Found  /  Discovery

The Hidden Story of Two African American Women

An historian discovers the portraits of two women all bound up in the pages of a 19th-century book.
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Emory University

I was looking for portraits that were made from life – so a product of a personal meeting – and from the specific period of the suffragist’s life.

I very much wanted to feature the African American lecturer, novelist and poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), because of her activism in the American Equal Rights Association, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and other women’s groups affiliated with churches.

One quote of hers provides a glimpse of her ideals: “We are all bound up in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse of its own soul.”

I found the perfect object to represent her in the collections of Emory University. It was a first edition of “Atlanta Offering,” a book of Harper’s poetry published in 1895 in Philadelphia. An Emory archivist forwarded me a digital version of it, demonstrating its pristine condition.

Books like these often have a frontispiece, a picture or portrait of the author or the book’s subject in the opening pages, usually facing the title page of the book.

This book featured a frontispiece of Harper wearing a suit – a floor-length skirt and a sleeveless bodice with covered buttons down its front. Underneath the bodice, her velvet shirtwaist ends in cuffs with ruffles around her wrists, and at her neck is tied a ribbon. A bit of white ruffle at her neck suggests a shirtwaist worn under the velvet.

These details in costume signify a refined woman, while Harper’s gaze looking directly at the camera suggests great confidence.

When the book arrived and I opened it pages to display Harper, I saw something unusual. There was not just one portrait at the front of the volume – there were two.

I was surprised to see this second frontispiece because I had been looking at a digital version of the book and hadn’t been able to see both pages at once. The second portrait was a woman named Mary E. Harper. Who was this second woman?

I could see by examining the details of her costume that Mary was as dignified as Frances. But why would her portrait be featured so prominently in this work of poetry, and what meaning can we take away from this publication choice?