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"Face to face": localizing Lucy Delaney's From the Darkness Cometh the Light.

Were it not for Lucy Delaney's c.1891 narrative From the Darkness Cometh the Light; or, Struggles for Freedom, she might not be remembered today. However, as Delaney's preface notes, "[S]o many of my friends have urged me to give a short sketch of my varied life that I have consented, and herewith present it for the consideration of my readers" (vii). Delaney's brief narrative of that varied life actually begins with the false enslavement of her mother before Delaney's birth and then follows Delaney through a range of masters and mistresses of the Berry and Wash families. As she grows, her own family is gradually sundered by slavery--by the sale of her father, the escape of her sister and an attempted escape by her mother, the sale of her mother, and, finally, her own threatened sale and attempted escape (after Delaney clashes repeatedly with her last mistress, Martha Berry Mitchell). Delaney's mother, Polly Wash, though, stumbles on a now little-known set of legal provisions and files suit both for her freedom and, in a separate action, for Delaney's. Most of Delaney's narrative follows the progress of her own freedom suit, through seventeen months in the St. Louis Jail (where her master demanded she be placed for what he considered to be safekeeping), a set of climatic courtroom scenes during which Delaney is represented by Edward Bates (who would later become Abraham Lincoln's Attorney General), and, finally, freedom through a victory in court. Her narrative concludes with the complex juxtaposition of her sadness at the destruction of her family (she is, for example, reunited with her father only to find him unable to return to the life in St. Louis he had lost decades before) and her deep satisfaction at becoming a key figure in St. Louis's Black community.

Delaney's text has attracted only limited notice, though, in part because it seems an anachronism: Delaney was a contemporary of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, and a host of others who published their slave narratives while the American system of chattel slavery was still in full force, but her narrative is a contemporary of the next generation of Black texts, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's novel Iola Leroy, Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert's history The House of Bondage, the later and more history-centered texts of figures like Douglass and Brown, and the African American "uplift books" published at the end of the nineteenth century. (1)

This essay shares new information on the personal and local motivations and contexts behind Delaney's narrative and, in so doing, offers a reading of From the Darkness as a public document designed to participate in the world of St. Louis in the 1890s, even though most of it focuses on events of the 1840s. The essay thus examines a set of intertwined stories. First, it tells the story of how the narrative survived near oblivion and was reborn in the late twentieth century; in revising this story, it draws heavily on the contexts of the book's late nineteenth-century composition and publication. Both of these stories, in turn, intersect with an examination of Delaney's postbellum community (specifically Black Masonic) activism. This set of biographical details identifies the narrative's probable intended audience as, primarily, Black women in St. Louis. Ultimately, all of these stories demonstrate that the central goal of Delaney's narrative was personal legacy-building--specifically, to use the personal to make larger arguments about how the next generation(s) should remember slavery and both represent and understand Blackness. Telling these stories allows the essay to conclude with a rereading of key elements of Delaney's narrative (including some that have baffled previous critics) as well as a rereading of some recent critics' dismissals of some Black women's texts of the 1890s. This rereading asserts both the importance of From the Darkness as an individual text and the broader need to consider the public place(s) of Delaney's story--rather than just her book.

Delaney's book seems to have suffered a severely limited initial reception. To date, I have discovered only eight extant copies of From the Darkness; none of the copies I have examined have marginalia that suggest who their original owners were. (2) I have yet to find a review or advertisement for the book and have found no comments by readers in the 1890s. Two explanations for this seem plausible. First, the book may well have had an exceedingly small print run. Second, something may have happened to part of that run. A tantalizing piece of uncorroborated evidence for this second possibility exists in the copy of Delaney's book now owned by the University of Missouri at Kansas City: what appears to be a clipping from a book dealer's catalog is pasted into the book, and it claims that "practically the whole of this edition was sold for waste paper shortly after publication." The clipping is undated and cites no source for this information.

The earliest provenance record for a copy of From the Darkness is that of the Missouri Historical Society, which acquired its copy in January of 1903, seven years before Delaney's death. (3) This copy alone may well have saved Delaney's narrative from oblivion. Harrison Trexler's 1914 Slavery in Missouri, 1804-1865, which long stood as a definitive work, cited Delaney as a source; strong circumstantial evidence suggests that Trexler used the copy in the Missouri Historical Society. Because most subsequent studies built from or responded to Trexler, they, too, cited Delaney's narrative with some regularity. (4)

Such citation also put Delaney's narrative in literary bibliographies. However, as they did with Iola Leroy, critics essentially mentioned and then ignored From the Darkness until the flowering of Black feminist scholarship in the 1980s and the book's reissue in 1988 as part of Six Women's Slave Narratives, a volume in the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. Hazel V. Carby's Reconstructing Womanhood and Frances Smith Foster's Written by Herself, though they mention rather than focus on Delaney's text, set groundwork for further consideration. Still, though Delaney's narrative is now regularly taught, critical discussion of the text has remained somewhat limited. Part of this has undoubtedly come from many critics' emphasis--seen in a cursory examination of the MLA Bibliography--on late nineteenth-century fiction by better known figures like Frances Harper and Charles Chesnutt over autobiographical narrative, but part probably also comes from a thin sense of the contexts surrounding Delaney's rhetorical situation.

Critical work on Delaney's narrative to date can be divided into four strands. Carby's study placed Delaney's text alongside other women's slave narratives, emphasizing her construction of Black womanhood (36-37). This first approach offers fascinating potential for dialogic reading--potential yet to be fully realized. Lindon Barrett's detailed work on the narrative in his "Self-Knowledge, Law, and African American Autobiography," and his brief consideration in "African American Slave Narratives" (435), marks the genesis of two more strands--one examining how the narrative handles questions of physicality and textual representation and another focusing on how Delaney represents the space of the American courtroom in her discussion of her freedom suit trial. The final strand--exemplified by work by Foster and especially P. Gabrielle Foreman--takes up issues raised by the first three strands and complicates them by placing Delaney's narrative in dialogue with national issues of the 1880s and 1890s. As such, Foster's and Foreman's work demands further consideration here.

