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African American Women Writers of the 19th Century: Johnson-Lee

African American Women Writers of the 19th Century guide includes a digital collection of published works by 19th-century black women writers, biographies for each author, citations and much more

Mrs. A.E. Johnson. Writer. Date Issued 1893

Mrs. A.E. Johnson. Writer.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Mrs. A.E. Johnson. Writer." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1893.

A. E. Johnson

A. E. Johnson (1858-1922) was born Amelia Etta Hall in Toronto, Canada, to parents who were originally from Maryland. Amelia became a Marylander herself in 1874, when she moved to Baltimore. There, in 1877, she married an activist, author, and pastor of Union Baptist Church, Reverend Dr. Harvey Johnson.

Amelia Johnson became a minister of sorts herself. Her medium was writing. With a deep burden for the young and Proverbs 22:6 undoubtedly in the forefront of her mind ("Train up a child in the way that he should go. . .") Johnson produced literature for children. In 1888, a year after she launched the small monthly newspaper Joy, she started Ivy, a publication for children that had black history as its focus. Johnson also contributed poems and short stories for children to National Baptist, American Baptist, and Sower and Reaper among other periodicals. She wrote three little novels as well. All three are about following the correct moral path, and feature protagonists who are whiteBor, as some scholars prefer "racially indeterminate." Published by the American Baptist Publication Society these novels are: Clarence and Corrine; or, God's Way (1890); The Hazeley Family (1894); and Martina Meriden; or What Is My Motive? (1901).

Maggie Pogue Johnson

Maggie Pogue Johnson (?-?), a native of Virginia, produced one volume of poetry that we know of: Virginia Dreams: Lyrics for the Idle Hour (1910). This collection features dialect poems that remember the everyday life of the folk of Virginia, as well as verse in standard American English, many of which rally folks ever onward in doing good works and having high hopes. The good works and high hopes of Maggie Pogue Johnson, along with the elementary details of her life have yet to be uncovered.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (c.1824-1907), born in Dinwiddie Court-House, Virginia, was the product of a foul union between an enslaved woman and her owner. Little Elizabeth knew a succession of owners and abuses during her young life. Her last place of enslavement was in St. Louis, Missouri, where in the early 1850s, her owner (the daughter of her original owner) hired her out as seamstress.

Elizabeth became a top-notch seamstress and a much sought-after dressmaker. Though she had to give some of her wages to her owner, she managed to put some money away for her high hope: freedom, not just for herself but also for her son born of a rape. With loans from some of her customers and her savings, Elizabeth came up with the $1,200 she needed to purchase freedom for herself and her son.

Following two terrible marriages (to a Mr. Hobbs and a Mr. James Keckley) and a short residence in Baltimore, Maryland, Elizabeth settled in Washington, D.C. There, she opened a dressmaking shop, which employed some twenty people at one point. As word of her talent spread, Elizabeth Keckley attracted more and more customers from Washington society, this at a time when talk of a civil war was very much in the air. One of Keckley's customer's was Varina Howell Davis, whose husband, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, was to become President of the Confederacy. Another was Mrs. McClean, the daughter of General Sumner. It was she who brought Keckley to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Keckley became not only the First Lady's modiste, but a confidante as well: through the days of the Civil War, through the loss of the Lincoln's son, through the assassination of the President. Keckley recounted all this and more in Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868), a book which made Keckley quite a sensation; however, it wasn't the kind of attention she had hoped for. The backlash was severe. She lost friends and her once-thriving business. Keckley did not spend the rest of her life in Washington, D.C., but it was where she died, having spent her last feeble days in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, ironically an institution she had co-founded.

Jarena Lee

Jarena Lee (1783-c.1850), born free in Cape May, New Jersey, became a devout Christian when she was about twenty-one and felt herself called to preach seven years later. Though filled with fear and trembling over something so rare, a woman preacher, she obeyed the Holy Spirit and set about heeding the call in decency and order. This meant getting the blessing of the senior minister of her church, Richard Allen, co-founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and pastor of its first church, Philadelphia's Mother Bethel. Reverend Allen did not sanction Lee's call, claiming that the Methodist church "did not call for women preachers."

A few years later, Lee, even more intent on preaching, again sought Allen's blessing. This time Allen, now Bishop Allen (with the A.M.E. Church now an independent denomination), granted Lee permission to hold prayer meetings in her home and then to be ordained a preacher.

In the years to come, Jarena Lee preached not only in Philadelphia and its environs, but also all around the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states. Ohio was the farthest West she journeyed. In her travels, she sometimes teamed up with other evangelists. One of them was Zilpha Elaw (c.1790-1846), whose autobiography Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, and Ministerial Travels and Labors of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw was published in 1846. Jarena Lee had published her testimony a decade earlier: The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee, a Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel, an expanded edition of which Lee put out in 1849, a year before her death.


Author Biographies by Tonya Bolden

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