Beloved sisters and loving friends : letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854-1868 /
edited [and with commentaries throughout] by Farah Jasmine Griffin.
1st ed.
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
xiii, 303 p. : ill.
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First Chapter


From "The Early Years"

On February 24, 1932, the following obituary appeared in the Hartford Courant :

Mrs. Rebecca Thomas, 95, widow of Charles H. Thomas, of 115 Adelaide Street, died Sunday morning at the Municipal Hospital after a long illness. She leaves three nieces, Ms. Edna Edwards of Hartford; Mrs. Jessie H. Harris of Cambridge, Mass.; and Mrs. Nellie Singleton of Detroit, Mich. The funeral will be held Tuesday afternoon at 1:30 P. M. at Johnson's funeral home, 19 Pavilion Street, and at 2 o'clock at the Talcott Street Congregational Church. Rev. James A. Wright will officiate. Burial will be in the family plot in Zion Hill Cemetery.

The paragraph gives details relating to the commemoration of Rebecca Primus Thomas's death and her relationship to others, but it relays very little about the woman herself. As with so many women, especially so many African American women, the significance of her life and deeds is lost to history in this final public document of her life. To a knowing Hartford reader, the name and address might provide a hint that she had been part of one of Hartford's oldest and most prominent black families. That she was the widow of Charles Thomas connected her to another well-known black Hartford resident. More information about her life and commitments might have been evident in the name of the church.

However, even these identity markers link the value of her life to the deeds and reputations of others. Most important, there is no mention of her career as a teacher of freedmen. Until recently, historians did not acknowledge black women's role in Reconstruction. Even W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended to the words of black participants in his important Black Reconstruction, published in 1935 (only three years after Primus's death), failed to note the work of black women teachers. Du Bois applauded the efforts of the New England schoolteachers, but for him these instructors, dedicated and innovative, were for the most part white.

Forty-five years later, the white feminist historian Jacqueline Jones published the first full-length study of New England teachers who went south to found schools for and to teach the freed people. In Soldiers of Light and Love , Jones, like Du Bois, leaves out the efforts of black teachers. Not until the publication of Linda Perkins's 1984 article "The Black Female American Missionary Association Teacher in the South 1861-1870" and Dorothy Sterling's We Are Your Sisters (1984) did black teachers begin to receive scholarly attention. The absence of primary sources left by these women was one of the reasons for the inattention to them.

Nevertheless, Rebecca Primus was one of many northern black women who went south to teach the freed people. As with most of her peers, Rebecca saw her teaching as a political and moral calling. She set forth on a mission that would influence her tremendously. The teachers who headed south organized schools that held day sessions for children, night sessions for adults, and Sabbath schools. In addition, they visited freedmen's homes and became respected members of the communities they inhabited. Their mission was one of education and "uplift." Rebecca Primus fit the profile of other black schoolmarms who were "northern born, middle class, single and childless." Most were in their twenties and had above-average education. Most had taught in their hometowns before going south. Many of them suffered greatly from the stresses associated with their jobs. Others were the victims of violence and harassment. Primus documents all of these circumstances.

What were the factors, the conditions, that might have led Miss Primus to take up the difficult mission of relocating to the South? The answer to this question can best be found in the community that produced and nurtured her. Rebecca was born in 1836 to Holdridge Primus and Mehitable (Jacobs) Primus. She was the eldest of four children; her siblings were Nelson, Henrietta, and Isabella (Bell). Her paternal great-grandfather was an African slave who won his freedom by fighting in the American army during the Revolutionary War. Her maternal grandfather owned a cobbler shop.

In 1860, all the Primuses but the youngest, Bell, were gainfully employed. Holdridge Primus was a clerk in a well-known Hartford grocery firm, Humphrey and Seyms. His wife, Mehitable, sometimes worked as a seamstress. Nelson was a painter; he worked for a carriage maker, George Francis, and eventually moved to Boston to pursue his career as a portraitist. Henrietta was a domestic in the home of a local white businessman, Henry Ferre. The Primus family owned their home at 20 Wadsworth Street. Rebecca would return to this home after the death of her husband in 1891, living there until 1902. As property owners who were able to maintain steady employment, the Primuses were clearly part of Hartford's black middle class. However, Henrietta's employment as a domestic suggests the fluidity of class and the precarious nature of middle-class status in the African American community.

Though they lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, the Primuses were part of a cohesive black community that centered around the activities of the city's black institutions. They were members of the Talcott Street Congregational Church, one of two black Hartford churches. Rebecca continued to teach Sunday school there until her death in 1932. James Pennington, the nationally known black abolitionist, had been minister of the Talcott Street Church, which had been a site of abolitionist meetings and organizing. Furthermore, Rebecca Primus probably attended one of Hartford's African schools, where Pennington and the essayist Ann Plato had been teachers. It seems that Rebecca might have taught in one of these schools as well. In her letters she speaks of her Hartford classes; she would not have taught in the city's white schools. As early as 1861, Addie writes to her, "I see you still have your private school."

All of this is to say that Rebecca Primus grew up in a city with a small black population (it numbered just over seven hundred in 1860, slightly more than two percent of the total Hartford population), but she worshiped in, was educated in, and was employed by black institutions with an explicit political focus--that of black freedom and uplift.

Copyright © 1999 Farah Jasmine Griffin. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-05-10:
An extraordinary historical find, the letters of these two 19th-century African-American women from radically different class and educational backgrounds offer a rare glimpse into the lives of black women during Reconstruction. A professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Griffin adds a meticulously researched and helpful explication of the historical context of the romantic friendship between the two women. Rebecca Primus left her comfortable life amid her prominent black family in Hartford, Conn., to teach freed slaves in Maryland. Over a 14-year period, she received 150 letters from Addie Brown, a laundress and seamstress in Connecticut and New York. While Brown's letters to Primus are included, Primus's correspondence to Brown has been lost; what appears here are 60 letters she wrote to her family. Primus took her duty to educate and be a role model to the newly freed slaves seriously. Her letters carefully document Reconstruction political activity by Maryland blacks and how those she taught built the Primus Institute in her honor. Meanwhile, Brown wrote to Primus of the black community's efforts to raise funds for the New York Colored Orphan Asylum, which was burned in the 1863 draft riots. More of Brown's letters were devoted to her courtship of Primus. That both women later married men Griffin attributes to the fact that the "Victorian heterosocial and homosocial worlds were complementary." She persuasively concludes that documents such as these demand a rewriting of American history. Agent, Loretta Barrett. (June)
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-05-15:
What makes this collection of letters unique is that both Brown and Primus are African American women. Primus, the daughter of a prominent black Connecticut family, went South after the Civil War to teach freedmen. Brown was a domestic servant working first in New York, then in Connecticut. Their correspondence chronicles their close friendship over 14 years and also gives the reader a first-hand account of what it meant to be a black woman in mid-19th century America. The bulk of the letters in the collection are those written by Addie to Rebecca. They provide an intimate glimpse at the life of a black domestic worker during this time and also hint at a relationship that was more than just platonic, providing a complex view of these two women. Recommended for academic libraries.ÄRoseanne Castellino, Arthur D. Little, Cambridge, MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Booklist, May 1999
Library Journal, May 1999
Publishers Weekly, May 1999
Kirkus Reviews, June 1999
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