Discovered Civil War Era Letters Preserve Two Free-born Black Female Activists’ Comments on Their Life and Times
The Civil War-era exchange of letters between two free-born African-American women named Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus is now, more than a century later, igniting a scholarly dialogue over the relationship shared by the two spirited, opinionated women.
Their published correspondence is stirring interest among scholars who contend the 19th-century documents make a significant addition to the literature about African-American women who carved out lives for themselves during this turbulent period of racial upheaval and conflict.
Researchers know that Brown, a feisty, orphaned domestic servant, and Primus, a well-to-do charismatic school teacher, both worked hard, battled racism, spoke their minds — and loved each other passionately.
But the letters between Primus and Brown had not been intensely scrutinized and interpreted by a scholar until Dr. Karen V. Hansen, an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University, started researching and reading between the lines.
In a 29-page article published in the academic journal “Gender & History,” Hansen boldly suggests that Brown and Primus were more than friends. Their relationship, she says, was erotic and romantic.
Since discovering the names “Addie and Rebecca” on the pages of letters housed in the Primus collection at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Hansen says she has become captivated by the personalities of the women and convinced of the romantic and erotic nature of their relationship. Hansen believes that, if alive today, it is conceivable they would live as lesbians.
In a letter written in 1860, Addie expresses her longing for Rebecca: “O my Dear Dear Rebecca when you press me to your dear bosom O how happy I was. Last night I gave any thing if I could only layed my poor aching head on your bosom. O Dear how soon will it be I can be able to do so?”
“It was romantic, erotic, sensual, a kinship, a friendship,” says Hansen. “There’s no label to capture it and they struggled with the language, too. Their relationship was very challenging for me to interpret. It’s partly the complexity of the relationship that makes it so interesting.”
Five years Rebecca’s junior, Addle was orphaned and had no formal education. In her writing, Hansen described her as combining passion, earnestness and sensuality while lacking Rebecca’s polish and sophistication.
While some of Addie’s letters are riddled with variations in spelling and grammatical errors, Hansen says the “writing was very representative of 19th-century writing.” In transcribing the letters, Hansen’s goal was to “keep them as close to the original as possible.”
Hansen did make some stylistic changes in capitalization, spelling and punctuation when colleagues — mainly historians — complained to her that they “couldn’t read the writing otherwise,” she recalls.
Meeting a Mystery
Addie once lived in Hartford, CT, and just how she met Rebecca “remains a mystery,” says Hansen. But it is likely, she adds, that Addle worked in the Primus household, which consisted of Rebecca, her father, Holdridge, a grocery store clerk, and her mother, Mehitable, a self-employed dressmaker. From there, Addie was on the move, taking low-paying jobs as a domestic or horse driver wherever she could find them.
In contrast, Rebecca, a determined, middle-class Christian, became a schoolteacher. She risked her life by leaving Hartford for the South after the Civil War to establish a school for newly freed slaves in Maryland.
Hansen stumbled on the letters while doing research for her 1994 book, “A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England.”
The flowery, affectionate terms the unlikely pair used to express their mutual admiration were characteristic of the friendships between 19th-century white women, says Hansen.
In her 1995 “Gender & History” article, Hansen says the “historical and literary writing about Black women in the 19th century places Addie and Rebecca in an overarching context, but their letters alone forge new ground in documenting friendships and everyday life in the North.”
As Hansen attracts media attention, she frets about what her contemporaries — feminist scholars, Black scholars, sociologists, historians and “African-Americanists” — will think. Questions about whether they will frown on the “appropriateness” of a white heterosexual woman, such as herself, interpreting the lives of two Black women or to “do Black history” nag her.
“I had to struggle with myself on all those fronts,” says Hansen, who crossed disciplinary boundaries and “informal, but nonetheless recognizable, territorial boundaries that relate to race.” Hansen decided to buck what she calls “professional and personal risks” to publish her research.
“Making a provocative argument about the relationship felt risky … but in the long run we’ll see.” As a self-described “self-taught African-Americanist,” Hansen defends the right and ability of white scholars “to do great Black history.”
Through a Feminist Lens
While Hansen is considered the first researcher to interpret the letters, she isn’t the first to write about the collection. David White, who is also Caucasian and the museum director for the Connecticut Historical Commission, wrote the article “Addie Brown’s Hartford” for the “Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin” in 1976.
“Addie’s letters really zero in on what was happening in the African-American community,” White wrote. His is the only known article written about the Primus family papers. In his article, says Hansen, White “dismisses the relationship between Addie and Rebecca by saying: `Most of the letters are interesting despite the fact that the earlier ones reflected the thoughts of a rather sentimental and immature person.'”
When White probed the Primus-Brown letters and wrote about them, he didn’t view them through the lens of feminist scholarship, argues Hansen.
