"Roundheads and Ramblings"
So how did a woman who refused to fit in manage to leave a legacy of changing her world? Well, let’s look at her personal quirks from a different angle. While Laura Towne was not ever going to find a real home in Philadelphia, the Low Country of South Carolina became her natural habitat.
The teachers and abolitionists who took part in what was called the Port Royal Experiment were forced into some very strange living arrangements as they settled into abandoned plantations. There were a few married couples among them, and a couple of brother-sister groups, but for the most part, they were all single and needed to share accommodations, both for safety and in order to provide all the varied services they wanted to offer to the newly freed slaves. So no one regarded Laura and her life-long companion, Ellen Murray, as anything other than natural housemates. As time went by Laura and Ellen were able to purchase a small house they could call their own, and they lived together as a family with combined resources without raising a single eyebrow.
Laura’s brand of homeopathic medicine was exactly what the freed slaves needed. They often had their own remedies for illnesses, but like most people, they wanted to be cared for, and Laura offered that. One slave woman remarked that Laura could make you feel better just by walking into a room. Her experiments with homeopathic remedies also made her more open to considering alternate forms of medicine. She was shocked the first time she found a slave’s leg wound covered in honey. But when she realized that it was healing with no sign of infection, she was willing to adopt the use of honey as one of her remedies. Because she was caring and non-critical, the slaves accepted her ministrations but rejected traditional doctors.
Similarly, Laura’s Unitarian faith made her more accepting of the slave traditions. She delighted in the Shout, a quasi-religious celebration that gave slaves a chance to express the feelings they had to keep hidden most of the time. She did not demand that her patients and students follow her own brand of religion, as so many of the missionaries did. She urged open worship services and actively worked to get rid of any pastor who arrived with notions of converting the slaves to his own peculiar brand of religion.
It was only natural that people who had been slaves all their lives would welcome an abolitionist who demanded getting rid of all forms of slavery. But Laura went further than that. She strongly believed what others only preached. Every abolitionist praised freedom and equality, but all too often, they meant that slaves had freedom to do as they were told and that they were equal to each other but not to their betters. Laura had a strong belief that if a black child received the same education as a white child, they would be equal in every way. Others wanted to teach the former slaves how to be cleaner, how to raise more cotton, or how to run a small shop or create crafts. Laura offered them Latin, composition, algebra, history, and geography, and the children flocked to her schools.
In short, the very qualities that had kept Laura from fitting into Philadelphia’s high society were the qualities that former slaves could value. And that, perhaps, is what allows such a woman to become a world-changer. She remained true to her core beliefs and used them for the betterment of those around her.
The Road to Frogmore
, a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, was published in 2012. In 2013, it won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.
Thanks to all the great folks who showed up at the St. Helena Library today to hear me chat about Laura Towne. Here's a more formal account of what we talked about.
For all of her adult life (and much of her childhood as
well), Laura Towne had known that she did not fit in with the society around
her. If someone had told her that in 150
years she would be touted as an example of a woman who made a permanent
difference in the world, she would not have believed it. Nor would she have believed that anyone would
ever write a book about her life. She
knew she was different; she just didn’t know that being different was going to
make her important. I see her as an example of how women can change their
world. She deserves to be honored during
Women’s History Month. Here’s why.
Laura’s world demanded that women fulfill one of two roles
in society. She could either marry and
become a dutiful wife and doting mother, or she could remain in the family home
as the caretaker of her parents, the support of her brothers and sisters, the
family anchor. Laura wanted no part of either one. She could not bring herself to be subordinate
to a man, especially one who was not as intelligent or capable as she was. She loved children but wanted to encourage
them to flee the nest, not hover over them as protector. Her mother died when
she was nine, her father when she was in her early twenties, so there was no
need to take on the role of caregiver.
And she had no interest in encouraging her siblings to lean on her any
more than they already did. She cherished a close friendship with another woman
whom she considered her equal in every way.
She dreamed of sharing their lives, but knew that while Philadelphia
society might allow two women to live together, they would never give their
relationship the status of family. She thought she would always live a solitary
existence, without the bonds of love and affection that sustained other people.