Foster's sense of context allows her to go beyond Carby to argue that Delaney's narrative "synthesize[s] the secular and the spiritual accounts" of the nexus of slavery, race, and gender "into a deliberately racial account" (178). Specifically, Foster compares Delaney to both Octavia V. R. Albert and the main figure in Albert's book The House of Bondage, aged former slave Charlotte Brooks. Foster argues that Delaney
  assumed a dispassionate narrative persona similar to that of ...
  Albert, but instead of using a Charlotte Brooks as the nucleus around
  which the other narratives clustered ... Delaney claimed that position
  as her own. And she is right in line with her contemporaries who were
  writing to remind men and white women that African American women knew
  themselves to be and were hereby proclaiming themselves as entitled to
  full participation in the life of the nation and the world. (179)

Similarly, Foreman posits a much more contextual purpose than Barrett for the courtroom scenes in From the Darkness: to address the legal battles leading up to Plessy v. Ferguson. Foreman rightly notes Louisiana's 1890 act mandating segregation in intra-state transportation, the organized efforts by groups like the American Citizens Equal Rights Association and individuals like Albion Tourgee to challenge the act's constitutionality, and the national reportage of the act and its challengers by the Black press (342-43). And Foreman is correct that Delaney's narrative was published when the Black presence in the courtroom and the courtroom's definition of Blackness were becoming more and more important. Stewart v. the Sue (1885), a transport case heard in the Maryland District Court a decade before Plessy reached the Supreme Court, offers a key earlier example of such. (5) Foreman usefully argues that seeing such legal battles as some of Delaney's "historical referents" helps us understand that she might have been reminding her initial readers of more contemporary ramifications of her "lawyer's admonition--'You need not think because my client is colored that she has no rights, and can be cheated out of her freedom'" (Delaney 34; qtd. in Foreman 343).

From such arguments, both Foster and Foreman rightly mark Delaney's text as instructive--in John Ernest's words, an example of "cultural pedagogy" (497)--a text designed to teach postbellum readers about both how slavery affected African Americans (especially African American women) and how they might respond to contemporary racism and sexism. Like the curiously named character Lucille Delany in Harper's Iola Leroy, Lucy Delaney urges readers of From the Darkness to view their goal as making "the best use" of their time by sharing "the few talents the Lord has bestowed on" them "for His glory and to benefit those for whom" they live (63). (6)

Still, as valuable as Foster's and (especially) Foreman's readings of From the Darkness are, they are hampered by the lack of information on Delaney's biography and local contexts. Indeed, critics beginning with Carby have been hesitant to give detailed consideration to the wrecked families in the narrative. These include the sister who escaped to Canada, the failed post-Emancipation reunion with Delaney's long-lost father, and especially the handful of unheroic facets of the otherwise positive depiction of Delaney's mother Polly Wash (specifically, her absence at Delaney's trial, after starting the suit and caring for Delaney throughout her time in the St. Louis jail. Foreman briefly refers to this absence as "the mystery of symbolic maternal abandonment" [342]). Similarly, critics ignore the more than two full pages (in a sixty-four-page narrative) devoted to a biography of white slaveholder and attorney Edward Bates. They generally ignore Delaney's preface and final posttrial chapter, and they generally sever Delaney totally from the context of Black St. Louis.

These last issues become even more ripe for discussion when we begin to piece together the publication and composition history of From the Darkness. That history has remained cloudy; indeed, we still do not even know the exact date of the book's publication. Most estimates suggest that it was published in the early 1890s, and the publisher's address ("No. 11, Bridge Entrance" in St. Louis), when compared to city directory listings, confirms that the book was most probably published between 1890 and 1893. (7) One internal clue strongly suggests that it was written, if not published, in 1891: in speaking of her marriage, Delaney says that she has had a "happy married life, continuing forty-two years" (58); if she were married in 1849, as per St. Louis records, forty-two years would take her to 1891. (8)

We know a bit more about the book's publisher, listed as the "Publishing House of J. T. Smith." John T. Smith was an active St. Louis printer at least as early as 1880; he must have been fairly successful, as, in addition to his wife, the thirty-year-old English immigrant was listed in the 1880 Federal Census as having a live-in domestic servant. From 1888 until the turn of the century, he was included in various ways in city directories--first as a member of Ferris, Smith, and Company (as well as a manager of the St. Louis Critic), later as "John T. Smith" under listings for printers, and still later, as part of the "Smith Brothers" and "John T. Smith" under listings for publishers. (9)

Smith's calling his business a "Publishing House," though, was a stretch. I have located only ten extant titles published by Smith (including Delaney's); almost all were issued between 1890 and 1895. Almost all were clearly religious, and one was actually published for the Presbyterian Board of Publication. (10) This small line suggests that printer Smith held some of the beliefs espoused in the texts he published; the strong Christian tone of Delaney's text might have helped him decide to take it. Perhaps more important, though, his line--and especially the job he did for the Presbyterian Board--suggests that Smith probably did some subsidy and vanity publishing. The tiny number of surviving copies suggests that Delaney's book may have been such a project. More important, Delaney's prefatory statement that the book resulted from the urging of "so many of my friends," when taken as a simple statement of fact, rather than a trope of autobiography, strengthens this suggestion (vii).

So who were those friends?

