African American Women's Poetry in the Christian Recorder, 1855-1865: A Bio-Bibliography with Sample Poems

Article excerpt

While the work of several early African American women poets who published book-length collections has been recovered by literary historians (Joan Sherman pre-eminent among them), many pre-20th-century Black women who published occasional poetry in periodicals remain ignored or simply unknown. If Frances Smith Foster's crucial discovery of the serialized novels of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper did not already do so, Mitch Kachun's stunning identification of Julia C. Collins's serialized Christian Recorder novel The Curse of Caste (1865) should push us beyond the covers of physical books in our search for a fuller sense of early Black women's writing and so cause us to question our assumptions about early African American literary culture. Because, as scholars like Foster and Kachun have shown, Black-operated periodicals often offered key conduits between Black authors and Black readers--and sometimes even encouraged those readers to become writers themselves--a full-scale canvassing, cataloging, and analysis of literary work in early Black periodicals that is both more accessible and more integrated into our research and classrooms than the Black Periodical Literature Project remains desperately needed.

This study offers a small piece of such bibliographical and historical research: it introduces 35 Black women who published poetry in the Christian Recorder between 1855 and 1865, a decade that culminated in the Recorder's publication of Collins's novel (and, more broadly, the conclusion of the Civil War). Specifically, it provides a set of sample poems from this group, basic biographical data on 26 Recorder poets who were African American women, and more limited information on nine others who published poems in the Recorder and who either self-identified as or probably were African American. Three of these 35--Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Susan Paul Vashon--were well-known activists. The others--most of whom published only a poem or two in the Recorder (and a few of whom wrote in groups to create single published poems)--represent what might have been a larger group of antebellum African American women who wrote occasionally, used literature to help themselves through daily life, did not aspire to professional poethood, and have been almost totally ignored in our history.

Notable patterns emerge from what we know of these women's lives. Almost all, it seems, were active readers of the Christian Recorder; some even donated to the Recorder's on-going fundraising campaigns in the post-war period. This involvement, of course, marks their ties to the AME Church, but it also speaks to their geographical location, their class status, and their education. Their residences--mostly in Pennsylvania (especially Philadelphia) and New Jersey, but also in areas like Buffalo, New York, where sometime-Recorder writer and AME stalwart Daniel Payne was active--give us a sense of the regional circulation of the Recorder. Most were clearly of the middling classes: their fathers and spouses were often professionals and/or shop owners (a minister, a grocer, barbers, shoemakers, a baker, a whitewasher, and so on). Many of the women worked outside of their homes--generally as domestics, laundresses, and dressmakers--in part because of the fragility of the Black middle class in the ante-bellum North. At least one, Esther Palmer, owned her own trimmings business. At least three--Vashon, Sarah Daffin, and Estellena Johnson--were teachers; Daffin made important contributions as one of the early Black teachers of freedpeople. Daffin and Johnson came to teaching through shared learning: both were graduates of Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth. Cary and Harper, of course, were active as writers and speakers; Cary also did important editorial work. Daffin and Lizzie Hart also wrote fairly extensively--in the form of letters to the Recorder. Four others--Daffin, Ellen Johnson, Estellena Johnson, and Angeline Demby--left a record of public lectures or readings. …