Sample text for Beloved sisters and loving friends : letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854-1868 / edited by Farah Jasmine Griffin.


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Counter 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.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Primus, Rebecca, 1836-1932 Correspondence, Brown, Addie Correspondence, African American women Maryland Royal Oak (Talbot County) Correspondence, African American woman Connecticut Hartford Correspondence, African American women History 19th century, Reconstruction Maryland, Royal Oak (Talbot County, Md, ) Biography, Hartford (Conn, ) Biography