynn Hudson writes in the book “The Making of ‘Mammy Pleasant’: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” Pleasant told Davis, “Before I pass away, I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested.” The sum she donated was $30,000 — almost $900,000 in today’s dollars.

As Hudson writes, the claim about Pleasant’s role in the raid of Harpers Ferry, though widely repeated, is shrouded in “more mystery than evidence.” This is not surprising. Pleasant lived her life between the lines of legitimacy and infamy, servitude and self-invention. She became known throughout San Francisco as Mammy Pleasant, because of the years she spent as a domestic servant. Yet she was also, incredibly, a former slave who became a millionaire. Add to that improbable pairing, a dedicated abolitionist, credited with being an important conductor of the Underground Railroad.
 
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From the obituary for Elizabeth Jennings:

Because she was running behind one Sunday morning, Elizabeth Jennings turned out to be a century ahead of her time.

She was a teacher in her 20s, on her way to the First Colored American Congregational Church in Lower Manhattan, where she was the regular organist, when a conductor ordered her off a horse-drawn Third Avenue trolley and told her to wait for a car reserved for black passengers.

One immediately arrived, but it was full.
When Jennings flatly refused to leave the whites-only trolley that she had already boarded, she was bodily ejected.
She sued the company for damages and won in 1855 — exactly 100 years before Rosa Parks rejected a Montgomery, Ala., bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the colored section for a white passenger after the space reserved for whites was filled.
 

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Elizabeth Keckley's is here:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/12/obituaries/elizabeth-keckly-overlooked.html

Keckley was Mary Todd Lincoln's seamstress and companion. From the obit:

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (sometimes spelled Keckley), was born in February 1818 in Dinwiddie, Va. She was the daughter not of the black slave whom she believed was her father but — as her mother, Agnes, disclosed in her last days — of Armistead Burwell, the white planter who owned their family.

In her teens, Keckly was sent to North Carolina to work for Burwell’s son Robert, whom she would one day learn was her white half brother. There, she was sometimes savagely whipped. Of one such occasion, she wrote in her book, “I did not scream; I was too proud to let my tormentor know what I was suffering.”

Repeatedly raped by a white store owner, she gave birth to her only child, George, when she was about 23.
Keckly was eventually given to kinder owners and moved with them to St. Louis. To help the family earn money, she started a seamstress business there and was soon in high demand. Her mother had taught her to sew when she was as young as 3, and she had an unusual talent for it.
Shortly after, she received a marriage proposal, but she declined to accept it, writing, “I could not bear the thought of bringing children into slavery — of adding one single recruit to the millions bound in hopeless servitude.”
Keckly raised with her owners the idea of buying her freedom for herself and her son, and after long negotiations they finally accepted $1,200 and freed her in 1855. She settled in Washington and continued her work as a seamstress.
One day in 1861, after Lincoln had taken office, a well-connected client wanted a gown made quickly. She promised Keckly that if she could complete the task, she would introduce her to the fashion-conscious new first lady, who was looking for a “modiste,” or dressmaker.
 

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Mary Ann Shad Cary was a Black Abolitionist:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/obituaries/mary-ann-shadd-cary-abolitionist-overlooked.html

From the obituary:

“We should do more and talk less.”

That was the message that Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 25, wrote in a long 1848 letter to the abolitionist and African-American statesman Frederick Douglass, who had asked readers of his North Star newspaper for suggestions on improving life for black people in America.
Shadd Cary, a woman eager for change, demanded action, not rhetoric.

“We have been holding conventions for years — we have been assembling together and whining over our difficulties and afflictions, passing resolutions on resolutions to any extent,” she wrote. “But it does really seem that we have made but little progress considering our resolves.”

Douglass printed the letter, an unapologetic critique of the established male-dominated abolitionist movement and its propensity for long-winded discourse, and it became Shadd Cary’s first published work. While it put her at odds with some in the older generation, it also established her as a youthful, unconventional voice, and was the first step in her journey to becoming a prominent journalist and activist.
 
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Ida B. Wells was born in slavery and became an anti-lynching activist:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked-ida-b-wells.html

From the obituary:

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862, less than a year before Emancipation. She grew up during Reconstruction, the period when black men, including her father, were able to vote, ushering black representatives into state legislatures across the South. One of eight siblings, she often tagged along to Bible school on her mother’s hip.

In 1878, her parents both died of yellow fever, along with one of her brothers; and at 16, she took on caring for the rest of her siblings. She supported them by working as a teacher after dropping out of high school and lying about her age. She finished her own education at night and on weekends.

