Read the Revolution
A Fragile FreedomJune 14, 2023
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A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City by Erica Armstrong Dunbar mines, among other sources, the surviving friendship albums of members of Philadelphia’s African American elite. Using this mix of historical evidence allows Dunbar to tease out new understandings of the experiences of the generation of Black women who came of age in the decades after the Revolutionary War. She explores slavery and servitude in Philadelphia, as well as print culture and the development of free Black institutions and political groups. One of these groups is the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, founded by a group of women, including Charlotte Vandine Forten and her daughters, who are featured in the Museum’s current special exhibit, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia.
In the exhibition, visitors are introduced to James Forten and his descendants as they navigated the American Revolution and cross-racial relationships in Philadelphia to become leaders in the abolition movement in the lead-up to the Civil War and the women's suffrage movement. Using historical objects, including Mary Wood Forten’s friendship album, and immersive environments, Black Founders explores the Forten family’s roles in the Revolutionary War, business in Philadelphia, and abolition and voting rights from 1776 to 1876.
One of the most beautifully written and intriguing ways of creating community and friendship among women of the nineteenth century was the maintenance of friendship albums. As friendship albums were passed from friend to friend along the East Coast, the display of immaculate penmanship, proper grammar and spelling, and respectable prose regarding the private and the political allowed African Americans to reinforce their respectability within their own social circles. As the albums traveled from Baltimore to Philadelphia and as far north as Boston, educated African Americans established a protocol regarding discussions pertaining to womanhood, motherhood, and emancipation.
The friendship albums of African American women clearly echo the nineteenth-century sentimental albums of white women as well as novels, though the use of sentimentalism is far more complex than simple mimicry. As the scholar Claudia Tate suggests in her work on post-reconstruction black female novelists, black women in their writings focused on sentimentality and respectability. Elite African American women participated in the same discourse in antebellum Philadelphia as they wrote about their own lives and the possibilities for the future, providing a rare glimpse of their public and personal concerns. Tate writes that African American women used sentimental writing as an entry point to discuss the social and political issues of the era; she argues that idealized domesticity and sentimentalism represented “a fundamental cultural symbol of the Victorian era for representing civil ambition and prosperity.”
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On occasion, African American women shared their albums with white friends, asking them to enter their thoughts or good wishes. The writings contributed by white acquaintances to the albums were frequently political in nature, denouncing the evils of slavery and bolstering the burgeoning women’s rights movement. The writings of white acquaintances lacked the intimacy and sensitivity demonstrated by African Americans who penned their thoughts in the albums. Whites failed to sympathize with the personal joys or tragedies of black men and women, nor did they comment on the personal life of the album’s owner. Although their contributions were made with the best of intentions, the entries were clearly political.
Only four friendship albums belonging to nineteenth century African American women remain intact. These albums serve as unique historical treasures, for they reveal the personal writings and feelings of the black elite, not only in Philadelphia but also throughout the urban North. Historians of antebellum African American women are often confronted with a scarcity of sources, as time and time again they are forced to reinterpret primary sources written and maintained by people who were not of African descent. Additional historical sources for African American women come from their public writings, usually in the form of newspaper articles and pamphlets, as well as minutes from local and national organizations. The recent discovery of these albums is of extreme importance: they have helped to define the intimate relationships and community-building practices among privileged African American men and women and have provided new insight into the private worlds of kinship and friendship.
Many of the entries recorded in nineteenth-century friendship albums represent the written expression of love between female friends. Appreciation of friends and positive depictions of acquaintances were scattered about the albums’ pages and expressed in various styles. In many cases, the sentimental expression appeared in the form of a poem such as the one written in May 1833 by Sarah Louise Forten in [Amy] Cassey’s album. The original poem may very well have been shared in the public setting of the Gilbert Lyceum, of which they were both members. Although this specific poem was never printed in a newspaper of the time, it was representative of the type of poetry written between female friends and for the public: “My prayer for thee dearest, is warm from the heart, / Unmingled with flattery – unsullied by art, / ‘Tis the first fervent wishes I’ve traced on this page / May they ever attend thee, in youth and in age. / I pray that thy pathway on earth may be bright.”
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (Yale University Press, 2008), 122, 123, 126.