ARTICLE: Green on Letters from a Fancy Girl

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Gift of Mrs. W. Fitch Ingersoll [58.4] Slave Market, ca. 1850-1860. Oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches. as seen at Schomburg In Motion http://www.inmotionaame.org/gallery/detail.cfm;jsessionid=f8301904881471088718788?migration=3&topic=99&id=341998&type=image&metadata=show&page=2&bhcp=1
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Gift of Mrs. W. Fitch Ingersoll [58.4]
Slave Market, ca. 1850-1860. Oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches. as seen at Schomburg Research Center Online Exhibit In Motion: The African American Migration Experience (click for more)
Sharony Green,“‘Mr Ballard, I Am Compelled to Write Again’: Beyond Bedrooms and Brothels, a Fancy Girl Speaks.” Black Women, Gender & Families 5, no. 1 (2011).

Green writes:

“On February 2, 1840, a black woman named Avenia White wrote a letter to Rice Ballard, her former master. At the time of her letter, the fifth that she had written in a period of a year and a half, Avenia was struggling in Cincinnati where Ballard had recently freed her. She had her son in tow. They were not alone. Ballard also had freed another black woman. Her name was Susan Johnson, and she had three children. Before Ballard departed for the South, he left enough money for Avenia, Susan, and the four children to reside for nearly three weeks in a boarding house. The women and children were positioned to exist better than they had as slaves. But, as Avenia’s February 2nd letter stated, they soon found themselves “almost destitute in a strange land.” In her earlier letters, Avenia told Ballard about the difficulties she and Susan faced while searching for employment. Ballard sent $150, which kept them going for a while. Their struggles continued—Avenia’s in particular. It seems a local woman was trying to destroy her reputation. Avenia asked Ballard to ignore the woman. “[If] you have forgotten me,” Avenia said, “I hope you have not forgotten the children.”

“Although Ballard had married in 1840, his emotional connection with Avenia was so great and Avenia found the challenges of living on her own so enormous that she probably returned to the South to be closer to her former master. And there she died.

“Avenia’s sorrowful letters are important because they echo the unrecorded pleas of countless antebellum black women who found themselves the cast-off concubines of white men. Given the literacy hurdles facing pre-Civil War blacks, it is the researcher’s privilege to hear directly from one of them. Avenia’s letters are important chiefly, in this instance, because she appears to have been a “fancy girl,” the term used for female slaves who, often because of their fair complexion, were sold for use as concubines or prostitutes in antebellum America…”

 

Read it all: Green – “Mr Ballard, I am compelled to write again”: Beyond Bedrooms and Brothels, a Fancy Girl Speaks | Black Women, Gender & Families (2011)

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