African American History · women's history

nettie, zora, california, eliza…saying their names


It’s been a powerful week for thinking through the experiences of women. I was able to read a 1950 newspaper article about Alabama-born and Florida-bred novelist Zora Neale Hurston. It was published in The Miami Herald, my former employer. There’s nothing like reading an archival document that permits you to go back in time. Not only was I attentive to what the writer was saying about Hurston living “a little,” or so she said, while working as a maid, I could see advertisements and news stories that better parted the curtain on what postwar life in Miami was like with this African American woman in view.

Her experiences figure into my present research project addressing racial and spatial politics in Florida. Meanwhile, my “Antebellum America” students turned to the experiences of the mixed race hairdresser Eliza Potter via her 1859 memoir and those of an enslaved woman named California who was chatised for hanging amalgamation prints on her cabin walls.

potter01We know about the latter because of research conducted by the late historian Stephanie Camp whose work on the everyday resistance of black women in the plantation South has had a huge impact on my research and the way I teach women’s history. Below are some of the books being considered for my Spring 2019 Gender, Race and the Urban Space graduate course, which will focus on women of African descent in and outside the United States between the antebellum period and the present day.



During a visit to the University of Alabama’s Hoole Special Collections Library, the students were challenged to push their thinking on Potter and California by seeing up close the surviving documents in the Septimus Cabaniss Papers, among them ones from African Americans freed by the white Huntsville, Alabama, planter Samuel Townsend. Those freed on the eve of the Civil War, as addressed in my first monograph, included his nine children from five enslaved women. The uncertainty of their lives, but also their boldness, especially as revealed in a surviving letter from his granddaughter Nettie Caldwell, a school aged girl in Louisville, helped them learn more about our messy past. They saw, too, the way in which even a young person strategically asked for what she needed to improve her life. Below is a video of a student ready Caldwell’s letter.

Next week, we keep womanhood in all of its complexities in view as we consider nation, race and civility via Amma Asante‘s 2013 film Belle. I saw it for the first time at this year’s Ebertfest.

2 thoughts on “nettie, zora, california, eliza…saying their names

  1. Sharony, this is all great stuff! I hope you’re thoroughly enjoying the exploration as much as your students – as it sounds like you are. I loved reading Zoe’s Neale Hurston in anthro classes; she might be interesting to pair with Hortense Powdermaker’s Observers Observed, since they were both women doing WPA work in the postwar south, but one white and one black. Hurston was also paired with Stetson Kennedy (the namesake of my oldest son, in his middle name), which offers another spin-off for discussion. Just some thoughts that come to mind for me with Zora’s story. Is there a link to her Herald article? I assume not, but would love to read it!! Take care, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am reading Zora for my own research on spatial and racial politics on the Florida peninsula. Thanks for your suggestions. I do address, as you suggest, her rich life in broad brushstrokes the Harlem Renaissance portion of my American Civilization Since 1865 lecture which requires me to get through about 120 or so years in 13-14 weeks. The Herald article was on her and I have not seen it anywhere online, but plan to Photoshop the microfilm I have of my copy someday. Just got it last week and so much on my plate. Feel free to order it from the University of Miami’s library. You may need a magnifying glass to read some of it. I tried to blow it up, but the words were darkened and looked muddy. Good hearing from you!


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