Delaney's brief summary of her life after her freedom suit offers key hints. She notes that she
  was elected President of the first colored society, called the "Female
  Union" ...; President of a society known as the "Daughters of Zion";
  was matron of "Siloam Court," No. 2, three years in succession; was
  Most Ancient Matron of the "Grand Court of Missouri," of which only
  the wives of Masons are allowed to become members. I am at present,
  Past Grand Chief Preceptress of the "Daughters of the Tabernacle and
  Knights of Tabor." (62-63)

Historians have, as yet, been unable to track the first two organizations. The rest are Masonic or neo-Masonic, and it was to these organizations that Delaney devoted a great deal of her later life. Their members were likely Delaney's friends, and the combination of these friendships and organizational ties probably served as the occasion for the call for Delaney's narrative.

There is no doubt that these organizations, and Black freemasonry in general, attempted to engage and replicate some values advocated by comparable white organizations that catered to the middling classes. (11) Delaney's membership in Siloam Court (part of the Heroines of Jericho), for example, was clearly a statement of class status, or, at least, class aspirations: she had to pay regular dues and invest in the society's elaborate regalia as well as pay expenses to travel to social events and meetings, some of which were held outside of St. Louis. (12) As with many Black Masonic organizations, processionals and high ceremony dominated much of the formal interactions of the Heroines. They also seem to have had a fairly strict moral code for their members, and records exist of members being suspended and even expelled for violations. And, of course, they were quite selective in their membership, generally demanding some direct connection to a male Mason.

Still, to assume that the so-called "values of white bourgeois society"--generally understood to be self-help, family and community engagement, and late nineteenth-century Protestant morality--were inherently white is, to say the least, deeply problematic. Delaney, of course, seems to have held these values throughout her life in spite of the whites around her, not because she wanted to be like those whites. Similarly, while much Masonic ritual does in some ways center on high fantasy--what E. Franklin Frazier called a "world of make believe" (127)--such sweeping generalizations deeply oversimplify freemasonry's place in the Black community.

In St. Louis, in addition to and sometimes intertwining with, the more conservative and bourgeois strands of freemasonry were also rich strands of Black nationalism and communal self-help among Black Masons. These facets allowed, in Gary Kremer's words, "the black victim of white racism to respond creatively to the limitations placed upon him [sic]" (52). At the heart of these strands of Black freemasonry in St. Louis--the strands with which Delaney was most closely allied--stood Moses Dickson.

Dickson seems to have been born free in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1820s and was initially trained as a barber. Most accounts of his subsequent life run toward myth. According to the biographical account in Manual of the International Order of Twelve of Knights and Daughters of Tabor, which Dickson may have authored, he supposedly began a three-year "tour" of the South in 1841, ending up in New Orleans in mid-1844, when he "saw slavery in all its horrors" and "witnessed such scenes of monstrous cruelty as caused his African blood to boil with suppressed indignation at the sight of the outrageous suffering of his people" (8-9). During this time, he supposedly "made the acquaintance of a few true and trusty young men, who were ready to enter into any plan that would assure freedom to the African race," and, in August of 1846, they met in St. Louis, where Dickson had settled (8). Their purported plan, authored by Dickson, was nothing short of revolutionary:
  Organizations were secretly to be made in the Southern States. None
  but reliable, fearless men were to be enrolled. The organizers were to
  carefully pick the men that were courageous, patient, temperate, and
  possessed of sound common sense. One feature of ... [their oath] was:
  "I can die, but I cannot reveal the name of any member until the
  slaves are free." This oath was never broken.... Silently, like the
  falling of Autumn leaves, the organizations multiplied, until, in
  1856, an army of true and trusty men numbered forty-seven thousand,
  two hundred and forty Knights of Liberty. (8-9)

At the center of this massive army, according to Dickson's accounts, stood his "disciples"--his "Order of Twelve" (9,12). Dickson was supposedly ready to call for a national uprising in 1856 or 1857, but he held back in the face of growing anti-slavery sentiment and a prophetic vision of the Civil War. He instead is said to have shifted his efforts to working with the Underground Railroad and to have waited for the great war (10). (13)

Though almost impossible to substantiate and certainly at least somewhat exaggerated, simply the existence and the character of these claims--made first in the 1891 ritual book Manual of the International Order of Twelve of Knights and Daughters of Tabor--merit further research. Dickson, consciously linking himself to slave revolutionaries like Nat Turner, claimed to have called for an answer to slavery that was both violent and massive. Rather than letting this ideology fade after Emancipation, he consistently refined and reinvoked it. (14)

The ritual book that makes these claims and advanced this radical sense of Blackness was designed for the male branch of the organization Delaney speaks of as the "Daughters of the Tabernacle and Knights of Tabor" (63). Delaney was actively involved in the Daughters by at least the mid-1880s: on 13 October 1887, she was elected the Chief Grand Preceptress (head) of the state temple, and she was re-elected in 1888. She continued to be active in her local temple long after. She was clearly aware of the history of the Knights of Liberty, and she must have worked closely with Dickson.

