Friday, December 5, 2014

Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman

Annie Parker (fl. 1852–1853)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

After the Sale: Slaves Going South (1853), oil on canvas by English painter Eyre Crowe (1824–1910). Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.
After Frederick Douglass established the weekly paper North Star in 1847, he struggled to keep it afloat. The business was saved when Julia Griffiths, whom he had met in England several years earlier, arrived in Rochester in 1849 to help manage the funds for the publication. Within two years the number of subscribers had doubled to 4,000 and Douglass was able to pay off his debts, including a mortgage, and separate his personal finances from those of the business. That year he also changed the name of the periodical to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. There was no other person to whom he was more “more indebted for financial assistance than to Mrs. Julia Griffiths,” he acknowledged in his Life and Times.* “She came to my relief when my paper had nearly absorbed all my means.”

Yet the close relationship between the publisher, who was married, and his business manager, who was not, was cause for gossip. Douglass angrily wrote an ally, “When the city, which you allege to be full of scandalous reports implicating Miss Griffiths and me, shall put those ‘REPORTS’ into a definite shape and present a responsible person to back them it will be time enough for me to attempt to refute them.” As Douglass’s political views increasingly diverged from those of former mentor William Lloyd Garrison, the latter published an attack filled with innuendos and condemned Griffith’s “pernicious influence upon him.” (Garrison later regretted “having implied anything immoral.”)

As William S. McFeely writes in his authoritative biography of Douglass, “there can be little question that the breaching of racial lines, rather than the breaching of conventional marital ones, was what caused the decibel range among antislavery people to reach the level of a screech. . . . Simply the sight of a black man escorting white women on the street was enough to raise hackles.” In one instance in New York, when Douglass was seen walking with Griffiths and her sister Eliza, he was attacked by a gang of white men and escaped serious injury only when a police officer came to his rescue.

Undaunted—and perhaps even emboldened—by the gossipmongers and critics, Griffiths stayed on for over six years as Douglass’s assistant and proved to be a mainstay of Rochester social circles. She became one of six cofounders and the secretary of the influential Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. To help raise funds for the organization, she came up with the idea for a gift annual, Autographs of Freedom, which collected stories, poems, and essays by antislavery writers. (Each piece was followed a facsimile of the author’s signature—thus the title.) Two volumes were published before Griffiths returned to England, and the books included original works by such dignitaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Parker, William Wells Brown, Catherine M. Sedgwick, William H. Seward, and Horace Greeley. Douglass himself contributed The Heroic Slave—a novella about slave revolt leader Madison Washington and the only work of fiction Douglass ever published.

Also included in Autographs were two pieces—a story and a poem—by Annie Parker, about whom nothing else is known. The poem, “Story Telling,” was a reprint from Douglass’s weekly and described a white mother telling her daughter a bedtime story about a “Southern maiden, with a skin of sable hue” who returned to an empty hut one evening and discovered that her five-year-old child had been sold. When she has finished her tale, the white woman looks at her own daughter, also five years old, and says she could “guess the anguish of that lone slave-woman’s heart.” Here we present “Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman,” Parker’s only known short story, which was written expressly for Autographs of Freedom.

* Griffiths was actually still single at the time; she would marry Henry Crofts in England in 1859.

Note: Readers might be confused by the slightly unorthodox use of quotation marks in the first paragraph. The story opens in media res with a sentence of dialogue spoken by Aunt Phillis and then employs a single open quotation mark (“She was never a favorite . . . ) to indicate that the remainder of the story is composed entirely of the rest of her narrative.

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“The slaves at Oak Grove did not mourn for poor Elsie when she died,” said aunt Phillis, continuing her narrative. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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