The Power of Priscilla’s Upper Room: Gender and the African American Public Sphere in the 1830s

Friday, January 4, 2013: 9:10 AM
Preservation Hall, Studio 7 (New Orleans Marriott)
Sharon E. Wood, University of Nebraska–Omaha
One contribution of geography to history is its recognition that both individual and group identities are constituted by place and space.  This essay explores the intersection of identity and activism by considering place as a source of power for people of African descent in the North American Midwest. With few exceptions, studies of organized black resistance to slavery have presumed it the province of men. This essay considers Priscilla, a slave who freed herself and became a leader among blacks in St. Louis, to reveal how property ownership by women sustained free places and empowered activists. 

Even before Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising, whites in slave states expressed a growing fear of the free African Americans in their midst.  Space became a means of control.  In St. Louis, whites sought to expel free blacks by legal, extra-legal, and terroristic means. They also restricted the movements of enslaved blacks, banning separate worship and requiring every slave to reside with her or his master–not with free family members, for example. Some free blacks fled, settling on the east (“free”) bank of the Mississippi River, opposite St. Louis, on property purchased by Baltimore, a steamboat chambermaid, lying-in nurse, and truck farmer. 

Priscilla’s property became a locus of resistance.  Her businesses raised money for black institutions, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her home sheltered traveling preachers expelled from St. Louis, and church leaders organized the first AME church in the American West in her “upper room” in 1841. The settlement around her property sustained a reputation as a refuge for fugitives from slavery. In short, Priscilla’s property sustained the clandestine public sphere of anti-slavery activity, even as women’s roles in resistance remained veiled by the gender conventions of the African American public sphere.

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