Black Women Writers of the 19th Century

African-American Women Authors in Antebellum America

Image: Middle-class black women who loved to read did not have many role models.
Credit: Jeffrey Green

Prior to the Civil War, the majority of African-Americans living in the United States were held in bondage. Although law forbade them, many found a way to learn to read and write. More African-Americans than we could have imagined published poetry, biographies, novels and short stories.

Unfortunately, much of this body of literature remained relatively inaccessible to the public until the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement created unprecedented interest in the thought, behavior, and achievements of black people. Publishers responded by reprinting hundreds of texts of African-American history, literature, and art. Most Americans – blacks as well as whites – were totally unaware of these nineteenth-century authors and their works.

African-American Female Authors of the 19th Century
After Emancipation, many of these ex-slaves continued to publish their writing while working paid jobs as domestic servants and seamstresses. With increasing access to education, black women entered a period of literary productivity in the second half of the 19th century.

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)
Harriet Ann Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina. Margaret Horniblow, her owner until she was eleven-years-old, taught her to read and sew. When Horniblow died, Harriet and her brother became the property of Mrs. Horniblow’s brother, Dr. James Norcom, who was a lecherous fiend. Harriet Jacobs subsequently had two children with a single white man who was not her owner.

For almost seven years Jacobs hid in a crawlspace in her grandmother’s house to avoid her rapist, Dr. Norcom. She escaped in 1835 and settled in New York City, where she was a domestic worker for the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis. In 1861 she published her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonym Linda Brent. She also used false names for other characters in her book.

For most of the twentieth century, the American public believed that Linda Brent was a white woman and Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl was a work of fiction. Harriet Jacobs’ true identity was not established until the 1980s. Today, her autobiography is regarded as the most in-depth slave narrative written by a black woman in America.

Her discovery uncovered other events in her life after 1861 – she worked as a clerk for the New England Women’s Club and operated a boarding house that catered to students and faculty at Harvard University. She served as a relief worker during the Civil War and worked among the needy freedpeople in Washington, DC.

Image: Black Women Writers
Published by Alexander Street Press

Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907)
Born in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, Elizabeth Keckley was the child of an enslaved woman and her owner. A succession of owners abused her in her younger years. After several unhappy years with Robert Burwell and his family, Keckley was sent to live in St. Louis, Missouri with Anne Burwell Garland, a married daughter of the Burwells.

In St. Louis, Missouri in the early 1850s, Mrs. Garland hired Elizabeth out as a seamstress, which was a stroke of luck. She became an excellent seamstress and dressmaker. Though she was forced to give some of her wages to her owner, she saved every extra penny for her dearest hope in life: freedom for herself and her son who was conceived during a rape.

With donations from some of her customers and her savings, Elizabeth compiled the $1,200 she needed to purchase her freedom. In her 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868), Keckley describes how she bought her freedom from the Garland family in November 1855.

After two failed marriages, Elizabeth Keckley settled in Washington, DC in 1860. There she opened a dressmaking shop and employed approximately twenty people. As word of her talent spread, she received numerous orders from the women of Washington society. Among her customers was Varina Howell Davis, whose husband would serve as President of the Confederacy during the Civil War and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee.

Another of her customers brought Keckley to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley became the First Lady’s dressmaker and her confidante through the Civil War, the loss of her son, and the assassination of the President. She recounted details of the Lincolns’ private lives in Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Keckley was judged harshly for revealing personal information about the First Family. She lost friends, and her business.

Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825-1907)
An educator, temperance activist and author, Sarah Jane Woodson Early served as national superintendent of the black division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1888–1892) and gave more than 100 lectures across five states. A graduate of Oberlin College, she was hired at Wilberforce University (both schools are in Ohio) in 1858 as the first African American woman college instructor.

Image: Wilberforce College
Where Sarah Jane Woodson Early served as the first African American woman college instructor.

Wilberforce closed for two years during the Civil War after losing most of its nearly 200 subscription students – wealthy planters from the South withdrew their mostly mixed-race children once the war began.

The Cincinnati Methodist Conference was called upon to care for soldiers and their families and could not offer its previous level of financial support. The AME Church purchased the college and reopened it; this was the first African-American owned and operated college. Sarah taught English and Latin there and served as Lady Principal and Matron.

After marrying minister Jordan Winston Early in 1868 and moving to Tennessee, Sarah was principal of schools in four cities, and taught at a new school for black girls established by the Freedmen’s Bureau in Hillsboro, North Carolina. She also wrote a biography of her husband and his rise from slavery that is included among postwar slave narratives – The Life and Labors of Rev. Jordan W. Early.

In 1893, Sarah Jane Woodson Early spoke at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago. Her speech was entitled “The Organized Efforts of the Colored Women of the South to Improve Their Condition.” She was one of five African American women invited to speak at this event, including Hallie Quinn Brown Anna Julia Cooper, and Fanny Jackson Coppin.

SOURCES African American Women Writers
African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers

Leave a Reply