When a decades-long court battle resulted in her family’s freedom in 1855, seven-year-old Mary Mildred Williams unexpectedly became the face of American slavery. During a sold-out abolitionist lecture series, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner paraded Mary in front of rapt audiences as evidence that slavery knew no bounds.
Weaving together long-overlooked primary sources and arresting images, including the daguerreotype that turned Mary into the poster child of a movement, Jessie Morgan-Owens investigates tangled generations of sexual enslavement and the fraught politics that led Mary to Sumner. She restores Mary’s story to history and uncovers a dramatic narrative of travels along the Underground Railroad, relationships tested by oppression, and the struggles of life after emancipation. The result is an expose of the thorny racial politics of the abolitionist movement and the pervasive colorism that dictated where white sympathy lay—one that sheds light on a shameful legacy that still affects us profoundly today.
Join us for a conversation with author Jessie Morgan-Owens, as she discusses her book Girl in Black And White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement—the story of Mary Mildred Williams, an enslaved girl who looked “white,” is little-known, but her photograph transformed the abolitionist movement.
Jessie Morgan-Owens is the dean of studies at Bard Early College in New Orleans, Louisiana. A photographer with the team Morgan & Owens, she received her doctorate from New York University, writing a dissertation on nineteenth-century American anti-slavery literature and early photography. The culmination of Girl in Black and White came from years of archival research through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Antiquarian Society, and from the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College. These explorations took her through archives, courthouses, interviews, and the Concord Museum collection uncovering all she could of Mary Mildred Williams’ untold story.
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