Jessie Morgan Owens, Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement

Jessie Morgan Owens, Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement

When a decades-long court battle resulted in her family’s freedom in 1855, 7-year-old Mary Mildred Williams unexpectedly became the face of American slavery. Famous abolitionists Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Albion Andrew would help Mary and her family in freedom, but Senator Charles Sumner saw a monumental political opportunity. Due to generations of sexual violence, Mary’s skin was so light that she “passed” as white, and this fact would make her the key to his white audience’s sympathy. During his sold-out abolitionist lecture series, Sumner paraded Mary in front of rapt audiences as evidence that slavery was not bounded by race.

Girl in Black and White restores Mary to her rightful place in 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 exposé 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.

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 and lives in New Orleans with her family. 

Admission for lectures is $10 general public, $5 for members, and free to AHC Insiders unless otherwise noted.

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