Monday, June 29, 2009

Sisters, Sisters

Though the Pearl Incident is not widely remembered in US History, it had profound consequences for both the slaves involved and for the abolitionist movement. In particular, it influenced the lives of two slaves, a preacher, and one feisty authoress: Mary Edmonson, Emily Edmonson, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Edmonson sisters (At Left: Mary and Emily), Mary (1832-1853) and Emily (1835-1895), were 15 and 13 years old when they attempted escape aboard the Pearl with four of their brothers. Born in Maryland, Mary and Emily were both of fair complexion (a very desirable quality for female slaves), and as a consequence they had been hired out as house servants in Washington. Learning of the planned escape on the Pearl by other slaves, the Edmonson siblings decided the time was right to make their escape. As we know (see previous post), the slaves aboard the Pearl were captured and returned to the District. Their fate was to be sold, and live out a grueling life in the disease ridden swamps of the Deep South.

In Alexandria, the Bruin & Hill Company located on 1707 Duke Street, purchased the two sisters and their four brothers for $4500. Paul Edmonson, a freeman and father of the six Edmonsons aboard the Pearl, scrambled to find the money to purchase his children before they left for New Orleans. Joseph Bruin went around town boasting that he would make $1800 a piece for Mary and Emily. It became apparent that Bruin intended to sell the beautiful fair skinned sisters as mistresses or sex slaves in the popular New Orleans “fancy trade.” After all, the value of a young female slave at the time was closer to $600-800, only those in the “fancy trade” would sell for higher. Local abolitionists were appalled; they and along with Paul Edmondson worked to raise $1000 per sister. But Bruin wouldn’t sell; why accept $1000 when you could get $1800?

The money wasn’t raised in time. The brig carrying the Edmonsons arrived in New Orleans on June 14, 1848. They were held at a slave pen, and forced as fancy women to stand in the front windows to attract potential buyers. The sisters were poked and prodded and subjected to lewd comments from buyers. Fortunately, their luck changed as a yellow fever epidemic broke out in New Orleans. Fearing a loss in profit from the wrath of the disease, Bruin & Hill had the sisters shipped back to Baltimore. With assurance from Bruin that he would reduce the price of Mary and Emily’s freedom to $2500, Paul Edmonson went about raising money for their release. Hearing of their plight in Brooklyn, Henry Ward Beecher and his congregation took action to raise funds as well. Beecher spoke out on the horrors of slaves sold into prostitution by “human flesh-dealers of Christian girls.” His blistering sermons had women donating jewelry and men outbidding each other to donate to the increasingly popular abolitionist cause. By November the money had been raised, and the sisters were freed.

Rejoicing in their freedom, Mary and Emily travelled to New York to join a circuit of abolitionist speakers as celebrity guests. At rallies, Beecher spoke on the need for education for African-American and appealed to the audience to donate money to educate the girls. Mary and Emily told their story to large audiences and participated in mock slave auctions in attempt to further stir sympathy from Northerners.

Where is the feisty authoress in all of this? Ms. Stowe was Henry Ward’s sister, and in being so, she was well aware of the plight of the Edmonsons. In her book, Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she cited the Edmonsons and their escape on the Pearl as inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin--a book some credit with sparking the Civil War. Stowe intervened in the lives of the Edmonsons and had the sisters sent to Oberlin College, the first college to accept African-Americans. Sadly, Mary died of tuberculosis not long after her arrival at Oberlin. Distraught, Emily returned to Washington to be closer to her family and continued her studies at the Normal School for Colored Girls near Dupont Circle. She remained active in the abolitionist cause.

Sources: Josephine F. Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Escape on the Potomac.

Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the "Pearl".

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