Laura wanted a career, even though she knew that there were
few career options open to her. She
petitioned for years to be allowed to attend medical school, and finally found
admission in Philadelphia’s first medical school for women. There she was allowed to attend academic
classes and lectures, but barred from any clinical experience on the grounds
that women should never see the body of a man other than their husbands or
children. Frustrated with the lack of contact with patients, she gave up her
pursuit of a medical degree and turned to the study of homeopathic medicine,
which put her even further outside the boundaries of acceptable careers. Most trained
doctors looked down on homeopathy as quackery, but Laura found much to
like. It allowed her to be in close
contact with her patients; treating them as individuals, not cases; offering comfort and palliative care;
and avoiding the harshness of dangerous medicines, quick amputation, or
Laura was a non-conformist when it came to religion,
too. In a city involved with evangelism
in all its many forms, as well as a city that had been founded by Quakers,
Laura was a Unitarian. What was that? The question bothered other people, too. Unitarians believed in one God. Only one, not a Trinity, which seemed to make
them non-Christians. They disliked
dogma, official church doctrine, and any and creeds. They believed religion should be a quiet and
private affair. They were ethical and
reasonable, believers in free will, and flexible in their religious
observances. They were particularly
irritating to traditional Christians because they denied the divinity of Jesus
while following his teachings more closely than most Christians did.
Finally, there was the matter of politics. Women did not have the right to vote and were not expected to have political
opinions. They certainly were not
expected to speak out about their views. But Laura was an abolitionist, and an
outspoken one at that. She was not
afraid to express her hatred of slavery and demanded equality for all people,
including women. Abolitionists were
usually northerners, but they were no more popular in the north they were in
the south. Workers feared an influx of
free blacks would take away their jobs, while the wealthy feared attacks from
those who had much less than they did. Laura the abolitionist was one of a very
few uppity women who were hated by nearly everyone.
I'll post the second half of the talk tomorrow, so please come back then.
We watched the second installment of "The Abolitionists" last night on PBS. While I'm enjoying the programs and in general think they are doing a fairly good job of character portrayal, I come away from each segment thinking, "Yes, but. . . ."
Certainly Angelina Grimke, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and, and Frederick Douglass are important figures in the movement, and yes, their actions had much to do with starting the Civil War. But so far, the programs have failed to reveal some of the flaws in the abolitionist movement.
As I was writing "The Road to Frogmore," which deals with a group of abolitionists who traveled to South Carolina in 1862 to work with the newly freed slaves, I was repeatedly struck by the abolitionists' "innocence" -- the degree to which they failed to recognize the problems they were facing. Commend them all you like about their stance that slavery had to be abolished. But did none of them ask, "Then what?" Did none of them look at the total number of slaves in the South and wonder how in the world they were going to assimilate them once they were free? And did no one ever realize that the slaves might have an attachment to the land where their families had lived and worked for generations?
I found instance after instance in which Union soldiers approached the slaves whose masters had abandoned them with similar questions: "Don't you know you're free now? Why are you still living in that old slave cabin? Go on! Move on! You're free now. You can go anywhere you like." And none seemed prepared for the answer to be, "We don't want to leave. This is home."
Many of the abolitionists were disturbed to find former slaves addressing them as "Missus" and Massa," and although they were often made uncomfortableby the need to take the place of the slave-owners in order to have any influence over the freedmen, it was also much too easy to "become" a slave-owner. When they offered army rations, or started classes to teach the children to read, or went from cabin to cabin to provide medical care, or handed out clothing, they were doing things that slaves had become accustomed to seeing their owners do.
When some enterprising northerners bought up plantation land and hired former slaves to do the work, they were all too aware that to the former slaves, they were little different than their former owners. Yes, there was some payment of wages, but the work was just as back-breaking as it had always been.
These issues crop up over and over again in "The Road to Frogmore." For many of the people portrayed in the book, the problems were too great. The realization that emancipation was not an end to the problem but only another beginning sent many abolitionists home to find another line of "good works."
Perhaps that's why I came to admire Laura Towne. She didn't have any more answers than the rest of her colleagues, but at least she was willing to see the problems through. She and Ellen Murray spend the rest of their lives -- some 40+ years -- trying to solve the issues caused by slavery. I'm going to be watching the next installment of the PBS series closely to see if they address these questions.
January 1, 2013, will mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In my new book, The Road to Frogmore: Turning Slaves into Citizens,
that day became a crucial turning point for my characters. In one way or another they all witnessed the first reading of the proclamation and realized that their lives had changed forever. One spontaneous incident in particular stays with me. Here are two reactions to that incident taken from the book. The first contains an actual quote from the journal of the white commander of the First South Carolina Colored Regiment:
Reverend Mansfield French had just presented Colonel [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson with the new flag of his regiment. Higginson unfurled it and held it high for all to see. Then, from somewhere within the crowd, an elderly black man with a wavering and cracked voice began to sing, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” One by one, the people around him joined in. Those on the platform, startled at first by this unscheduled moment, stood transfixed as the notes swelled and flowed around them.
Higginson wrote of the moment in his diary: “It seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed. Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting . . . Just think of it!—the first day they had ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people.”
The second is a monologue spoken by a Gullah woman, a former slave, who witnessed the moment from crowd's perspective:
Den we hasta walk some mo to de big army camp uh de new colored troop. Who’d a blieved dat dere could be a whole camp full uh colored soljers, all dressed up in uniforms an actin like white folk? Hastins, he say he know where we be gwine cause he kin smell de beeves a cookin.
