This is the second half of yesterday's talk at the St. Helena Library.
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 composition, algebra, history, and geography, and they 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.