Jousting with History-on-a-stick: Centering African American Women in Civil War Public History

Jousting with History-on-a-stick: Centering African American Women in Civil War Public History

In April 2021, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Virginia would add five new markers focused on African American history to its state historical marker program. Playfully referred to as “history-on-a-stick,” historical markers are intended to inform passersby about a significant person, place, or event. As useful as they might be for promoting public history, such markers also reveal how easily history can be misrepresented and misunderstood, even when the intention is to make commemorations of the past more inclusive.

Historical marker with text
1994 historical marker commemorating “Mary Elizabeth Bowser.” Photograph courtesy of Lois Leveen.

According to the official press release, one of the new markers will honor Mary Richards Bowser. [1] But if you stroll along East Grace Street in Richmond, you will find there is already a marker, erected in 1994, that reads, “Mary Elizabeth Bower: Freed slave of the Van Lew family and indispensable partner to Elizabeth Van Lew in her pro-Union espionage work, she worked at the Confederate White House gathering and passing on military intelligence to the Union through Van Lew to General Grant.”  Just a few feet away, you will encounter another marker, put up in 2005, that reads in part: “During the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew led a Union espionage operation. African Americans, such as Van Lew’s associate Mary Jane Richards (whose story closely parallels that of legendary spy Mary Elizabeth Bowser), served in Richmond’s Unionist underground.”  Taken together, these markers provide a cautionary tale: well-meaning efforts to celebrate previously overlooked historical figures can obscure rather than improve our understanding of the past.

Historical marker with text
2005 historical marker commemorating the Adams-Van Lew House. Photograph courtesy of Lois Leveen.

History-on-a-stick typically reinscribes America’s beloved trope of a lone hero, usually someone who succeeds against all odds. In its earliest manifestations, that hero was almost always a white male. But simply expanding who occupies the role of “lone hero” by gender or race/ethnicity can make us think we are being more accurate when we are actually erasing the contributions of everyone but that “lone hero.” And, as the example of these particular markers reveals, if we rush to add more diversity to our pantheon of heroes without diligently documenting and accurately interpreting history, we can repeat erroneous information and even produce audacious new falsehoods.Circulating everywhere from history-on-a-stick to social media posts, newspaper articles, and purportedly nonfiction books, such inaccuracies reflect an impulse to celebrate diversity that presumes women’s history and Black history do not deserve meticulous research and assiduous evaluation of sources. In response, public history projects like the newly proposed marker – and broader efforts like #MoreHistory2021  –  need to demonstrate the care historians must take to center African American women’s history.

In 1911, William Beymer, a white writer, published a series of articles about Civil War spies in Harper’s Magazine. Taking a somewhat expansive approach, Beymer included an article about a civilian woman, Elizabeth Van Lew. This white Virginian’s wartime efforts to aid the Federal government remind us that not everyone who lived in the South supported secession. But the Southerners who had the greatest stake in defeating the Confederacy were the millions of enslaved and free African Americans residing within the states in rebellion. They thwarted Confederates and supported the Federal military efforts in many ways. Yet in Beymer’s sixteen-page article, the wartime experiences of Black Virginians are reduced to one paragraph about one African American, invoked only to “add color” to the story of Van Lew:  a woman Beymer identified as “Mary Elizabeth Bowser.” The name and scant details the article offered about her were drawn from a single conversation with Van Lew’s niece. The 1911 article failed to note that the niece, having been a child during the Civil War, admitted she was never privy to details of either woman’s espionage. Nearly fifty years later, what little she recalled was inaccurate – even the name “Mary Elizabeth Bowser.” But Beymer relied unquestioningly on the niece’s account, embellishing it with his own rhetorical flourishes, which emphasized Van Lew’s brilliance and benevolence, framing the Black “girl” (who had actually been in her 20s) as her passive servant.[2] The inaccuracies in Beymer’s account were taken up as historical fact and repeated even in works intended to foreground African American women’s experiences.[3] Decades later, to promote growing public interest in women’s history, the Virginia Business and Professional Women’s Foundation created a “Women of Virginia Historic Trail,” which included “Mary Elizabeth Bowser”; Beymer’s tale of Van Lew’s Black spy in the Confederate White House became the basis of their 1994 marker.

