Addie & Rebecca

Article excerpt

Discovered Civil War Era Letters Preserve Two Free-born Black Female Activists' Comments on Their Life and Times

The Civil War-era exchange of letters between two free-born African-American women named Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus is now, more than a century later, igniting a scholarly dialogue over the relationship shared by the two spirited, opinionated women.

Their published correspondence is stirring interest among scholars who contend the 19th-century documents make a significant addition to the literature about African-American women who carved out lives for themselves during this turbulent period of racial upheaval and conflict.

Researchers know that Brown, a feisty, orphaned domestic servant, and Primus, a well-to-do charismatic school teacher, both worked hard, battled racism, spoke their minds -- and loved each other passionately.

But the letters between Primus and Brown had not been intensely scrutinized and interpreted by a scholar until Dr. Karen V. Hansen, an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University, started researching and reading between the lines.

In a 29-page article published in the academic journal "Gender & History," Hansen boldly suggests that Brown and Primus were more than friends. Their relationship, she says, was erotic and romantic.

Complex Relationship

Since discovering the names "Addie and Rebecca" on the pages of letters housed in the Primus collection at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Hansen says she has become captivated by the personalities of the women and convinced of the romantic and erotic nature of their relationship. Hansen believes that, if alive today, it is conceivable they would live as lesbians.

In a letter written in 1860, Addie expresses her longing for Rebecca: "O my Dear Dear Rebecca when you press me to your dear bosom O how happy I was. Last night I gave any thing if I could only layed my poor aching head on your bosom. O Dear how soon will it be I can be able to do so?"

"It was romantic, erotic, sensual, a kinship, a friendship," says Hansen. "There's no label to capture it and they struggled with the language, too. Their relationship was very challenging for me to interpret. It's partly the complexity of the relationship that makes it so interesting."

Five years Rebecca's junior, Addle was orphaned and had no formal education. In her writing, Hansen described her as combining passion, earnestness and sensuality while lacking Rebecca's polish and sophistication.

While some of Addie's letters are riddled with variations in spelling and grammatical errors, Hansen says the "writing was very representative of 19th-century writing." In transcribing the letters, Hansen's goal was to "keep them as close to the original as possible."

Hansen did make some stylistic changes in capitalization, spelling and punctuation when colleagues -- mainly historians -- complained to her that they "couldn't read the writing otherwise," she recalls.

Meeting a Mystery

Addie once lived in Hartford, CT, and just how she met Rebecca "remains a mystery," says Hansen. But it is likely, she adds, that Addle worked in the Primus household, which consisted of Rebecca, her father, Holdridge, a grocery store clerk, and her mother, Mehitable, a self-employed dressmaker. From there, Addie was on the move, taking low-paying jobs as a domestic or horse driver wherever she could find them.

In contrast, Rebecca, a determined, middle-class Christian, became a schoolteacher. She risked her life by leaving Hartford for the South after the Civil War to establish a school for newly freed slaves in Maryland.

Hansen stumbled on the letters while doing research for her 1994 book, "A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England."

The flowery, affectionate terms the unlikely pair used to express their mutual admiration were characteristic of the friendships between 19th-century white women, says Hansen. …