Delaney and Dickson were also closely tied through the Heroines of Jericho noted above. Dickson and his wife Mary helped set up the first Black chapter (called a "Court") of the Heroines, and Dickson himself wrote the organization's rituals. Active in the Heroines' second St. Louis Court (the Siloam Court) for perhaps three decades, Delaney and St. Mary's Court leader Mary Dickson attended citywide meetings together for almost twenty years. When the Heroines had enough Courts to form a "Grand Court" at the state level in 1874, Delaney was elected "Grand Treasurer" at the same meeting at which Mary Dickson was elected the "Grand Inner Gatekeeper." Delaney also served three years as the Siloam Court Matron (head) and eventually became the state organization's Grand Worthy Matron (head) at least three times. As Grand Worthy Matron, she hosted the Grand Court's 1899 meeting in St. Louis, organized and presided over a special series of meetings in 1901 eulogizing Moses Dickson, and was probably involved in planning the massive funeral activities when Dickson passed. (15)

Who were the other women who joined these organizations--who supported the Dicksons so much that they came to refer to them as "Father Dickson" and "Mother Dickson"? While a full study of such is beyond the scope of this essay, we can note that, in what seems to have been a scenario of class separation more common among Masonic women than men, few of them entered the ranks of the elite of Black St. Louis. Most were not tied--even though Mary Dickson was--to the land- and business-owning antebellum free Blacks chronicled in Cyprian Clamorgan's The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis. Most were not members of the groups founded by the Black descendants of the wealthy and powerful Choteaus or the new Black elite (like the Vashon family) who came to St. Louis after the Civil War. In a rare case, for example, Alice Richardson, the Heroines of Jericho member who planned Delaney's funeral, briefly belonged to Susan Paul Vashon's "Informal Dames," but she also seems to have left the organization (which charged dues of at least twenty-five cents per meeting) when economic times worsened. If Richardson's entry into the fringes of the Black elite was somewhat out of character for many Black Masonic women in St. Louis, other markers of her status were not. Her husband George was a chef, an occupation arguably on par with Delaney's husband Zachariah's work for the postal service (work that was reduced from clerk to laborer status after the end of the remnants of Reconstruction). The few remaining photographs of St. Louis women's Masonic groups suggest--in a St. Louis and a world obsessed with skin tone--that some may have been of mixed ancestry, but that many were, like Richardson, in the terms used by the census, "Black" rather than "mulatto." As the club movement became more democratized in the 1890s, these were the women who might join, but not generally the women of prestigious families who would be marked as leaders. In essence, they were Black women aspiring to (and beginning to join) the middling classes--Black women who were still quite close to a slavery-dominated past and who were certainly eager to hear and build on the Dickson message of self-determination, nascent Black nationalism, and African American Protestantism. (16)

Delaney must have believed deeply in these organizations--as well as in key leaders like the Dicksons--and in the values they advocated, as, over a period of three decades or more, she gave them a great deal of time and resources (including financial resources, which were often thin for the Delaneys). (17) These organizations' community-centered ethos runs throughout Delaney's narrative. Readers of From the Darkness will not be surprised, for example, that the Heroines of Jericho pledged to be "united under the form of a Court for mutual aid and protection, to assist each other in sickness and distress, and comfort a member when lonely or disabled"; as well, the 1903 History of St. Mary's Court proudly claimed that, during its existence, it had "paid out in death benefits over $2,500 and in sick benefits ... over $6000" (64).

It seems likely that Delaney's deep organizational ties had personal components, too, for at times, she was both "lonely" and "disabled." In one of the most touching and troubling sections of From the Darkness, Delaney writes of how her charitable work with the Exodusters, during which she "piled inquiry upon inquiry" in search of information about the father who had been ripped from her in childhood, led to a brief and bittersweet reunion with a now "old, grizzled and gray" man "made prematurely old by the accumulation of troubles" (60-61). (18) As an important organizer within the Black community, Moses Dickson had been at the forefront of such efforts; it is certainly possible that he--and/or his wife, and/or other Masons--aided Delaney in tracking down her father, celebrated their reunion, and counseled Delaney, who must have been heartbroken when her father, who "felt like a stranger in a strange land" in St. Louis, decided to return to the life he had built in Mississippi (61).

More painful--and rushed over in the narrative with brief language that only hints at how Delaney's "cup of bitterness was full to the brim and overflowing" (58-59)--is the fact that, by the time she published her narrative, all four of her children had died. (19) One of the implied functions of Black Masonic organizations was to reinforce parenting structures, so it is certainly possible that Delaney found some solace in working with younger Masonic women: though her own children had died, as "Matron," "Most Ancient Matron," and "Grand Worthy Matron," Delaney was charged with the guidance of younger members. The stories of her life Delaney must have told them--stories that became the basis for From the Darkness--may well have been a central piece of that guidance. Finally, late in life, widowed and nearly destitute, it was to the first Black Masonic home in Missouri that Delaney turned. She died there on 31 August 1910, and her funeral in St. Louis was sponsored by the Heroines of Jericho. (20)

Given both the bent of freemasonry to represent its members as exemplars of key virtues and the sense that freemasonry contributed to community betterment, history, and memory, asking a woman of Delaney's stature to write a "short sketch" like From the Darkness would certainly have been in line with the ethos of these organizations. While Delaney's lack of ties to some of the more upper-class Black clubs in St. Louis might have limited support and patronage from St. Louis's most prominent Blacks, her Masonic ties might have offered both encouragement and support for printing and circulating her text.

Within this framework--recognizing Delaney as part of a localized network of Blacks (and especially Black women) aspiring to the middling classes, but also, concurrently, to self-determination, self-help, African American Protestant values, and a radicalism necessary to confront and overcome slavery's remaining presences--we should return to her prefatory description of her book's purpose. Delaney writes,
  Those who were with me in the days of slavery will appreciate these
  pages, for though they cannot recur with any happiness to the now
  "shadowy past, or renew the unrenewable," the unaccountable longing
  for the aged to look backward and review the events of their youth
  will find an answering chord in this little book.
    Those of you who have never suffered as we have, perhaps may suppose
  the case, and therefore accept with interest and sympathy the passages
  of life and character here portrayed and the lessons which should
  follow from them. (vii)

Her text, then, is centrally about memory, specifically about how slavery becomes remembered and about what those memories should teach. Toward the end of the narrative, she directly addresses readers in the same spirit: "I have brought you face to face with but a few of the painful facts engendered by slavery.... Just have patience a little longer, and I have done" (62).