In 2003, nearly a century after Beymer’s article, Civil War historian Elizabeth Varon published a meticulously researched biography of Elizabeth Van Lew. This was hardly a tale of a lone hero. Piecing together wartime and postbellum government records, published memoirs, personal diaries, and newspaper accounts, Varon documented the network of free African Americans, enslaved Black people, European immigrants, white working-class laborers and yeoman farmers, and wealthy white Richmonders who participated in the underground ring that operated in and around the Confederate capital. From the earliest months of the war, this interracial network aided US soldiers held prisoner in the city by bringing them food and medicine, exchanging information, and abetting their escapes to federally held territory. By 1864, the underground was smuggling military and political intelligence to the US army. The ring’s collective contributions were lauded by Generals Ulysses Grant, Benjamin Butler, and George Sharpe, with the preponderance of their praise going to Van Lew for coordinating and financing much of the group’s activities.[4]

So what did Varon discover about “Mary Elizabeth Bowser”?  Very little – yet also quite a bit. The only nineteenth-century source she could find pointing to a Mary Bowser came from St. John’s Church, the wealthy white congregation of which the Van Lews were members. According to the church annals, on April 16, 1861 – the day before the passage of the Virginia Ordinance of Secession – a man named Wilson Bowser and a woman named Mary, both described as “Colored” and as “servants to E. L. Van Lew” were married. As important as this single record is, it does not illuminate what today we might most want to know: what were the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of a young Black adult, entering an enslaver’s church to be married just at the moment when politically powerful white men elsewhere in the city were debating whether to secede from the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery?

Although Varon could find nothing else about Mary Bowser, she discovered enough to sketch out the life of Mary Jane Richards. The same church annals document the 1846 baptism of “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew” (Elizabeth Van Lew’s widowed mother). A few years later, the Van Lew women arranged for Mary Jane to be educated in New Jersey, and in 1855, at their behest, a fourteen-year-old “Mary J. Richards” was sent to Liberia. Like many expatriated African Americans, she was unhappy there, expressing her displeasure so fervently that Elizabeth Van Lew eventually agreed to pay for her 1860 return to America. Varon was able to substantiate that Mary Jane Richards was among the Richmonders who participated in the pro-Federal network during the war, later teaching the newly emancipated in schools in Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. By 1867, she seemed to disappear from the historical record.

Having pieced together all the evidence she could find, Varon surmised that perhaps Richards was the woman who married Wilson Bowser. (If so, the marriage must have been short lived: throughout the war, she used several other surnames, and Wilson Bowser remained in Richmond long after Mary Jane Richards left the city.) But when the biography of Van Lew was published in 2003, Varon did not know for sure. Varon’s research shapes what appears on the 2005 marker erected by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which introduces passersby to the name Mary Jane Richards, even as it acknowledges they may already know the legend of Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

Alas, once a legend has circulated as fact, it is very hard to snuff out. Since Varon’s biography of Van Lew was published, other books, articles, podcasts, and online posts have continued to repeat details Varon definitely disproved. Moreover, some subsequent accounts have added outlandish new (and sometimes quite demeaning) claims about Mary Bowser. Created in response to increasing public interest in women’s history and particularly African American history, these accounts nevertheless distort the past, revealing how ill-equipped members of the public – and even editors at major publishing houses and respected newspapers – are to evaluate historical claims or to understand the process by which historians gather and interpret evidence about the past. One recently fabricated claim is that Bowser, having been planted by Van Lew in the Confederate White House early in the war, sewed secret dispatches filled with military intelligence into Varina Davis’s dresses, then brought the dresses to a seamstress who removed the messages and shared them with Van Lew. This preposterous assertion strains credulity by presuming an enslaved person – or someone posing as a slave – would have the time, materials, and liberty to handsew secret missives into garments regularly over a period of years without being detected by the person who wore those garments or other members of the household.  It presumes that the enslaved would have the power to decide when garments would be removed from the enslaver’s house and taken to a seamstress whose services the enslaver would have to engage and pay for. It also directly contradicts details both Van Lew and Richards recorded about their wartime endeavors. But this whopper now circulates as historical fact online and in print, likely because it appeals to Hollywood-inspired notions of what constitutes espionage. Another newly invented assertion involves an especially debasing twist on the white savior trope: when Confederates finally became suspicious of Bowser, Van Lew rescued the black woman by loading her into a wagon, covering her with manure, and having her spirited off to Philadelphia. This invented scatological episode promotes a particularly disturbing message: black activists must endure the “shittiest” of treatment, even from their closest white allies.[5] These examples provide an important caution for efforts like #MoreHistory2021. As historians, we must undertake our work with the awareness that members of the public, reporters, and publishers may also want more history, including more diverse and inclusive history; nevertheless, a dearth of historical understanding and an inability to assess historical claims can leave well-intentioned Americans enthusiastically accepting and recirculating blatant falsehoods as historical fact.

