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Anna Taylor Sweringen/Michal Scott: Unbowed by the Tyranny of a Single Story – Sarah J. Smith Thompson Garnet (Contest)
Friday, December 29th, 2023

UPDATE: The winner is…BN!

The firstborn of Sylvanus and Anne Smith’s eleven children, Sarah was born on July 31, 1831, in the now historic Black Brooklyn neighborhood of Weeksville. Her father was one of Weeksville’s founders and one of the few black men who could vote because he had $250 in property. Both Sarah and her sister Susan were firsts in African American history in New York. Sarah became the first African American female to serve as a principal of a public school. Her sister Susan was the first African American female in New York State to receive a medical degree.

When Sarah was fourteen, she began her career as a teaching assistant. In 1854, she taught at the African Free School of Williamsburg (Brooklyn). By the time she retired from teaching in 1900, she served for thirty-seven years as a principal. First at Colored School No. 7 in Manhattan in 1863 then as principal for both Colored School No. 4 and Public School No. 80 in 1866. She used her position to help other African American women in the teaching profession. She signed a letter of support to the Board of Education on behalf of a teacher, Ms. G.F. Putnam, for her appointment to the position of Head of Department in Public School No. 83.

In addition to teaching, Sarah was an active suffragist. She founded the Equal Suffrage League in Brooklyn, the first suffrage club for African American women. She also headed the suffrage department of the National Association of Colored Women. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont reached out to Sarah in 1910 to see if African American women might be interested in joining her suffrage club, The Political Equality Association. The answer was no, as many white women’s suffrage movements did not focus on civil rights issues important to all African Americans, like lynching. In 1911, Sarah’s activism took her to England with her sister Susan to the first Universal Races Congress, where Susan delivered a paper on African American women.

It comes as no surprise that Sarah also had an entrepreneurial spirit. She owned and ran her own seamstress shop from 1883 to 1911.

Sarah married twice. First to Episcopal minister Samuel Thompson (often mistakenly cited as Tompkins) who died in 1852. They had one daughter who lived to adulthood. In 1875, she wed Presbyterian minister and abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet who died in 1882.

Sarah died at home in Brooklyn in 1911. Noted African Americans W.E.B. DuBois and Addie Waites Hunton spoke at her memorial service.

Having grown up in Brooklyn, I knew more about her sister Susan Smith McKinney, but Sarah’s pioneering work in the New York City public school system has gained prominence thanks to the HBO series The Gilded Age.

Too often the ordeal of slavery is the only lens through which African American history is seen. Sarah Smith Thompkins Garnet’s story shows how free blacks in the North used their own advocacy and agency to build resilient African American communities.

For a chance at a $10 Amazon gift card share your thoughts on Sarah’s life in the comments.

Better To Marry Than To Burn by Michal Scott

Wife Wanted: Marital relations as necessary. Love not required nor sought…

A bridal lottery seems the height of foolishness to ex-slave Caesar King, but his refusal to participate in the town council’s scheme places him in a bind. He has to get married to avoid paying a high residence fine or leave the Texas territory. After losing his wife in childbirth, Caesar isn’t ready for romance. A woman looking for a fresh start without any emotional strings is what he needs.

Queen Esther Payne, a freeborn black from Philadelphia, has been threatened by her family for her forward-thinking, independent ways. Her family insists she marry. Her escape comes in the form of an ad. If she must marry, it will be on her terms. But her first meeting with the sinfully hot farmer proves an exciting tussle of wills that stirs her physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

In the battle of sexual one-upmanship that ensues, both Caesar and Queen discover surrender can be as fulfilling as triumph.

Excerpt from Better to Marry than to Burn:

Of the men attending the meeting, thirty plunked down ten dollars for a chance at a wife. Twelve signed “I’m leaving” pledges. Caesar would do neither. His new beginning couldn’t be left up to chance, not now that staying took on a grander meaning.

Forty women arrived in June. Young, old, ex- slave and freeborn. Some widowed. Some with children. Some mere children themselves. Once introduced, each woman shared her hopes and wants. The lottery gave them three months to be courted and become brides or accept a return ticket back home. Moving as their stories were, Caesar knew he’d done right to go his own way. He’d advertised back East for a new wife. His ad, and to the point, stated his goal:

Freed man seeking woman to partner in marriage for at least two years in the black town of Douglass, Texas. Must be willing and able to help establish a legacy. Marital relations as necessary. Love neither required nor sought.

Only desperate females who couldn’t string two words together had answered. Not that he was looking for conversation, but he’d had a prize in his Emma and nothing less than another prize would do. Finally, he received a missive that gave him hope he’d found his match.

He’d held her envelope beside the flickering glow of a kerosene lamp and studied the handwriting. The elegant strokes bespoke education. The grade of paper used signaled either someone of means or at least someone intent on making a good impression. Two marks in her favor.

His eyebrows raised, however, as his gaze lingered over the Q imprinted in the wax seal holding the envelope shut. Another sign of quality…maybe too much quality. Why would a woman of obvious education and means be willing to brave the hardships of life out West as an ex-slave’s mail order bride?

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11 comments to “Anna Taylor Sweringen/Michal Scott: Unbowed by the Tyranny of a Single Story – Sarah J. Smith Thompson Garnet (Contest)”

  1. Debra Guyette
    · December 29th, 2023 at 7:37 am · Link

    Sarah sounds amazing. I admire her. There are so many stories like this one that are not well known.

  2. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · December 29th, 2023 at 9:11 am · Link

    So true, Debra. I grew up in Brooklyn and as I shared knew about her sister but not about Sarah. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · December 29th, 2023 at 9:11 am · Link

    As always, thank you Delilah for giving me space to share my love of African American women and their accomplishments.

  4. Mary Preston
    · December 29th, 2023 at 5:52 pm · Link

    Yes, not as much is heard of the free blacks in the north.

  5. BN
    · December 29th, 2023 at 7:54 pm · Link

    very entrepreneurial

  6. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · December 30th, 2023 at 12:27 am · Link

    Hi Mary, it’s why I focus on finding those stories to tell. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · December 30th, 2023 at 12:28 am · Link

    Hi BN, so true. Women like Sarah used all their talents. Thanks for commenting.

  8. flchen
    · December 30th, 2023 at 6:18 pm · Link

    Wow, Anna. I wonder whether Sarah and her sister thought of themselves as the first African American women to achieve these things, or simply were living the lives they intended to. I’m both thankful for their accomplishments and also to you for bringing their lives to light.

  9. Anna Taylor Sweringen
    · December 30th, 2023 at 6:49 pm · Link

    Hi flchen, I think they were just determined to live fulfilling lives. They were fortunate to have a family that believed all their children – male and female – deserved what good life had to offer and were able to support them in those pursuits. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Jennifer Beyer
    · January 1st, 2024 at 9:51 pm · Link

    We need to teach this history to future generations. People need to hear about how people work hard and make an impact on the future.

  11. Delilah
    · January 5th, 2024 at 10:49 am · Link

    Thank you, Anna/Michal, for another great post!

    The winner of the GC is…BN!

Comments are closed.