In the broadest national sense, comments by Foster and Foreman about the book's audience and purpose are certainly on target. Localizing their sense of the book as emphasizing cultural pedagogy offers even richer possibilities. To bring her readers "face to face" with slavery--especially given that some of her intended readers knew slavery as she did and that others needed to learn more about it before taking lessons from it--Delaney had to revise the ways in which the dominant national and local culture talked about slavery. In part, this meant revising the approaches of both the genre of the slave narrative and specific immediate postbellum narratives of Missouri slavery like The Story of Mattie J. Jackson and especially Elizabeth Keckley's now well-known Behind the Scenes; in part it meant establishing a continuity between African Americans of the 1890s (especially those in St. Louis) and the pasts marked by slavery. In doing both, Delaney's work echoes some of Foster's description of Albert's House of Bondage: "The details of slavery ... serve to introduce younger readers to the recent history upon which their present is based and to remind those who had been inclined to forget or to romanticize the horrors of that institution" (169).

Specifically, this means that Delaney does not simply show the myriad ways that slavery destroyed her nuclear family (such as the sale of her father, her separations from her mother, or her separation from her sister); she also shows how, even in freedom, the remnants of the slave system continue to damage Black families. Her sister Nancy, for example, could not return to the United States for decades because she remained a fugitive; Canada eventually became the home for her that a tainted United States could never be. In depicting this, Delaney challenges the growing Jim Crow dominance in the South and the forgetting of slavery being forced on the public by white Southern fantasies from the likes of Thomas Dixon.

Delaney's depiction of her reunion with her father, though, emphasizes how her narrative goes beyond and in different directions from the texts to which historicist critics like Foster and Foreman generally compare From the Darkness. It also shows Delaney's use of heavily localized examples to make both national and local points. Harper and especially Albert had a great deal invested in the suggestion that such reunions could heal the Black families that had been torn apart by slavery. Thus, Iola Leroy features a successful reunion as a key piece of its plot (179-84). Even more prominent, the pages of the Southwestern Christian Advocate (which Albert's husband edited and where Albert's work was first serialized) regularly carried a "Lost Friends" column through which Black readers could attempt to find lost family members; occasionally, the paper carried reports of successful reunions.

For Delaney's very real family, luck--and community involvement by groups like the Masonic and neo-Masonic organizations in which she was active, as well as charity and careful digging--did produce a reunion like those surrounding Harper's and Albert's works, but it was a reunion that only emphasized how deep were the scars left by slavery. St. Louis had grown too foreign for Delaney's father, and his wife Polly had died. Finally, he felt he could not live there, and so he returned to Mississippi. Delaney's Masonic "sisters" and "daughters"--probably her primary intended audience--would have understood, as Delaney did, that such scars remained and were often reopened. Given St. Louis's position in the regional slave trade (as a gateway to New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi, a past only briefly attended to in Jackson's and Keckley's stories), many probably shared Delaney's situation of a family sundered. And even if the events of the 1840s and 1850s might be distant memories--or not even memories for Delaney's youngest "daughters"--the complexity of the Exodus would have been fresh to all. These were the woman who witnessed and aided the thousands of former slaves, often in great need, attempting to pass through St. Louis in hopes of finding both a future and some of what they had lost through slavery, and these were the women for whom I argue From the Darkness was designed.

Within this more complex and troubled sense of the damage done to Black families by slavery, it is actually no surprise, then, that Delaney refuses to romanticize her mother. Carby and Foreman are correct that her depiction of Polly Wash seems to place her in the rhetorical space of the hero (Carby 36-37; Foreman 342-43), a space contradicted by Wash's absence at Delaney's trial (described in heartrending detail) and her rather cold comfort of Delaney when Delaney's first husband dies. But rather than making an inexplicable break with sentimental narrative--or any of the other explanations posited by previous critics--Delaney's narrative seems to center on sharing just such seeming contradictions with an audience that might well recognize them.

Simple biographical circumstances may have kept Polly Wash from the courtroom: as a recently freed Black washerwoman, she would have had great need for wages and would have been barred from the trial because of her race. Thus, her absence only emphasizes the fact that, in the courtroom, hero that she might be, Polly Wash would have been powerless, absent. And so it is in this space--the space that legally defines Black bodies--that Delaney talks of being disembodied, of first "trembling, as if with ague," then of seeing herself "floating down the river" with "heart-throbs ... the throbs of the mighty engine which propelled me from my mother and freedom forever," and, finally, of seeming "to be another person--an on-looker--and in my heart dwelt a pity for the poor lonely girl, with down-cast face, sitting on the bench apart from anyone else in that noisy room" (40, 47). Bodies are, indeed, as Barrett points out, "paramount in this narrative," but they are imbued with meaning not only by their presence and character, but by their absence, their ultimate meaninglessness to white titans bent on oratorical and metaphysical struggle ("African American" 435).

Rather than depicting the idealized slave mother of 1850s sentimental literature (Eliza of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin) or the absent mother of Douglass's Narrative (who comes into focus only slightly in his later autobiographies), in her tale of the 1840s and the 1890s, Delaney shows her readers both that a Black mother can be heroic and that she can be beaten down in ways from which she may never recover. It is this simultaneous duality that readers of the 1890s needed to recognize: this, Delaney argues, is what a Black female hero is and must be. Given her audience of Black Masonic women in St. Louis, she may have simply been articulating what some in that audience already knew. Many of the members of the Heroines and other Masonic and neo-Masonic organizations for Black women had undoubtedly been beaten down by slavery, racism, gender discrimination, and economic and physical trials. Yet many still chose community activism, chose--both in their organizations' elaborate processionals and rituals and in their quieter and plainer charitable work--to recognize each other, to name each other, as "heroines."