Building on Varon’s foundation, I am now researching and writing the first scholarly nonfiction book about this historically significant yet elusive African American woman. The project involves a painstaking process of uncovering sources in disparate archives that more fully represent her point of view, and centering African American women’s history when analyzing the emerging evidence. Although my research is still in progress, I have already confirmed Varon’s hypothesis that Richards married Wilson Bowser. I also uncovered details about two other subsequent marriages, as well as more information about her early life and her substantial postbellum activism for racial justice and women’s rights. In interpreting this evidence, it is important draw on the work of many other historians who are foregrounding the efforts of nineteenth-century Black activists.[6] Rather than reinscribing a “lone hero” version of history, or emphasizing her exceptionalism in ways that erase the contributions of countless other African Americans, this biography will explore how she participated in Black and interracial networks throughout her life. Allying herself with Black intellectual, political, and religious leaders as well as white allies, she strategically challenged powerful whites to secure full citizenship for African Americans and equal rights for women, even after the war ended.

Even as I conduct this research, the inaccurate and outlandish claims continue to circulate. So when I learned of Virginia’s plans for yet another history-on-a-stick tribute, I contacted Jennifer Loux, who oversees the marker program for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Loux holds a Ph.D. with a specialty in African American history and thus understands the importance and challenges of accurately commemorating Black women’s contributions – in no more than 700 characters, including spaces. Our back-and-forth discussion illuminates the care it takes to get history, especially history-on-a-stick, right.

The first challenge involved what name should appear on the marker. Although the press release referred to “Mary Richards Bowser,” my research reveals that from childhood on, she used at least half a dozen different surnames. For much of her adult life, she chose to use “Denman,” her third husband’s surname, even long after their marriage ended. By contrast, I have as yet found no documents in which she chose to self-identify using the surname Bowser. In response to my concern that identifying her as “Mary Richards Bowser” would reinscribe Beymer’s misrepresentation, Loux suggested “Mary Richards Bowser Denman.” In the realm of history-on-a-stick, she asserted there was value in including the surname Bowser; otherwise, “the public will think this marker is about someone other than the ‘Mary Bowser’ they’ve heard so much about, and we will end up generating confusion rather than correcting the historical record. Since Mary did marry Wilson Bowser, albeit briefly, this name is not technically incorrect, and I think using it on the marker—where we don’t have the luxury of footnotes or long explanations—will do more good than harm.” She suggested the marker frame this issue by explicitly explaining this historical figure “used various aliases throughout her life.”[7] But the word “alias” implies an attempt to disguise one’s identity; I understand this woman’s complicated, ongoing process of self-renaming as a way she asserted her identity – a practice many formerly enslaved people adopted upon gaining freedom, to proclaim their personhood and to underscore the relationships of import to them. For the final marker text, “Bowser” remained but “alias” was replaced.

Loux and I agreed the marker should emphasize that many people participated in the interracial underground, rather than aggrandizing either Mary Richards Bowser Denman or Elizabeth Van Lew. Although I have found evidence that, as Beymer and others claimed, Denman infiltrated the Confederate White House, her own accounts describe that foray as only one part of her multifaceted wartime work on behalf of the U.S., and so the marker does not call it out. The marker also contextualizes her espionage with details about her life before and after the war. Most importantly, it emphasizes how her activism continued during Reconstruction, challenging feel-good accounts of American history that culminate in a happy-ending of emancipation. Denman’s postbellum efforts underscore the larger, continuing struggle to ensure full citizenship for all Americans, regardless of race or gender.

In collaborating on the marker text, I wanted to correct previous inaccuracies, and also to recognize that new information will continue to emerge, both from my research and from other historians who may build on my project in the future. Knowing how much currently remains unknown about this figure, it was challenging to craft text for the new marker that (hopefully!) will not end up being as outdated and inaccurate as so many earlier accounts now seem. For example, Varon’s biography of Van Lew described Mary Jane Richards as having been sent to Liberia “to serve as a missionary,” a conclusion I previously repeated in my own publications and talks. But as I piece together what her life in Liberia entailed, my research indicates it was unlikely she could have been a missionary. Thus, Loux and I decided the marker will simply communicate that she was sent to Liberia at Van Lew’s behest, leaving the complicated dynamics of the colonization movement and her specific experience in Monrovia to be explained elsewhere.

Rather than being sited on Grace Street, at the Church Hill address where her enslavers lived, the new marker will be located on Broad Street adjacent to Capitol Square, locating her commemoration in proximity to the seats of Confederate and Virginia power she worked to defeat.[8] The marker’s propinquity to twenty-first-century government offices, tourist attractions, and a major hospital means a multitude of residents and visitors will have the opportunity to read and learn from it. The final text for the new marker reads:

Mary Richards Bowser Denman

Mary Richards Bowser Denman was born enslaved in Virginia ca. 1840. Given de facto freedom by Elizabeth Van Lew, whose family enslaved her, she was educated in New Jersey and sent to live in Liberia before returning to Richmond in 1860. During the Civil War, she participated in a secret network of free and enslaved African Americans and pro-Union whites, including Van Lew, who assisted federal prisoners of war and passed intelligence to the U.S. Army. Denman, who used various names throughout her life, later taught in schools for the formerly enslaved in Virginia, Florida, and Georgia, gave lectures in the North, and was an activist for equal rights and full citizenship for black Americans.