“What David White did was fine and good, because there are so many things going on in the letters that are about community life besides Addie and Rebecca’s relationship.”
It’s clear, Hansen adds, “White’s interest was not informed by feminist scholarship. His article came out in 1976, which was before Carol Smith Rosenburg first published her article, “Female World of Love and Ritual,” about middle-class white women’s friendship, romantic friendships with one another. And then Nancy Cotts’ work and Lillian Faderman’s. … I think without having that vantage point for reinterpreting what’s happening between women, then you don’t consider it of consequence or consider it interesting.”
`Voices Like Theirs’
Dr. Farah Griffin, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, not only found the letters personally interesting, but is editing them for publication. Once Hansen completed her research, she sought Griffin, an African American and a specialist on 19th-century African-American women, to edit the letters. Today, Griffin is among a small community of people who are intently reading the Primus-Brown letters.
“We’ve always lamented the dearth of material on Black women,” says Griffin. “We’ve always heard that ordinary Black women of that day didn’t write or keep diaries, but here we have it.”
The prized collection of nearly 120 letters from Brown to Primus, along with the 50 letters Primus wrote to her family between 1859 and 1869, has been preserved and housed at the Connecticut Historical Society.
Rebecca preserved Addie’s letters, some as long as 20 pages, but her direct replies to Addie are missing and presumed lost, says Hansen. A handful of letters that Rebecca wrote to her parents and sister are a part of the collection.
In one letter excerpt, Rebecca expresses her deep concern for the plight of Black people and racial justice: “I hope there will be justice, impartial justice given to the colored people one of these days. I was reading the Civil Rights Bill for colored and all people in the “Communicator” … as it has passed both houses of Congress with amendments i’m very anxious to know whether president Johnson has signed it or not.”
Some 20 years ago, when White wanted to publish what he had uncovered about Primus and Brown, publishers weren’t interested, says Griffin. She sold the idea of the book to several eager publishers without ever showing them the prized letters or a manuscript. She is taking her time to find a commercial press that will be sensitive.
“There is a way these letters could become sensationalized if I’m not careful. Addie and Rebecca deserve better than that,” says Griffin, who will combine the letters with commentaries and essays in her upcoming book.
Since Griffin began the painstaking process of transcribing and editing the letters, she speaks about “Addle and Rebecca” as if they were good friends.
“For me, the relationship between Addie and Rebecca is so extraordinary. Addie is a domestic servant, she writes letters, she is involved in the church, she reads books. … But one of the things I like about her is that she doesn’t take any stuff. She stands up to people, even her employers. She is so complex and multidimensional that she gets us out of any stereotypes we have about domestic workers.”
For example, in one of her letters, Addie wrote of her employer: “I don’t like her. You know how I am with any one l don’t like.”
In another letter, Addle makes this pronouncement: “Rebecca I had been working for nothing comparatively speaking. Now I have come to a decided stand that people shall pay me for my work.”
The notion that Primus and Brown may have had a romantic involvement is just one point of interest for Griffin. It’s the lives of Primus and Brown that fascinate her the most.
“I’m interested in them for their intelligence, commitment to Black people and forthrightness. We haven’t heard voices like theirs before.”
Pioneers in the area of Black women’s scholarship and literature are helping to change that, say Griffin and Hansen. Noted academics like Darlene Clark Hines and Roselyn Turborg-Penn are fiercely breathing literary life into the bygone lives of Black women, adds Griffin, who also credits early African-American writers and those in the trenches today for “chronicling the history and everyday lives of Black women.”
For nine years, Primus and Brown used thick sheets of stationary blanketed with words to nurture their friendship, craft strategies for coping with the rigors of life in the urban North and strengthen each other’s soul.
Brown’s letters began in 1859, but there is little mention of politics, the raging Civil War or the men who were engaged in battle, says Hansen. “Once the troops came home, there was much more dialogue and a heightened discussion of race” in the letters.
Upon the arrival of a regiment of Black soldiers at Hartford, Addie captured the harshness of the day in this letter to Rebecca: “Every other person we met had nigger in his or her mouth. They was so mad to think the white was compel to make a fuss over them. On our return home some of them said nigger to us. Aunt Emily [one of Rebecca’s aunts] ask them if that was what they had for their supper … the colored people came from all direction.”
Although the letters were written more than a century ago, they continue to speak volumes about the basis of “intensity of Black women’s friendships,” says Griffin.
In this century, Griffin turned thumbs down on the message the film “Waiting to Exhale” conveyed about the depth of the friendships that exist among contemporary Black women.
“I didn’t like the movie. The basis of Black women’s relationships today and in the movie is largely about lamenting the absence of Black men.”
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