Delaney's self-representation might best be seen in that light, too. Like the heroines of antebellum sentimental literature and slave narratives, of texts by late nineteenth-century African American women, and of Masonic and neo-Masonic ritual and practice, Delaney embodies the virtues of benevolent fellow-feeling, chastity, humility, and honesty. But she recognizes both that racist oppression challenges these virtues and that holding such virtues does not necessarily lead to earthly rewards. In this recognition, her narrative breaks notably with much sentimental literature, which (ironically, for all its focus on heavenly rewards) often eventually rewards good characters with good lives. Indeed, Delaney's representation of her final mistress Martha Mitchell seems a direct attack on sentimentalism: rather than a whip, white matron Mitchell uses the tools of domesticity (a shovel, tongs, broomstick, and, eventually, her influence over her husband) to chastise the outspoken Delaney, to whom she refers as "that saucy baggage" (28). And though the demands of true womanhood may have kept detailed discussion of the moment from the text, Delaney nonetheless suggests that a physical fight followed Mitchell's attacks--one that happened both because Martha Mitchell failed to be a true woman and because slavery limited the ways Delaney could practice such ideals. Similarly, though Delaney held to such ideals throughout her free life, that life was full of tragedy--the loss of her first husband, the loss of her father, and the loss of all of her children--tragedies that are all either directly or indirectly connected to the raced and gendered legacy of slavery.

The only figure uniformly idealized in the narrative is, ironically, a white male slaveholder: Edward Bates. Delaney's two and a half pages that detail his biography suggest that she did some research to ensure correctness and coverage. She is also quite selective: the biography never mentions that Bates was a slaveholder; only he is allowed to say such in Delaney's representation of his closing argument in her freedom suit. The biography itself dwells at some length on his Quaker background, his opposition to pro-slavery measures (especially on the Kansas question), and, of course, his appointment to the Lincoln cabinet. With the single exception that the steamer on which Frederick Turner is killed is named the Edward Bates (a painfully ironic historical fact rather than a fictional creation), Bates's name rings through the text as heroic. (21)

Why, in a narrative that so carefully attempts to balance the representations of even the most heroic Black women, does a white male slaveholder become so idealized? Part of the answer to this may be biographical: it does, indeed, seem that Bates functioned in Delaney's mind as her champion, regardless of his motives. Some of Delaney's Masonic sisters might have had a similar opinion of Bates: though his relationship to African Americans during the antebellum period was complex, to say the least, his family did free prominent minister John Anderson, (22) whose church activities touched much of free Black St. Louis and who was favorably discussed in Galusha Anderson's 1909 history of the region (37).

Part, though, may also be tied to the key question near the narrative's end: "Can the negro race succeed, proportionally, as well as the whites, if given the same chance and an even start?" (63-64). This question suggests a broader audience both among and outside of African Americans. And, if a white audience (especially, perhaps, a younger white audience who did not remember slavery and had certainly "never suffered as we have" [vii]) materialized, Delaney may have wanted them also to learn "the lessons which should follow" from her narrative. Thus Bates, in his clear opposition to the simple and total evil of the other white men in the narrative--Delaney's masters Robert Wash, Henry Coxe, and David D. Mitchell, as well as Mitchell's attorney Thomas Hutchinson--may well serve as what Delaney hopes white men could, and should, become. The dedication of the book (to the Grand Army of the Republic) seems to serve a similar function: to offer a direct reminder of what Delaney remembers them fighting for (v). Perhaps Delaney consciously remembers Bates as idealized in order to push those memories into contemporary practice. (23) In essence, Delaney may have been rewriting key St. Louis whites into beings more respectful of the Black community's values--and Black women's value as true "heroines." In this recreation of Bates, Delaney was performing a version of the same act she shows Polly Wash performing: her mother, Delaney says, "had girded up her loins for the fight, and, knowing that she was right, was resolved, by the help of God and a good lawyer, to win my case" and sought out Bates (35). Wash had chosen him and, in essence, made him into her daughter's attorney, made him into the best St. Louis whites could offer.

These strategic uses of memory suggest that Delaney ends her narrative with the resume-like list of her community activities because it allows her to assert that she has not "hidden in a napkin" the "talents the Lord bestowed" on her. "What better can we do than to live for others?" she asks, building from her account of the events of the 1840s and specifically addressing readers of the 1890s (and beyond) who may have forgotten or never even known those events (63). She has, in short, become a community and communitarian leader--a heroine. While she, and her mother Polly Wash, certainly did not have "the same chance and an even start" as an idealized figure like Edward Bates, she--again, like Polly Wash--was able to lift herself up and to help her "sisters" and "daughters" lift themselves.

If, as this reading suggests, the end purpose of Delaney's narrative was to challenge readers to remember slavery in its complexity and apply that remembrance in daily life decades after--seemingly with Delaney as a model--we, of course, must ask whether she were successful in finding and influencing an audience, particularly in light of Houston Baker's dismissal of texts contemporary with From the Darkness like Iola Leroy. Baker suggests that critics have claimed a "great deal more social effect and liberating reader response" for such texts "than their actual reception histories seem to warrant" (25). Foreman's study of the complex responses to historical referents in Iola Leroy paired with Foster's archival work on how Harper's fiction circulated certainly respond to Baker's comments as they apply to Iola Leroy. In terms of the reception history of Delaney's text, however, his criticism is, in one way, correct: Delaney's book did not reach the large audience that it is now clear Harper's novel touched, and it certainly did not reach the national multiracial audience that the fiction of a writer like Charles Chesnutt did.