It were a sight fuh behold. All dem black people dere, all dressit up in dere Sunday best, an de black soljers in dey uniforms, an de white folk ridin in on dere horses an carriages. Dere be a band on de platform in front, makin hand-clappin music, an eberbody be in a good mood.
Course, de white officers, dey all hasta make speeches, mostly bout what a great day it be, an why we should all be happy an grateful. Hastins mumble dat he be grateful when he git sumptin fuh eat, but I tells him fuh hush. Den dey start wavin flags round, an dat ol man Zekial, from Mr. Eustis’s place, he start singin “Muh Country ‘Tis uh Dee.” Eberting gots real quiet, an den folk start joinin in. Eben I starts singin, an Lawd know I caint sing much.
Bout den, dis all start makin sense fuh me. Dey sayin we be really free, an dat nobody caint hinder we no mo. I bin singin dose words long time, but I neber blieved dem fore. I looks round an sees people cryin fuh joy. Aint dat be sumptin!
I've been posting blurbs from the 1862 Memphis Daily Appeal for several weeks now. What strikes me over and over again is the tone of the articles -- offering hope in the face of defeat, determination to stay the course, and utter scorn for anyone who does not wholeheartedly support the war effort. None of that is surprising, of course, and some of it is mere whistling in the wind, as is this bit:
May 29, 1862
Letter from Corinth - First, all is quiet . . . Were it not for the wholesome respect which the Federals have for our prowess and position, they would have been upon us long ago; but thanks to our leaders and to our men, they have been taught a lesson of caution which they are not likely to forget. Halleck is advancing, but with a snail-like pace . . . I believe he honestly feels himself no match for Beauregard and Bragg. He knows that the steel was taken from a goodly portion of his army in the battle of Shiloh.
But the articles about burning cotton crops still shock most modern readers. Here's this week's edition:
June 3, 1862
(10,000 bales of priceless cotton were stored in Memphis. Editorials in the APPEAL called for its burning since the river road to market was blocked by Union fleets above and below.)
Burn the Cotton / Yes, burn it! and why? Because every bale destroyed is as good as putting a man in the field. Because our implacable enemies want it. Because, if they get it, they thereby get the "sinews of war". . . Let the whole world see that we offer up a sacrifice of our most treasured goods on the shrine of our liberty, and attest thereby our devotion to the cause in which we are engaged. Burn the cotton.
A lengthier explanation of this policy also appeared in the Richmond Dispatch ()Mar. 4, 1862):
It is proper that some plan should be concerned in by the planters and
the Government; but of one thing we are satisfied, and that is, that
even in the absence of any plan, there is patriotism enough amongst the
people to burn up all the cotton and tobacco that is likely to fall into
the enemy's hands. It would be the most suicidal folly to permit the
Yankees to get a single bale of cotton or a pound of tobacco that can be
burned before he gets it — The people are all convinced of this, and
will destroy all, if necessary. They will burn as the enemy approaches,
and if he overruns the country, they will burn it all. But this noble
spirit is the best sign that the enemy cannot overrun the country. A
people ready to make such sacredness cannot be conquered — their country
cannot be overrun by an invading army. Independent of the spirit of
resistance such a people must exhibit, the fact that the enemy will only
seize ashes and smouldering ruins, instead of the millions of dollars
he expects to acquire by overrunning the land, will have a potent chest
upon him. Nothing could be so delightful to his expectations as the
appropriation to his own use of so much wealth that did not belong to
him--nothing could a grieve and sadden his heart as to be deprived of
The burning of our staples will have another good effect. It
will teach the people of Europe how much in earnest we are. They will
understand from it that the South will never give up these staples to
the Yankees, and that through their invasion the foreign manufactories
can never be supplied with cotton. They will learn what a mistake they
have made in respecting a blockade that is not efficient; but one that
has deprived them of that cotton which may now be destroyed, and the
destruction of which must greatly prolong and increase commercial and
manufacturing embarrassments and distresses.
I've found ample evidence of this policy all over the South. In coastal South Carolina, where I do most of my historical research, the cotton planters were forced to flee from a Union invasion in November, 1861. They had no time to burn the crop that was just waiting for harvest, but for months afterward, they came sneaking back in the middle of the night to try to torch the fields. The Union Army recognised the value of the cotton crop for its own war efforts and determined to get it safely harvested. This put them in an embarrassing and uncomfortable position. To harvest the cotton, they needed to get the slaves (whom they had come to free) back to work in the principle occupation of slaves--hoeing, harvesting, and ginning cotton..
This is one of the dilemmas that will appear in my next historical novel, "The Road to Frogmore."