FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER AND THE COLORED CONVENTIONS
MARY MILES BIBB
Years before Frances Ellen Watkins Harper took the podium in a Colored Convention, Mary Miles Bibb addressed the National Emigration Convention of Colored People in 1854. Harper and Bibb were part of the same anti-slavery circles, and both women paved the way for women’s full participation in the Colored Conventions movement. When Harper toured the Midwest with William C. Cooper Nell, Bibb promoted their anti-slavery meetings.1 It is likely that both women have crossed paths more than once.
Journalist, educator, and activist Mary Miles Bibb was born in Rhode Island in 1820. She was the first Black woman in the US to graduate from a normal school when she finished her studies at the Massachusetts State Normal School in 1843.2 Though the board initially refused her enrollment, Mary Bibb was still accepted, paving the way for other Black women’s admission into the school.3 Mary Bibb then taught at several schools in Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. As Afua P. Cooper points out, moving constantly was common for Black teachers at the time; “They went where work could be found, where salaries were better, and where they felt they could have a good relationship with the community.”4 In Cincinnati, Mary Bibb taught at the Hiram S. Gilmore High School, a school established by Reverend Hiram S. Gilmore for Black children. Some of the school’s students went on to become Colored Conventions delegates and political leaders, including US Representative John Mercer Langston and P.B.S. Pinchback, the second Black man to serve as a state governor in the country. In the summer of 1847, Miles Bibb met freedom seeker, writer, and fellow activist Henry Bibb. They were married a year later.
When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, it became clear that the Bibbs’ lives would be in danger. It had only been eight years since Henry Bibb freed himself from bondage, having been recaptured once before. The couple made the decision to move to Windsor, Canada. There, the Bibbs managed the Refugee Home Society, an aid society for freedom seekers and formerly enslaved people who needed help settling in the community. They started their newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive, which focused on matters concerning Black refugees in Canada and promoted emigration. Mary Bibb also established a school for Black children. In Canada, the Bibbs and Mary Ann Shadd Cary had debates over the needs of Black freedom seekers.5 Shadd Cary publicly criticized how the Refugee Home Society was run, taking particular issue with how managers begged for funds and donations. Mary Bibb defended herself, her husband, and the society. In a published letter to William Lloyd Garrison, Mary Bibb denied Shadd Cary’s accusations: “I need not tell you, that I am opposed to begging.”6. She further noted that critics of the society were simply unhappy that the society gave and sold land only to “landless refugees of American slavery” and not to free Blacks.7 As Jane Rhodes writes, with this rebuttal, Mary Bibb “uncharacteristically moved from her husband’s shadow to challenge the Shadd faction.”8
A couple of tragedies beset Mary Bibb’s life within a short span of time. In 1853, their newspaper office burnt down, and Henry Bibb died on August 1, 1854. In spite of it all, Mary Bibb continued her activist work. About three weeks after her husband’s death, Mary Bibb attended the National Emigration Convention of Colored People in Cleveland, Ohio. The convention had a record number of women delegates, and Mary Bibb served as vice president of the convention. She delivered some remarks, which were not recorded in the minutes. Existing records have largely focused on Henry Bibb, obscuring Mary’s work. Nevertheless, Mary Bibb continued teaching after his death and enjoyed relative success as the number of her students grew. In 1859, while still living in Windsor, Mary Bibb married Isaac N. Cary, the brother-in-law of Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Isaac N. Cary was involved in the Haitian Emigration movement, having lived in Haiti for a time in the 1830s. In 1861, he began working for James Redpath’s Haytian Emigration Bureau, an organization funded by the Haitian government to promote emigration to the island nation.9 Mary Bibb also supported emigration to Haiti; indeed, when pastor, activist, and Colored Convention delegate William P. Newman criticized Haitians as “deeply plunged in their degradation” and “beyond the reach of Christian civilization” in his lecture, Mary Bibb Cary corrected him several times “with characteristic coolness.” 10 Mary Ann Shadd Cary, once again, opposed Mary Bibb Cary’s stance. As Redpath’s newspaper Pine and Palm continued to promote Haitian emigration, Shadd Cary defended William P. Newman and scathingly questioned Redpath’s fitness to speak to the interest and well-being of Black people in the US.11 To Shadd Cary, Canada remained the ideal destination for freedom seekers while Bibb Cary embraced emigration elsewhere. The two women’s oppositional stance and the activist company they kept speak to the multifaceted politics of Black women emigrationists.
In 1863, Isaac Cary wrote to the office of the US Secretary Interior, seeking a job in the transportation of freedmen in DC to Haiti.12 It is not clear whether or not Cary got the job, but he did move back to DC after the war and became a deputy police marshal. Mary Bibb Cary moved to Brooklyn, New York, sometime in the early 1870s. Their living arrangement was unclear, but by 1875, Bibb Cary had a building in DC renovated as her store and home. The cost of the renovation indicates that the Carys had, by this time, considerable wealth and Mary Bibb Cary’s business was doing well.13 Information about Mary Bibb Cary’s life appear to us in bits and pieces; as Afua P. Cooper notes, even though she was a popular activist in her day, historians have mostly focused on Henry Bibb, and as such, “there is no sustained documentation of her life.”14 Details of Bibb Cary’s life in Brooklyn and DC are scarce, but given that both cities were hubs of Black activism, more than likely, Bibb Cary continued the work of racial uplift until her death in 1877.
Written by Samantha de Vera.
- Nell, William Cooper. “Sketch of a Tour to the West.” Liberator, 12 November 1858, p. 4.
- A normal school was a teacher’s college. Massachusetts State Normal School is now Framingham State University.
- As F. Javier Cevallos notes, Black women educators Elizabeth Hyde of Hampton Institute and Olivia Davidson of Tuskegee attended Massachusetts State Normal School after Mary Bibb.Cevallos, F. Javier. “The University as a Place of Refuge.” Refugees, Refuge and Human Displacement, edited by Ignacio López-Calvo and Marjorie Agosín, Anthem Press, 2023, p. 231. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv32r02x2.16. Accessed 7 Mar. 2023.
- Cooper, Afua P., et al. “Black Women and Work in Nineteenth-Century Canada West: Black Woman Teacher Mary Bibb.” We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History, University of Toronto Press, 1994, p. 145. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442683273.10. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.
- Rhodes, Jane. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998, p. 61.
- Bibb, Mary E. “Refugees’ Home.” Liberator, Nov 12, 1852, pp. 1. ProQuest
- Drew, Benjamin. The Refugee: Or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada …. United States, John P. Jewett & Company, 1856, p. 324
- Rhodes 63.
- Redpath was a white journalist and anti-slavery activist who also served as the editor of pro-emigration newspaper financed by the Haitian government, Pine and Palm.
- Watkins, William J. to James Redpath. “From Michigan.” Pine and Palm, 21 September 1861. ProQuest.
- Cary, Mary A. S., and Robert Hamilton. “Haytian Emigration.” Weekly Anglo-African, Sep 28, 1861, pp. 3. ProQuest.
- Cary, Isaac to A.J.H. White. 24 April 1863. Records of the Secretary of the Interior Relating to the Suppression of the African Slave Trade and Negro Colonization, M160, RG 48, National Archives and Records Administraion. ProQuest.
- The total cost of the renovation was $5000. “A Building Improvement.” Evening Star, 30 September 1875.
- Cooper, Afua P. “The Search for Mary Bibb, Black Woman Teacher in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Darlene Clark Hine, Linda Reed, Wilma King eds. We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History. New York: NYU Press, 1995, p. 175.