But Baker's comments are curiously focused solely on the stories as they were circulated in book form. It is now clear, for example, that the cultural work of Iola Leroy was part of Harper's much larger activism, which included poetry, serialized novels in the Black press, lectures, committee and club work, and a range of other kinds of civic engagement. Taken as a package, such output certainly had a "great deal" of "social effect and liberating ... response." So, too, does it seem that Delaney's story circulated much more widely than her book. Indeed, her story had already circulated widely and successfully enough in the Black community of St. Louis that "so many" of her "friends" urged her to write and publish it in book form.

Further, if Harper's Lucille Delany is consciously modeled on Delaney, that modeling would probably have come from acquaintance with Delaney's community work, especially her oral sharing of her story through Black Masonic organizations. Even if Harper's character name is a coincidence, Delaney, like that character, clearly reached a wide circle of other Black women throughout Missouri and beyond at the end of the nineteenth century. Her story and her Masonic activism had enough "social effect" to make the creation of her book possible and to ensure that modern readers would be able to give up "just a moment of [their lives]" to come "face to face with but only a few of the painful facts engendered by slavery" (62).


The author wishes to thank Jodie Gardner, Michael Everman, Kristin Zapalac, P. Gabrielle Foreman, the anonymous readers for and the editors of Legacy, and the staffs of the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, the Missouri State Archives, the Missouri Historical Society, the University of Missouri at St. Louis Library, and the Saginaw Valley State University Library for their kind assistance. Some of the work on this essay was supported by a Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities; the author acknowledges their support and notes that any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

1. The massive group of texts produced for such uplift purposes--including denominational and church histories, biographical dictionaries, and encyclopedias--during the last two decades of the nineteenth century remains woefully understudied, especially given that key pieces of African American fiction and poetry functioned in dialogue with such and were sometimes even written by the same authors.

2. Copies of the first edition are owned by the Missouri Historical Society, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Yale University, Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Western Reserve Historical Society Library. The concentration of copies in Missouri and in libraries that have significant collections on American chattel slavery suggests that the original market for the book was highly localized (and that special collections librarians outside of Missouri acquired the book to thicken subject-specific collections). Perhaps one of the most celebrated cases of neglect in early African American letters, Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, may well have had a wider initial reception than From the Darkness; my essay "Of Bottles and Books" tracks forty-two extant copies of Our Nig compared to the eight copies of Delaney's work.

3. The Missouri Historical Society's records unfortunately do not give a reason or a vendor for the purchase. As noted later in the essay, Delaney died on 31 August 1910. For years, her death record had been sealed; after 1910 records were opened, it was presumed lost because it was filed under "Polly Delaney."

4. Much of Trexler's research was done at the Missouri Historical Society Library. For later works, see, for example, Donnie D. Bellamy's oft-cited article, "Free Blacks in Antebellum Missouri."

5. Stewart v. the Sue was decided on 2 February 1885. See "Colored People's Rights."

6. Foreman recognizes, as did Foster, that Harper's character Lucille Delany, in addition to having a name that is a "close homonym" to Delaney's, has several broader similarities to Delaney (342). While we do not know, as yet, whether Harper based her character on a reading of Delaney's text or, more likely, simply a familiarity with some aspects of Delaney's life story, Harper's Delany is, as Foreman argues, "the proto-feminist heroine of the novel" who, among other bold moves, "refuses to give up her teaching once married, an act then sure to be viewed as a controversial assertion of independence" (343).

7. See, for examples, St. Louis City Directory for 1890 (1229, 1651); Directory for 1891 (1294, 1731); Directory for 1892 (1436, 1921); Directory for 1893 (1318, 1791). The St. Louis City Directory for 1889 lists 919 Olive as publisher J. T. Smith's business address (1188), while the Directory for 1894 lists his business address at 202 North 2nd (1869).

8. Delaney's marriage is listed in St. Louis Marriages 7: 372. On Delaney's early life, including her freedom suit, see my essay "'You have no business to whip me.'"

9. In addition to the 1880 Federal Census of Missouri, City of St. Louis, 174D, see, for example, St. Louis City Directory for 1888 (1179,1375); Directory for 1889 (1188); Directory for 1890 (1229,1651); Directory for 1891 (1294,1731); Directory for 1892 (1436,1921); Directory for 1893 (1318, 1791); Directory for 1894 (1869); Directory for 1895 (400, 407); Directory for 1896 (1506); Directory for 1897 (1582, 2146); Directory for 1898 (1559, 2121); Directory for 1899 (1630, 2208).

10. With the exception of R. M. Loughridge's English and Muskokee Dictionary (1890), most of Smith's publications were clearly religious in theme and content.

11. To date, there has been no comprehensive scholarly history of late nineteenth-century Black freemasonry. The standard text, William A. Muraskin's Middle-Class Blacks in a White Society, is steeped in the ideologies of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" and related sociology and so marks freemasonry as class-based, specifically as a symbol of Blacks' desire to enter and perform middle-class roles. The text also relies heavily on the sense, articulated by prominent Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, that freemasonry was a retreat into fantasy (Muraskin 2-3). Muraskin actually claims to find great fault with most of Frazier's work (especially Black Bourgeousie), asserting that Frazier's status as a member of the group he writes about and his "hostility to the group" caused him to fall into "moralistic polemic, which lost sight of reality." Ironically, though, Muraskin's method and assumptions lead him to many of the same conclusions as Frazier--so much so that historians after Muraskin try to pair him with Frazier. Though it focuses on the early twentieth century, Martin Summer's fine Manliness and Its Discontents usefully revises work by figures like Frazier and Muraskin. Building from both Muraskin and Frazier, the most detailed discussion of early Black freemasonry in St. Louis, Gary Kremer's "The World of Make-Believe" thoughtfully articulates conservative Turner's connections to Masonry but still concludes that Black Masonic and neo-Masonic organizations simply "institutionalized the very type of white bourgeois values and behavior with which Turner was comfortable" (51-52).

