Black Herstory Month

margaret-garner-marker.jpgDiary of an Anxious Black Woman is doing a great Black Herstory Month series–be sure to check it out.  She’s doing a spectacular job of telling stories of women far beyond the usual suspects, including nineteenth- and twentieth-century women in the arts like Katherine Dunham, Edmonia Lewis, and Octavia Butler.  In an post on Margaret Garner, she brings us word of an epoynymous opera with a libretto by Toni Morrison, whose Beloved was a fictionalized version of Garner’s life.  (The photo on the right is of the historical marker that stands in a central square in Covington, Kentucky to commemorate Garner’s escape and tragic choices.)  Anxious Black Woman believes that Margaret Garner the opera is far superior to the film version of Beloved:  “Unlike the film adaptation, which reduced the pain and the trauma of the story to histrionics and horror-film grotesqueries, the opera magnifies the despair and the sadness that her story is supposed to represent.”  Also, see Clio Bluestocking Tales for some brilliant posts about the woman known as Harriet Bailey Adams or Ruth Cox Adams, whom Frederick Douglass called his “sister.”  (Clio B. is contemplating a biography of Douglass through the lives of the women he was closest to.)    

I’ve been doing some African American history in the service of my current project, a book on the life and times of Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), a child from Maine who was taken captive by the Abenaki in 1704 during Queen Anne’s War.  She lived with (and was almost certainly adopted by) the Abenaki until the age of 12, when she went to Quebec and entered the Ursuline convent there, living the rest of her long life as a nun.  Esther Wheelwright came from a slaveowning family, which it turns out was not as unusual as I would have expected in Wells, Maine at the turn of the eighteenth century.  Her paternal grandfather, father, and mother all wrote wills (in 1700, 1739, and 1750, respectively) that deeded enslaved people to other family members upon their deaths, so it’s very likely that Esther grew up in a household that included enslaved Africans or African Americans.

Imagine the isolation of the lives of enslaved people living on the frontiers of New England, living and working in isolation from a black community of any size.  Northern slavery in colonial Anglo-America may have offered relatively better food, clothing, and working conditions than slavery in the Caribbean or the southern mainland colonies, but it was just as arbitrary and cruel.  The only evidence I’ve found that speaks directly to the experiences of enslaved African American women in southern Maine around 1700 so far is the case of women identified only as Rachel, who was beaten regularly and then finally murdered by her master, Nathaniel Keene, in 1694.  Keene (or Caine) was initially accused in court of “Murdering a Negro Woman,” but in the end the jury found him guilty only of “cruelty to his Negro woman by Cruell Beating and hard usage.”  The penalty exacted of him was a five-pound fine-which was suspended-and  five pounds, ten shillings in court costs.  In order to put this punishment into perspective, people convicted of fornication or of bearing a child out of wedlock in 1694 and 1695 were regularly fined between twenty shillings and five pounds, substantial but not crippling sums.  This is how Rachel’s hard life and wretched death were commemorated by her community.

Sorry to end on such a down note–it’s times like this that I’m envious of modern historians.  They get to tell stories of liberation and triumph over oppression.  Me, I’m left with stories that, more often than not, don’t have endings that satisfy the reader’s need for retribution against evildoers and redress for the victims. 

7 thoughts on “Black Herstory Month

  1. Your comments on the slaves in Maine are similar to my thoughts about the slaves in rural England in the late 17th century. At least in the cities there were other slaves. In England at least, the irony is that we only see blacks (slave or not) when they are in white households.


  2. You are undoubtedly aware of this book:

    Esther Wheelwright, Indian captive.
    by Marguerite Vance
    Type: Book
    Language: English
    Publisher: New York, Dutton [1964]
    Edition: [1st ed.]
    OCLC: 1373313

    David Sewall,
    a Wheelwright descendant


  3. Hi, David–thanks for writing! No–I don’t know that book, although it looks a lot like the fictionalized biographies that I devoured as a child. I’ve just focused on the historical work on her, of which there isn’t very much. FYI, another Wheelwright descendant is working on a new non-ficiton bio too, Julie Wheelwright. Her book should be out next year with Harper-Collins Canada, probably long before mine will be. She and I have collaborated on research trips and a documentary film about Esther. You Wheelwright descendants are a proud and enterprizing lot!


  4. Your Wheelwright project sounds fascinating, especially with this dimension of slaves in Maine. What a difficult group of people to excavate. I know that Deerfield, Massachusetts, is a long way from Maine, but someone associated with Historic Deerfield wrote a pamplet about an enslaved woman there. Then, of course, there was Tituba in Salem. It makes you wonder how these enslaved people, particularly the women, fit into that whole Puritan worldview of “us Saints” against “them Devils,” since the enslaved women occupied this odd place of not being particularly one of the Puritans, yet also being part of their community.

    Anyway, thanks for the shout out! Seems I may be plowing ahead on that Douglass biography, thanks to your encouragement! (What am I getting myself into?)


  5. Thanks for the tip in Deerfield–it’s actually quite related to Wells, Maine in many ways because they were both towns targeted for raids by the Abenaki in 1704, and Historic Deerfield is such a wonderful material culture and public history resource. And good to hear you’re making progress on Douglass’s women–congratulations, and good luck!


  6. I have the citation (I didn’t last night): “Lucy Terry Prince: Singer of History” by David R. Proper, Historic Deerfield. Prince’s dates are 1725-1821, so she’s several decades after 1704, but the pamplet suggests some of the slave trading and connections among the enslaved people that were going on in that area. He also cites several sources that seem to go back further.

    I wouldn’t necessarily call my work “progress” at the moment! Just organizing and figuring out how to approach the thing. Thank you because I will need all the luck I can get!


  7. Pingback: Colonial history: yes indeed Ari, lots of massacres! | Historiann

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