- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
When it comes to talking about the Civil War, boldface names stand out.
There are the men — Stonewall Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Dred Scott, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass.
When it comes to the women, there doesn’t seem to be as many household names — Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix are remembered more for their contributions to the health care industry, Susan B. Anthony, a nurse during the Civil War, is known for her fight for women’s voting rights, Harriet Tubman for being the face of the Underground Railroad.
An audio and visual lecture by author and historian C.R. Gibbs held recently at Waldorf West library aimed to spotlight black women of the Civil War whose names and stories have been lost, forgotten or never told.
“Black Women of the Civil War” is among Gibbs’ several lectures, which include titles such as “On the Cutting Room Floor: The Image of the Black Woman in American Film,” “Miles Lassiter: An African American Quaker” and “Breaking the Phalanx: Smashing Jim Crow in the Nation’s Capital.”
The Civil War presentation introduced guests to new names, faces and stories.
“Everything is not Harriet Tubman,” Gibbs said. “We have other women doing good work. This is a cast of women who are new to you but not new to history. You won’t be hearing the usual names.”
Gibbs said black women who were slaves faced a mother’s nightmares — threatened with separation from their children and that half of all babies born into slavery didn’t make it to their first birthday, most were born underweight — and into a family that was almost always headed by a woman, Gibbs said. Mothers have a special bond with their children, he said.
“You carried that rascal for nine months,” Gibbs said. “Separation of mothers from their children ... that has an emotional impact.”
The brutality of slavery and its practices spurred women to become involved in fighting for freedom, forcing change and keeping families together.
The U.S. was “a patriarchal society but not when it came to y’all,” Gibbs said to the predominately female audience.
Gibbs said he understands and respects the contributions of famous people that history books devote pages to, but others — regular folks — contributed to shaping the country, as well.
“Teach your kids about Frederick Douglass. That’s fine,” he said. “But your families went through the same things. They just didn’t reach the same heights as Douglass.”
Some of the stories Gibbs relayed sounded like screenplays or plots of a historical thriller.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a slave for the Van Lew family.
When the family’s patriarch John Van Lew died, Bowser was freed by his survivors but remained a servant for his wife, Elizabeth Van Lew.
Elizabeth Van Lew knew that Bowser had a photographic memory and possessed an extraordinary intelligence and sent her to school. Meanwhile, Van Lew affected an alternate persona, mumbling to herself and acting erratic to appear nonthreatening and batty, earning the nickname “Crazy Bet.” In reality, she operated an espionage network for the North in which Bowser was a spy. Bowser started working at the Confederate White House in Richmond, Va., where she faked being illiterate but came away with inside information that was passed along to the Union. After a while, Jefferson Davis suspected a leak in his household, forcing Bowser to leave her post — but not before she attempted to burn down the house.
Frances Harper was a Baltimore-based poet who was a staunch and liberal supporter of abolitionism, prohibition and the woman’s suffrage movement. Louise DeMorte was a orator and advocate for homeless children who was renown for her beauty. She used her good looks, intelligence and charm to get the ear of movers and shakers.
Long before Rosa Parks became a household name, Caroline LeCount protested racial segregation on Philadelphia streetcars.
Sarah Lougen Fraser was the fourth black female doctor in the U.S. and the first licensed female physician in the Dominican Republic.
Maria Lewis was a black woman who impersonated a white man in a white calvary unit. Cathay Williams also pretended to be a man — William Cathay — and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a Buffalo Solider.
Maria W. Stewart was an early feminist who urged women to put down the pots and pans — “A women’s place is wherever she wants,” Gibbs said of Stewart’s message.
While most of those attending the lecture were adults, the Mitchell sisters Semaj, 12, and Sydney, 9, along with their mother, Estella, sat in on the event, too. The girls were visiting the library for a story time when they saw a flier advertising the Civil War event. They took a detour into the meeting room.
Sydney, a history buff who stays glued to PBS, enjoyed learning about women who blazed a path through history. Estella said she liked that her daughters were hearing the stories of women who could serve as strong role models for her girls.
“They are inspirational black women who stood up for their race and their families,” Estella said.
Gibbs’ program gives a voice to people who have been voiceless for too long, he said.
“You have stories y’all know but haven’t told them yet,” Gibbs said. “History should be the same way.”