"Groundbreaking" ! Maurice Berger for The New York Times Lens Blog: Race Stories

Maurice Berger of the New York Times Lens blog, “Race Stories,” covered Mary’s story today, with a smooth and compelling summary that links Mary’s story to issues in present day media. The article was picked up by the Arts and US pages of the New York Times.

“In retrospect, Mary’s story and the photograph that turned her into an abolitionist icon, speak to a long tradition of white Americans relating to racial heroes who look like them, no matter how tangential to the story of African-American protagonists. Even today, some Hollywood films about racism and segregation — “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” or “Green Book,” for example — focus on white saviors rather than the black Americans at the forefront of the struggle.”

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This was the second time that Mary appears in the New York Times, and in a strange coincidence, the dates of her arrival there are the same: March 7, 1855 and March 7, 2019.


Here is an excerpt from Chapter 12 “A White Slave from Virginia” of Girl in Black and White:

“On March 7, 1855, Elizabeth and her three children, Oscar, Mary, and Adelaide Rebecca, along with Prue and Evelina, headed north. According to the New-York Daily Times, the newly manumitted family “created quite a sensation in Washington, and were provided with a passage in the first-class cars in their journey to this City.” Train cars were segregated—blacks were permitted to ride only in a small section of the smoking car. To be provided with “a passage in the first-class cars” is a meaningful detail in this context. The women traveled as white, while Oscar accompanied them in the role of servant or rode segregated in the smoking car. They traveled in the company of Charles Henry Brainard, the thirty-eight-year-old lithographic publisher and publicist from Boston. His book Brainard’s Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans—primarily drawn from portraits of men who worked in Washington—was in production, and he had to deliver the daguerreotypes to his engraver, Leo Grozlier. It may have been for this reason that Brainard was en route from Washington to Boston in early March 1855. Or perhaps he traveled with Elizabeth as a personal favor to his senator….

When meeting Mary, New Yorkers responded in ways not unlike their gawking at the curious exhibits at Barnum’s museum, at such celebrities as Tom Thumb or the “Feejee mermaid.” Strangers examined her for traces of the African race: in her skin, in the arrangement and size of her facial features, in the shape of her head, in the curl of her hair, and in the whites of her eyes. Her examination began at the offices of the New-York Daily Times, located at 138 Nassau Street.

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This journalist had one fact of Mary’s enslavement incorrect. Judge Neale did not own her father. He reports a “general sentiment” of “astonishment,” and in that feeling, his colleagues at the New-York Daily Times, “fully concur.” The word “astonishment” suggests an overpowering of his senses, as if in surprise or in reaction to the sudden presence of something unaccountable and unaccounted for. Astonishment is a temporary disturbance in our categories of experience, rattling our assumptions of what is “us” and “not us.”

The Times is further surprised that Mary was ever “held” as a slave. This shift in language, that Mary was “held” in slavery, subtly communicated a hope that she had not been born into slavery. The novel Ida May provides him with the fantasy of a white child who had been kidnapped into slavery, and thus was “held” wrongfully as a slave. The journalist was redirecting readers’ focus away from the taboo of sexual slavery. “Prominent individuals of the city” might prefer to believe Mary was the victim of kidnapping and wrongful enslavement rather than the product of nonconsensual sex between white masters and the enslaved women Letty, Prue, and Elizabeth. “