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African American Women Writers of the 19th Century: Smith-Taylor

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

Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith (1837-1915) Abecame known as one of the most remarkable preachers of any race or any age." These words are from a sketch of the woman born Amanda Berry by Hallie Q. Brown in her book Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (1926). This woman whom Brown so admired was born in slavery in Long Green, Maryland. Her liberator was her father, Samuel Berry: after having purchased himself, he purchased this wife, Mariam, and their five children. Eventually, the Berry family expanded to include eight more children, and moved to a farm in York County, Pennsylvania, where their home became an Underground Railroad station.

In 1854, at the age of seventeen, Amanda Berry married Calvin Devine. The couple lived in New York City, where Amanda worked as a domestic servant, and had two children, one of whom died in infancy. Life with Calvin, a drunkard, was fraught with misery, but Amanda was not crushed. This was largely due to the spiritual conversion she experienced during the Great Awakening in 1856.

Not long after the outbreak of the Civil War, Calvin Devine joined the Union Army, and was killed in battle in 1863. Amanda's next husband was a coachman named James Smith. Philadelphia became Amanda's new home, and she continued to earn a living at the only trade she knew: domestic service. The African Methodist Episcopal Church became the denomination she embraced, and she worshiped at Mother Bethel, the denomination's cornerstone church where her husband was a deacon.

Amanda knew more sorrow during her second marriage. The three children she had with James died very young. Moreover, James Smith proved to be a disappointment as a husband and as a Christian. Ironically, it was during her husband's falling away from the church that Amanda was called to preach. After James' death, Amanda Smith's decision to obey the call in 1869 initially met with much resistance from the A.M.E. clergy.

When she began, Amanda Smith preached primarily in New York City and New Jersey, steadily amassing a strong following. By 1870, evangelism was her only "job." By the end of the decade, she was known as far north as Maine and as far south as Tennessee. By 1890, Smith had brought souls to Christ and strengthened fellow believers in England, India, Liberia and Sierra Leone, emerging as one of the A.M.E. Church's most effective missionaries, and widening the way for more black women to answer the call to preach.

In 1892, Smith settled near Chicago, Illinois, in the temperance community of Harvey. There, she began writing her life story, which was published in 1893: An Autobiography: The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist. Smith was motivated, in large part, to produce her autobiography to raise money for her new mission: the care of homeless black children. With the proceeds from her book and donations from supporters, Smith was able to open a small orphanage in Harvey in 1899: the Amanda Smith Industrial Home.

After so many years of toil, in 1912, when she was in her mid-seventies, Amanda Berry Smith moved to Florida. She did so at the urging of a wealthy white businessman, George Sebring, who had long admired her work. This man provided Smith with a lovely home and saw to it that she had no want or worries for the remainder of her days.

Effie Waller Smith

Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960) was the third of four children born to Frank Waller and Sibbie Ratliff, both former slaves. Home was a farm in Chloe Creek, Kentucky, a few miles away from Pikeville, and the Waller household was one in which God was heavily praised and education highly prized.

After completing the eighth grade at a local school, like her older siblings Alfred and Rosa, Effie attended Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons in Frankfort, where between 1900 and 1902 she trained to be a teacher. Little is known about her teaching career except that she taught school off and on for more than a dozen years, sometimes in Kentucky and sometimes in Tennessee. Of Effie Waller's writing life, we know a little bit more.

Several of Smith's poems had been published in local papers by 1902 so that in 1904, her club of admirers and well-wishers celebrated her first volume of verse, Songs of the Months, released by a vanity press in New York City. The 110 poems in this collection touched a range of subjects, including nature, romantic love, patriotism, and not least of all, the months.

The same year that Songs of the Months came out, Effie Waller married a man named Lyss Cockrell who quit the marriage when it was very young, and whom Effie divorced soon after he made his exit. In 1908, she tried matrimony again with former classmate, Charles Smith. This marriage, which produced one child who died in infancy, was also brief, with Effie filing for divorce before the year was out.

During all the personal trials of her life, Effie Waller Smith kept at her writing, even getting three short stories published in Putnam's. In 1909, two more volumes of her verse appeared. The first was Rhymes from the Cumberland, which offers meditations and remembrances of the Kentucky-Virginia Cumberland Mountains area and musings on religion and romance. In the second volume, Rosemary and Pansies, "many of the poems are somber and subdued yet definite and conclusive as they examine issues and situations in life. There is a mood maintained throughout that sometimes delves into the mystical." These are the words of David Deskins, who has assiduously searched for information and provided insights into the life and mind of this rather unknown bard.