Around the same time, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was largely nullified by the Supreme Court, reversing many of the advancements of Reconstruction. The anti-black sentiment that grew around her was ultimately codified into Jim Crow.

“It felt like a dramatic whiplash,” said Troy Duster, Wells’s grandson, who is a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and New York University. “She cuts her teeth politically in this time of justice, justice, justice, and then injustice.”

Observing the changes around her, Wells decided to become a journalist during what was a golden era for black writers and editors. Her goal was to write about black people for black people, in a way that was accessible to those who, like her, were born the property of white owners and had much to defend.

Her articles were often reprinted abroad, as well as in the more than 200 black weeklies then in circulation in the United States.

Whenever possible, Wells named the victims of racist violence and told their stories. In her journals, she lamented that her subjects would have otherwise been forgotten by all “save the night wind, no memorial service to bemoan their sad and horrible fate.”
 

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Edmonia Lewis's obituary is here:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/obituaries/overlooked-edmonia-lewis-sculptor.html

From the Obituary:

Her Roman studio was a required stop for the moneyed class on the Grand Tour. Frederick Douglass visited her. Ulysses S. Grant sat for her. She made busts of John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (whose 1855 poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” inspired her to create a series of marble sculptures on Hiawatha and Minnehaha).

Her sculptures sold for thousands of dollars, and she had commissions from wealthy patrons on both sides of the Atlantic. When the United States celebrated its centennial in Philadelphia in 1876, she was invited to submit her work. Her piece, “The Death of Cleopatra” — more than 3,000 pounds of Carrara marble depicting the Egyptian queen with one breast bared and quite dead — created a stir for its commanding realism...

In 1878, she told The New York Times: “I was practically driven to Rome, in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.”
 
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From Mary Ellen Pleasant's obit:

When the abolitionist John Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859, for murder and treason, a note found in his pocket read, “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” Officials most likely believed it was written by a wealthy Northerner who had helped fund Brown’s attempt to incite, and arm, an enormous slave uprising by taking over an arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. No one suspected that the note was written by a black woman named Mary Ellen Pleasant.
I had never heard of this note before so I checked in two of my John Brown biographies, one by David S. Reynolds and the other by Stephen B. Oates. No mention of the note or Mary Pleasant, which I found odd. I "googled" the content of the note and found the following from a 1940 WPA Project called the Writers Program California:

"On the northern fringes of the Japanese quarter a hospital marks the SITE OF THE THOMAS BELL RESIDENCE, corner of Octavia and Bush Sts., long known as the 'House of Mystery.' The house itself was torn down about 1927 but a short row of eucalyptus
trees that once hedged it remains. Here, during the heyday of the Comstock period, lived that formidable sorceress known to every San Franciscan as Mammy Pleasant. Ostensibly, the great mansion with its mansard roof, its inner courtyard, and its mirror-lined ballroom, which was never used for dancing, was the private residence of Thomas Bell, reputedly the power behind William C. Ralston's throne in the Bank of California. Mammy Pleasant was to all appearances his housekeeper. There was scarcely a man in public life who did not treat the scrawny little Negress with utmost deference.

"The truth was, of course, that she was a procuress of unusual resources and connections, and a remarkable cook. On her arrival in San Francisco in 1848, she quickly attracted to her boarding house the leaders of the town. The entertainment she provided soon enabled her to open a whole chain of boarding houses. Obeying the injunction of her dead first husband she devoted part of her legacy received from him to the Abolitionist cause, traveling to Boston, where she presented John Brown with a draft for $30,000. When Brown was captured at Harper's Ferry, a note was found on him, signed with illiterate Mammy Pleasant's 'M. P.' It read: 'The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.'

"To ensure this, Mammy returned to San Francisco, set up her menage in the mansion among the blue gum trees, and settled down to her long career of forwarding the infidelities of the city's men of affairs. She squandered Thomas Bell's fortune on her weird schemes, turned his wife against him, kept him virtually a prisoner, and starved his children. When he died of a fall into the courtyard from a third-story balcony, it was believed that his 'housekeeper' had pushed him over. She carried on for years a bitter legal duel with members of his family. She died at the age of 92, penniless, asking only that her tombstone bear this epitaph: 'She was a friend of John Brown.'"

San Francisco, the Bay and its Cities, by Writers' Program, California (1940) pp. 298-299
https://archive.org/details/sanfranciscobaya00writrich
 
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