12. For more information about the Heroines of Jericho, in addition to Muraskin's generalized comments in Middle-Class Blacks, see Dickson 11-21 and Proceedings 11-13. Being elected to office, and especially to the highest positions, demanded an even greater financial investment. Dickson describes the standard full regalia as including "[a]n apron and collar in one piece, made to fit over the shoulders and down to a point on the back, cut to fit around the neck and over the breast, down in front about two-thirds from waist to feet; color, scarlet, made of velvet, silk or satin; seven gold stars and five silver stars; a golden fringe around the edge of the entire apron; gold lace and silver lace for trimming; a cord and tassel to confine the apron at the waist; lining, white" (21). The expectation of the Most Ancient Matron--in essence, the chapter head--was that she would have "[a] golden crown with twelve points ... ornamented with twelve small silver stars set on a scarlet band one inch wide ... at the base; in front, a silver bugle; the points of the crown ornamented with brilliants [sic], red, white and blue. A purple robe, full from the shoulders, and trailing four feet; robe trimmed with silver lace and spangled with small golden stars. A scepter, made to suit the taste" (18-19). She would also have "a page to attend her on public occasions" (19).

13. As with Black Masonry in general, there has, as yet, been no substantial scholarly treatment of Dickson or his organization. In addition to Manual, see O'Brien 240-41 and Wright 16-18.

14. Beyond--or perhaps through--such claims, Dickson created a position of authority in Black Missouri generally and St. Louis specifically. He served as a delegate to every state convention of the Republican party between 1864 and 1878. Ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1867, he actively advocated for Black education (including the founding of Lincoln University), suffrage, civil rights, and self-determination until his death in 1901. Critics have yet to explore the similarities between Dickson's account and Martin Delany's 1859 novel Blake--an examination that might prove fascinating, given Delany's Masonic work.

15. See History 7-29 and Proceedings 57-58. Born in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, in 1818, Mary Dickson was the youngest of the ten children of a German immigrant and an African American woman who seems to have been free. She was sent to St. Louis for her education--some sources say to live with an older sister, and some say to live with "her aunt Mrs. Louise Chouteau"--specifically at the Sacred Heart Convent, run by a group of nuns active in the Catholic education of African American children. After a brief first marriage that ended with her husband's death, the young widow married Dickson in 1848. Among Black freemasons throughout the city and state, she became an almost iconic figure after 1875, especially after her death in 1891. See History 42-43; Manual 10, 18-24; and Proceedings 7-8 and 19-21. The first "Worthy Joshua" of the St. Mary's Court, one of the few male positions in the organization, was the Reverend Hiram Revels, who would go on to become the first African American to serve in the United States Senate, suggesting just how high Black freemasonry reached.

Though she does not mention it in her narrative, Delaney was a key figure in the founding of Missouri's Black Order of the Eastern Star, an organization with ties to the Royal Arch Masons and, again, to the Dicksons. She is reported to have been one of the first Black women in Missouri to attain membership in the Order (in 1884, from the Grand Chapter in Ohio) and was elected the "Worthy Matron" (head) when the first Missouri Black chapter of the Order was founded in St. Louis on 22 April 1887. Present among supporting Master Masons to see her win this honor was Moses Dickson. In 1890, when the organization had expanded to five chapters in St. Louis and met to form its own state-level Grand Chapter (separating from the "parentage" of the Ohio Chapter), Delaney, still Worthy Matron of the initial chapter, was elected as the state group's first "Grand Worthy Matron" (head). She served for two years and supervised the founding of at least nine new chapters, in locations across the state ranging from Kansas City to Independence and from St. Joseph to Plattsburg, as well as a distant chapter in St. Paul, Minnesota. See "History and Origin."

16. On such clubs, see the collection on the Informal Dames in the Western Historical Ms. Coll., U of Missouri at St. Louis, as well as Hendricks and Knupfer. On Richardson, in addition to the Informal Dames records, see St. Louis City Directory for 1908 (1517); City Directory for 1909 (1706); Directory for 1910 (1681); Directory for 1911 (1651); Directory for 1912 (1701). On other members of the Heroines and for the photographs, see the Heroines of Jericho collection.

17. Searches of city directories for the period show the Delaneys moving several times and, of course, note Zachariah's gradual decline to "laborer" and then, seemingly, jobless status. After Zachariah's death, Delaney lived in near poverty.

18. Grenz's "The Exodusters of 1879" and Painter's Exodusters are two of the best introductions to the Exodus, in which thousands of Southern Blacks attempted to move to Kansas to start new lives, passing through St. Louis on their way.

19. Tracking Delaney's children (who are never named in the narrative, though she mentions having four) is difficult, though census records show six children living with the Delaneys in 1870 and only one son remaining in 1880. That son, Charles, died 18 December 1880. See Missouri Federal Census for 1870 (239); Missouri Federal Census for 1880, (63 D, 64A); Death Certificate of Charles Delaney, filed 24 December 1880 in St. Louis.

20. On Delaney's funeral arrangements, see "Delaney," St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and "Delaney," St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

21. On the explosion, which killed Delaney's first husband Frederick Turner, see "Terrible Steamboat Calamity," Lloyd, and "Report on the Explosion."

22. John Anderson is now best remembered as Dred and Harriet Scott's pastor.

23. Mrs. Lacy, the jailer's sister-in-law who comforts Delaney on her way to her freedom suit trial, may similarly serve as a foil to Martha Mitchell.


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Author:Gardner, Eric
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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