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African American Women Writers of the 19th Century: Prince-Rollin

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

Mary Prince

Mary Prince (c.1788-?), who was born in slavery in Bermuda, endured an extremely savage enslavement on that island and in Antigua. After she secured her freedom in England in 1828, Prince was adamant about recounting the miseries inflicted upon her mind, body and soul as a way to convert others to the antislavery movement. She dictated the story of her life in bondage and her early days of freedom to a Mrs. S. and the material was edited slightly by Mr. Pringle for whom Mary Prince worked as a domestic, for the making of the small yet vigorous The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831), the first known autobiography by a black woman enslaved in the Americas.

Nancy Prince

Nancy Prince (1799-?), who was born Nancy Gardner (or Gardener) in Newburysport, Massachusetts, had an extremely difficult childhood: it was marked and twisted by poverty, and by what we today call a dysfunctional family. Despite her bleak beginnings, young Nancy remained hopeful and spirited, enabling her to rise above the pain, and to help others as well.

In February 1824, this twenty-three-year-old berry-picker turned domestic, married a sea captain, known today only by his surname, Prince. Nancy's husband, a native of Massachusetts, had lived for a time in Russia, where he served in the royal court. In the summer of 1824, he returned to Russia and his wife went with him.

While her husband served in the court of Czar Alexander I, Nancy Prince made the most of her days in St. Petersburg by starting a business: children's clothing and linens and things for infants. She also started an orphanage. Unprepared for the difficult Russian winters, Nancy's health began to decline and in 1833 she returned to America. Her husband was to follow after the conclusion of his duty, but sadly, Mr. Prince died in Russia.

Meanwhile, Nancy had settled in Boston, where she became involved with abolitionist efforts. With a strong interest in homeless children, she also established an orphanage here, and struggled in vain to maintain it. An encounter with a minister from Jamaica where slavery had been abolished in 1833 prompted Nancy Prince to journey to that island in 1840. As she later recalled, "I hoped that I might aid, in some small degree, to raise up and encourage the emancipated inhabitants, and teach the young children to read and work, to fear God, and put their trust in the Saviour."

To establish a school for destitute children in Jamaica, Nancy Prince went on fundraising missions in the United States. She also self-published the pamphlet The West Indies: Being a Description of the Islands, Progress of Christianity, Education, and Liberty Among the Colored Population Generally. All of Prince's hard work for what became the Free Labor School in Kingston, Jamaica, was sabotaged by corrupt co-workers.

In 1843, Prince, whose health continued its steady decline, returned to Boston for good. She fell on hard times, and at one point lived on the kindness of friends. Not wanting to be a total charity case, she decided to write her memoirs, hoping she would be able to support herself at least in part from the sales. This book, A Narrative of the Life of and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, which contained her 1841 pamphlet, came out in 1850. A second edition was published in 1853, followed by a third in 1856. To date, nothing is known of Nancy Prince's later life or the circumstances of her death.

H. Cordelia Ray

H. Cordelia Ray (1852?-1916) was "well-born, well bred and enjoyed all the advantages accruing to her position in a family where birth, breeding and culture were regarded as important assets," wrote Hallie Q. Brown in Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction.

Considered a cultivated, virtuous woman, Ray was born in New York City, one of seven children of Charlotte Augusta Burrough and Charles B. Ray, a blacksmith turned Congregational minister and leading abolitionist. Henrietta Cordelia Ray was named after a dynamo: her father's first wife, Henrietta Green Regulus Ray, co-founder of the African Dorcas Association, a support group for the Free African Schools, and first president of the New York Female Literary Society (also known as the Colored Ladies Literary Society). Henrietta's aspirations were noble: she grew up to be a teacher. After graduating from the University of the City of New York (1891) and the Sauvener School of Languages, she taught for many years in the New York City public school system.

Ray hoped to also make her mark in literature. She gained some major notice as a writer in April 1876. The occasion was the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Washington, D.C. for which Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address and where William E. Matthews read Ray's ode, "Lincoln." The second in a series of important family events, the occasion followed the celebration of Henrietta's older sister Charlotte's graduation from Howard University, making her the first black woman to earn a law degree from that University in 1872.

Years later, H. Cordelia Ray received praise for the biography of her father which she co-authored with her sister Florence: Sketch of the Life of Rev. Charles B. Ray, published in 1887. By then, Ray's poetry had appeared in several periodicals, which encouraged her efforts to publish a complete collection. Sonnets was published in 1893 and Poems, which contains Sonnets, came out in 1910. About Ray's poetry, Hallie Q. Brown wrote that it "may be likened to the quaint, touching music a shell murmuring of the sea, a faint yet clear note sounding all the pathos and beauty of undying life."

Portrait of Mrs. Frances Anne Rollin Whipper. Date Created 1870 - 1879.

Portrait of Mrs. Frances Anne Rollin Whipper

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Portrait of Mrs. Frances Anne Rollin Whipper" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870 - 1879.

Frank Rollin

Frank Rollin (1847-1901), was born Frances Anne Rollin; "Frank" was her nickname. She was the oldest of the five famous Rollin sisters: daughters of Margaretta and William Rollin, a successful lumber merchant. The Rollin sisters grew up in a mansion in Charleston, South Carolina, where all received excellent educations and had a presence in the social and political life of black Charleston. But it was in Boston that Frank made history.

Frances Rollin was living in Boston in 1868 where she associated with historian William Cooper Nell, activist Lewis Hayden, educator and diarist Charlotte Forten, and Richard T. Greener, first black graduate of Harvard College. Rollin's social life included attending readings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other famous figures. She also was an avid reader and writer. In her diary - one of the oldest by a southern black woman, she noted the books she read which included: Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley.

The thing that most occupied Rollin's time during her days in Boston was her research on South Carolina. She worked tirelessly on an authorized biography of the physician, abolitionist, emigrationist, military officer, and politician Martin Delany, who had been of help to her in a successful discrimination suit she filed against a South Carolina steamer. Initially, Delany was going to subsidize the book, but when he hit upon financial troubles, he was unable to send Rollin the expected monies. Supporting herself with bits and pieces of work (including sewing), Rollin pressed on with the project, and was successful in securing a publisher. This book, The Life and Services of Martin R. Delany, was published in 1868, was the first biography of a freeborn African-American man. Because Frances used her nickname Frank, for a time people thought the author was a man.

Shortly after The Life and Services of Martin R. Delany came out, Rollin returned to Columbia, South Carolina, where her family had moved after the Civil War. There, she took a job as a clerk in the law office of Union Army veteran and politician William James Whipper, nephew of the Philadelphia activist William Whipper.

Frances and William married soon after she started working for him and the couple had five children, only three of whom lived into adulthood: Leigh Whipper, who became an actor of note; Winifred who became a teacher in Washington, D.C.; and Ionia who graduated from Howard Medical School in 1903, and in 1931 founded the Whipper Home for Unwed Mothers.


Author Biographies by Tonya Bolden

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