I hope it will long serve as both a fitting tribute to this figure and an example of history-on-a-stick at its best, allowing the public to understand the many ways in which countless African Americans challenged manifold manifestations of white supremacy, before, during, and after the Civil War.

[1] “Governor Northam Announces Five New State Historical Highway Markers Addressing Black History in Virginia,” April 20, 2021 press release from the Office of the Governor, available online at https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/all-releases/2021/april/headline-894520-en.html.

[2] William Gilmore Beymer, “Miss Van Lew,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, June 1911, 86-99.  The interview with Elizabeth Van Lew’s niece Annie Randolph Hall is described in John P. Reynolds to William G. Beymer, December 9, 1910, William Gilmore Beymer Papers, Box 2K394, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

[3] See for example, Ella Forbes, African American Women During the Civil War (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 52, 59; and Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 133-34.

[4] Elizabeth Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[5] The invented details about the handsewn message and the cartload of manure both initially appeared in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War (New York:  HarperCollins, 2014) by Karen Abbott. Marketed as nonfiction despite its use of invented dialogue, scenes, and plot, Abbott’s book focuses on four white women, once again invoking “Mary Bowser” in a subservient role to “add color.” Her descriptions of Bowser sewing messages into Varina Davis’s garments seems to be an intentional distortion, as it contradicts Varon’s meticulously documented account of the espionage ring, as well as Van Lew’s own description in her journal of how the women shared the intelligence they gathered, both of which are included in the bibliography of Abbott’s book. By contrast, the sole source Abbott cites in her endnotes for the seamstressy, the cartload of manure, and other dubious details are emails from the great-grandson of Bet’s niece Annie Randolph Hall. Although such citations imply they come from treasured and trustworthy family lore, Abbott’s bibliography also includes the interview from a century earlier in which Hall herself declared that she did not know any specifics related to the espionage activities. For examples of how these dubious claims are now cited as historical fact, see Michael S. Rosenwald, “A Freed Slave Became a Spy. Then She Took Down the Confederate White House,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2019; and Chenjerai Kumanyika and Khadijah Costley White, “The Ring,” Uncivil, November 9, 2018, podcast produced by Gimlet Media, available online at https://gimletmedia.com/shows/uncivil/39hw6e/the-ring. The latter dwells on the fabricated episode involving the manure in particularly disturbing ways: one of the hosts laughs as she badgers an African American woman erroneously identified as the “great, great, great, great niece of Mary Elizabeth Bowser” into describing the black woman being covered in manure. The exchange would be gratuitously traumatizing even if the story were true. It is all the more so because it never happened. For a larger discussion of who benefits from this circulation of ever more inaccurate and demeaning depictions of this figure, see Lois Leveen, “When Black History Becomes Multicultural Clickbait, Manure Happens,” presented at the AskHistorians 2020 Digital Conference Business As Unusual: Histories of Rupture, Chaos, Revolution, and Change, September 16, 2020, available online at https://www.askhistorians.com/sinners-saints-spies.

[6] My project benefits from the insights of scholars focusing on a wide range of areas of African American history, such as Thavolia Glymph’s numerous publications on Black women and the Civil War; studies by Christopher Bonner, Martha S. Jones, and Kate Masur of African Americans’ antebellum quest for full citizenship; Elsa Barkley Brown’s and Kidada Williams’s careful delineations of the many ways African American women and men asserted themselves as political actors in the wake of emancipation; and biographies like Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, and Caleb McDaniel’s Sweet Taste of Liberty, which serve as models for excavating the lives of nineteenth-century Black women, including those who have long been inaccurately mythologized and those who have been overlooked entirely. While hardly an exhaustive list of the historians whose work informs my study of this figure, these varied sources represent the breadth of integral work being done by many scholars to center African American women’s experiences.

[7] Quotations and summaries regarding the crafting of the marker text are taken from email correspondence between Jennifer Loux and Lois Leveen, April 2021 through June 2021.

[8] For a discussion of this site as the seat of Confederate power, see Mark K. Greenough, “The Virginia State Capitol During the Civil War,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, February 2021, available online at https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-state-capitol-during-the-civil-war-the/ .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lois Leveen

Dr. Lois Leveen earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and UCLA. Her writing has appeared in scholarly journals, academic collections, and in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and similar outlets. Having turned a footnote from her dissertation into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser (HarperCollins 2012), it is now her pleasure and her penance to be researching the first scholarly biography of Mary Richards Denman, the real figure behind the Mary Bowser myth. She is a 2020-21 Virginia Humanities Fellow at the Library of Virginia and a Mellon Research Fellow at the Virginia Historical Society.

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