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African American Women Writers of the 19th Century: Mattison-Plato

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. N. F. Mossell Image. Date Issued 1893.

Mrs. N. F. Mossell

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Mrs. N. F. Mossell" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1893.

Hiram Mattison

Hiram Mattison (?-?), abolitionist and pastor of a Methodist church in New York, was searching for hard data on the horrors of slavery to shore up his indictment of the "peculiar institution" when in 1860, in Buffalo, New York, he happened upon a former slave in her early thirties. This woman, an octoroon born in Columbia, South Carolina, who had suffered heavy physical and sexual abuse during her days of bondage, agreed to talk with Reverend Mattison about her life in captivity. Mattison's interview with her evolved into the book he self-published in 1861, Louisa Piquet: A Tale of Southern Slave Life.

Adah Isaacs Menken

Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1839-1868), who was born near or in New Orleans, remains an enigma in death just as she was in life. In speaking to the puzzlements and confusions that surround this daughter of a free mulatto and a Frenchwoman Louisiana, scholar Joan R. Sherman has noted the following:

The name on her death certificate was "Menken Adele Isaac Barclay" and her tombstone read, "Adah Isaacs Menken." She was, perhaps, born Philomène Croi Théodore but assumed half a dozen pseudonyms over the years, identified five different men as her father, and claimed to have had six husbands in sixteen years. It is no wonder that since her death in 1868, "La Belle Menken" has been examined in ten full-length biographies (plus dozens of articles and parts of books); and even her latest and most reliable biographer [Wolf Mankowtiz] admits, "I haven't found out who she was."

Menken, who never regarded herself as black and at one point fabled herself Jewish, gained fame as a singer, dancer and actress prone to the risque (a sort of proto-La Baker). This dazzling, brash and beguiling star of stage traveled lushly, and had a host of famous friends (among them, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Georges Sand) and famous lovers (among them, Swinburne and Alexander Dumas pere).

In and around her performances, her stormy private life, and her lively social life, "The Naked Lady," as she was also called, wrote poems. A selection of Menken's verse was published in 1868, shortly after her death at around the age of twenty-nine. The small volume (dedicated to Charles Dickens) is entitled Infelicia. In her analysis of this poetry Joan R. Sherman summed it up as "remarkably dramatic, intensely self-aware and confessional," and unsparing in its condemnation of a male-dominated world that restricts woman's freedom, mocks her expressions of >genius,' and dooms her, body and soul, to unhappiness."

Mrs. N. F. Mossell

Mrs. N. F. Mossell (1855-1948) was Gertrude Bustill Mossell. This native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was a great-granddaughter of Cyrus Bustill who served George Washington's troops as a baker and after the War of Independence, started what became a successful bakery in Philadelphia. The elder Bustill also co-founded the first black mutual aid society in America, the Free African Society. Among the many other Bustills of distinction are Gertrude's great-aunt, abolitionist and educator Grace Bustill Douglass and her daughter Sarah Mapp Douglass, who followed in her mother's footsteps. Gertrude's most famous descendant was her nephew Paul Bustill Robeson.

Gertrude Bustill was a typical Bustill, a striver, a doer, an achiever. After graduating from Robert Vaux Grammar School, she taught school for several years in Philadelphia and elsewhere. However, it was as a journalist that Gertrude Bustill really distinguished herself, this at a time when women journalists were extremely rare.

Gertrude Bustill's potential as writer-thinker was evident when she was young. There was, for example, "Influence," the speech she delivered at her high-school commencement. This speech was deemed so fine by Bishop Henry McNeal Turner that he published it in his Christian Recorder. Years later, Bustill's articles on political and social issues, with a heavy emphasis on women's rights and responsibilities, were being read in a number of periodicals, including the AME Church Review, the Philadelphia Times, the Philadelphia Echo, and the Independent. For a time, she edited the Woman's Department of the New York Freeman, the Indianapolis World, and the New York Age.

There came a day when Gertrude Bustill was juggling a career and a family life: in 1893 she married a leading Philadelphia physician, Nathan Frances Mossell, with whom she was to have two daughters. Around the time of her wedding, Mossell was no doubt at work on what was to be an important little book: The Work of the Afro-American Woman (1894), a collection of essays and poems bearing witness to the achievements of black women in a range of fields. As scholar Joanne Braxton has pointed out, this book was for the black woman of the 1890s what Paula Giddings's When and Where I Enter was for the black woman of the 1980s.

Why did Gertrude Bustill Mossell, with such strong feminist leanings, publish her book under her husband's initials? Braxton offers the following explanation: "By this strategy of public modesty, the author signaled her intention to defend and celebrate black womanhood without disrupting the delicate balance of black male-female relations or challenging masculine authority."

The year after The Work of the Afro-American Woman came out, Gertrude Bustill Mossell was busy helping her husband with the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, which opened in 1895: she headed up the fundraising drive, raising $30,000, and went on to serve as president of its Social Service Auxiliary. Her other civic activities included organizing the Philadelphia branch of the National Afro-American Council. The only other book Gertrude Bustill Mossell wrote was a children's book, Little Dansie's One Day at Sabbath School (1902).

Ann Plato

Ann Plato (1820?-?), who picked up the pen to exhort others to live a holy life, was apparently someone who practiced what she preached. Plato's piety and sterling character were much in evidence according to abolitionist, author, and minister James W.C. Pennington, pastor of the Colored Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut, where Ann Plato worshiped. Reverend Pennington's words of commendation are found in the introduction he contributed to Plato's Essays; Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Poetry (1841), the second book by a black woman to be published in America.


Author Biographies by Tonya Bolden

©2000 The New York Public Library