On August 19, 1870, or roughly about 146 years ago this coming week, Carrie Leonteen Townsend, an African American college student, sat down to write a letter to her uncle Thomas Townsend. Carrie lived in Brookhaven, Mississippi. She was returning to school in New Orleans. She shared that and news about a visiting cousin. Before she closed, she made a request. “A nice winter dress would be accepted,” she told her uncle. As if to assure him that she was good for it, she told him, “I am not braging [sic] but you ought to see me play piano. I tell you I make ours sing.”
Thanks to the wealth of her grandfather and her father, Carrie was a member of an emerging African American upper middle class. Carrie’s uncle Thomas and her father Wesley were the descendants of Samuel Townsend, a white Huntsville planter, and two enslaved women. On the eve of his death in 1856, Samuel left the bulk of his $200,000 estate, worth $5.1 million in today’s currency, to ten children from five enslaved women and their immediate kin.
Shortly after being freed on the eve of the Civil War, Carrie’s father and uncle had both attended Wilberforce University in Ohio. Her dad went on to become a teacher and later, a farmer. Her uncle was a claims lawyer for African American soldiers seeking war pensions and eventually a city alderman who resided on Adams Street, one of the “choice spots” in Huntsville. In fact, her uncle was a neighbor to John David Weeden, a white man who had been a colonel in the Confederate army and was a lawyer himself.
Like Carrie, other second generation Townsends pursued educations at institutions of higher learning. Thomas Jr., the son of Thomas, attended Fisk University before transferring to Howard University. As I share in Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015), well-positioned black Americans like the Townsends had opportunities to pursue education, obtain solid employment, enter the professions, open businesses, and travel. By reading the letters the Townsends wrote that survive in the Stanley Hoole Library at the University of Alabama, one gets a glimpse of these individuals’ triumphs and ongoing challenges in the postbellum period.
It is worth paying close attention to the voices of the women and girls in this family as I share in Alabama Women: Their Lives and Times, a volume of biographical essays to be published by University of Georgia Press. While it is tempting to read Carrie’s request for a winter dress as a manifestation of the materialism already evident in late-nineteenth century America, especially during the Gilded Age, given her white grandfather’s generosity, we might ponder the origins of her assertiveness. When the letters from the women and girls in the Townsend family, among them Carrie, are considered together, a story unfolds that reveals sturdy black female voices that were enabled, ironically, by their proximity to their oppressor. Consider the September 10, 1865 letter Elvira, sent to Septimus Cabaniss, Samuel’s lawyer, immediately after the war (she was upset about their delayed inheritance):
It is necessary that I should know the condition of our affairs; of what has been done with Samuel Townsend estate, and our interest therein. The new state of affairs gives us the power to enforce remedies and we shall do it. Either through the military commanders, or the Freedmen’s Bureau we can obtain our just rights, and call any and all parties to a strict account.
Of the Townsends, she appears the most assertive, possibly because she was not only the daughter of one of the slave women with whom Samuel Townsend slept, but also his housekeeper. Such proximity probably resulted in a level of intimacy between her and him that the other Townsends, the males in particular, did not always share. Given the all-too-evident horrors of slavery, especially when black women were concerned, it is imperative to clarify what is meant by the word “intimate.” It suggests closeness between human beings. In this instance, it also suggests the political ramifications of such closeness when an unequal distribution of power exists.
Though rape and other hazards existed, such proximity allowed African Americans, among them women and girls, to see noticeable discrepancies in white men’s behavior, enabling some to take advantage of their familiarity with powerful men. For example, Julia Frances Dickson, an enslaved woman who eventually produced a daughter with Georgia planter David Dickson grew bitter after he had coercive sex with her at a young age and reportedly “ruled” him and others in his household with an “iron hand.” The mothers of the Townsend children may have sometimes behaved similarly.
Although it is difficult to imagine as much given ongoing difficulties across the color line, shortly after being freed, three of the women Samuel Townsend had once bedded were “the greatest trouble” for D.L. Lakin, a Huntsville man hired by Cabaniss to relocate them to Kansas. “I … have been forced Several times to Speak to them in tones of unmistakable command,” Lakin wrote Cabaniss as he journeyed north on a Mississippi steamboat with them. He had not been compelled to speak so forcefully to their male relatives who were also on board.
Please stay tuned for more information on my chapter on the Townsends and other southern black women and girls in the upcoming collection edited by University of Alabama historian Lisa Lindquist Dorr and Susan Ashmore of Oxford College at Emory University. The collection is part of the UGA Press’s Southern Women: Their Lives and Times series. In this series, the press is publishing biographical, life-and-times histories of women from the various southern states. Each book is a collection of insightful essays focused on the lives of individuals or small groups of women that address larger issues in the history of the state, the South, and the nation. These individual profiles will also contribute to an understanding of the history of women and gender roles in American society.
Other individuals featured in Alabama Women include the enslaved women surgical patients of J. Marion Sims; Julia S. Tutwiler, advocate for women’s education and prison reform; Margaret Murray Washington , principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women, and the wife of Booker T. Washington; Lurleen Burns Wallace, 46th Governor of Alabama and wife of Alabama Governor George Wallace; Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks; and novelists Harper Lee and Zelda Fitzgerald. For more information on the series, visit UGA’s website.
Meanwhile, I look forward to discussing the Townsends’ lives as a Food for Thought Alabama Lunchtime Lectures series speaker for the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery on February 16, 2017, during Black History Month.