In 1917, when she was thirty-eight, Effie Waller Smith appeared in print for the last time: the publication was the prestigious magazine Harper's, and the work was a sonnet, "Autumn Winds." After this, the Effie Waller Smith the writer apparently disappeared, though the woman lived another forty years, the bulk of which she spent in Wisconsin where she relocated in the mid-1920s and where she raised Ruth, the daughter of a deceased friend whom she adopted in the late 1920s.

Image of Amanda Smith.Date Issued 1893.

Amanda Smith

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Amanda Smith" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1893. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-952d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Maria W. Stewart

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879), neé Maria Miller, was born free in Hartford, Connecticut. Orphaned by age five, she was the indentured servant of a cleric until the age of fifteen. At the end of her indenture, she supported herself as a domestic servant, and at some point moved to Boston. There, in 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a veteran of the War of 1812, who was an independent shipping agent. Maria and James were married by Reverend Thomas Paul, founder of the African Baptist Church. Among the couple's other notable acquaintances in Boston's black middle class, was the activist David Walker; and it is believed that James Stewart played a part in the smuggling into the South of Walker's famous Appeal, which was published in 1829. This was the year that James W. Stewart died.

During her period of mourning, Maria Stewart had to contend with white businessmen, allegedly executors of her husband's estate, who swindled her out of her inheritance. In the wake of this loss, Maria Stewart returned to the job market, and to the work she knew best: domestic servant.

Maria Stewart's life broadened and intensified following a religious experience which filled her with a desire to be, as she put it, a "warrior" for her people. So it was that when in 1831, William Lloyd Garrison issued a call for black women to contribute items to his newspaper the Liberator, Stewart responded with the essay "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build." Other meditations from Stewart's pen flowed in the pages of the Liberator, and soon her voice was heard not only in print, but also from the podium.

Stewart's first public speaking engagement was on April 28, 1832, before the African-American Female Intelligence Society of America. A few months later, on September 21, 1832, at a New England Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Boston's Franklin Hall, Stewart spoke on the evils of slavery and the oppression of free blacks. With this speech, Maria W. Stewart made history: the first woman to speak on political issues before an audience composed of men and women and blacks and whites. In subsequent addresses, Stewart spoke about not only race matters but also about women's rights.

Stewart's ideas and her eloquence have been preserved in Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1832), an enlarged edition of which Stewart self-published in 1879. In 1835 she published Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.

In the mid-1830s Maria W. Stewart left Boston and began what was to be a long career as a schoolteacher, first in New York City, then in Baltimore, Maryland, and finally, in Washington, D.C., where her history-making friends and acquaintances included Elizabeth Keckley.

Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor (1848-1912), who was born in slavery, spent her early days in Savannah, Georgia, with a grandmother, while her mother and siblings, also enslaved, lived roughly thirty-five miles away on the Isle of Wight in Liberty County.

Susie's grandmother saw to it that she received some schooling, arranging for her to take lessons with a free woman. Susie's grandmother also saw to it that the child got some "freedom lessons," for Susie often went to secret "freedom meetings" with her grandmother.

When the Union troops raided Fort Pulaski in April 1862, fourteen-year-old Susie was among the dozens of blacks the Union soldiers moved to Georgia's St. Simon's Island. There, a school was set up at Gaston Bluff, and Susie was found sufficiently literate to serve as its teacher.

It was on St. Simon's Island that Susie met her first husband. He was a former slave, named Edward King, who was a sergeant in the first black regiment formed in the South, the First South Carolina Volunteers, later known as the 33rd regiment.

When the Union forces evacuated St. Simon's, Susie King followed the army to Camp Saxton in Beaufort, offering her services as a laundress. Soon, she was assigned other duties. For a time she did clerical work. When she showed herself a capable assistant to camp doctors, she found herself serving as a nurse. In the course of her nursing duties, she worked with Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.

After the war, the Kings settled in Savannah, Georgia, where Edward worked as a longshoreman and Susie opened a school in their home. Soon, tragedy struck: Edward died from wounds suffered in a job-related accident. Susie, pregnant at the time, returned to Liberty County. Twice she tried to operate a school, but in the end, she turned to domestic work to support herself. A job as a laundress to a family that spent summers in the New England opened the way for Susie to move North.

In the mid-1870s, Susie King settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where she met and married Russell L. Taylor, and where she wrote and self-published Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: With the U.S. 33rd Colored United States Troops (1902).

Credits

Author Biographies by Tonya Bolden

©2000 The New York Public Library