"All That Is Said About Me"

By age seventy-four, Ann Maria Davison had stopped worrying about public opinion.  When she first began teaching enslaved people to read as a younger woman, she admitted she had to do it “in a kind of stealthy manner.”[1]  Louisiana was a prosperous slave state, and St. Tammany Parish—where Davison lived on her daughter and son-in-law’s cotton and rice plantation—was a straight shot across Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans, the premier slave market of the antebellum United States.[2]  Davison’s neighbors were slave-owners; local preachers too; and perhaps most painfully of all, her own relatives, including the son-in-law she often called “The Master Mr. Hennen” in her diary.[3]  To make matters worse, teaching slaves to read or write had been illegal in Louisiana since 1830, when the state legislature (fearing that education contributed to slave rebellions) passed an anti-literacy law.[4]  Davison’s determination to educate enslaved children didn’t only make her a social pariah: it could have landed her in jail.

But by 1857 the elderly widow Davison worked openly, running an informal “school for the little Negroes” on Hennen’s plantation.[5]  Each morning, she called the twenty or thirty children to their lessons with a bell, offering candy and cake as an incentive to attend.  They began with the Lord’s Prayer and a hymn before moving on to spelling.  Davison taught the children letter and vowel sounds with a song that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in a present-day classroom: “ba, be, bi, bibey, by, bo … a, e, i, o, u.” (Teaching them to read phonetically, she’d learned from experience, worked better than memorizing full words.)  After that, they practiced “mental arithmetic” and reviewed the Ten Commandments.[6]  The children’s answers to her religious questions were particularly distressing:

I asked one of the oldest among them, Robert, a boy of eleven years, this morning, “What is the chief end of Man,” explained it, by asking what he was placed in this world for as the principal thing.  He said, to work.

Another boy, a little younger, answered simply: “Cotton.”[7]

For Davison, working to end slavery—or at the very least, ameliorating its abuses as best as she could—was her duty as a Christian.  The gospel was a “leveling system,” she wrote one Sunday, inspired by a sermon she’d heard in New Orleans.  Every person was equal before God, “whatever his worldly acquirements of wealth, fame, honor, or intellect may be.”[8]  Davison recognized the hypocrisy of “gentleman Christians” who refused to acknowledge their spiritual equality with slaves—and she wasn’t afraid to confront them.

If her diary entries are any indication, Davison never met a slave-owner she didn’t attempt to engage in debate.  Using arguments from scripture (and occasionally the Declaration of Independence), she insisted on “the great wrong and wickedness of slavery.”[9]  Davison’s convictions alienated her from her neighbors and eventually her own Presbyterian church.  In 1860, as tensions over slavery mounted on the eve of the Civil War, local whites threatened to tar and feather the outspoken septuagenarian and she was forced to flee to the North.[10]  But until then, she persisted.  Though “I incur the hatred of many of the neighboring people,” Davison noted in her diary, “I endeavor to keep close to Bible teachings and am not at all troubled at all that I hear is said about me.”[11]

“After my love to God,” she declared, “my fellow man claim[s] my regard.”[12]

Decent Ladies and Filthy Low People

Davison herself wasn’t free from prejudice.  Born in New Jersey two decades before the state passed its 1804 gradual emancipation act, she was a northerner who had never actually lived in a free state.[13]  And after forty years in Louisiana, she had in some ways grown accustomed to life in a slave society.  When she was periodically left alone on the Hennens’ plantation, she confessed that the thought of being “the only white person on the place with about seventy slaves” made her “miserable.”[14]  And the “gratitude” Davison expected from her young students—insisting they “make their bows and curtseys and say ‘Good morning Mistress’”—at times seemed indistinguishable from servility.[15]  Davison’s interactions with enslaved people revealed a personal sense of superiority to African Americans, a subtle racism hidden even to herself.  In her interactions with proslavery whites, however, she was unyielding in her criticism of slavery.

On a May 1855 trip to New York, Davison was “astonished at the opinions” of several northerners she met at her hotel.  A woman from Portland (likely Maine) said that the system of slavery ensured that slaves were treated humanely since “it was the interest of everyone to take care of their property.”  A man from Pennsylvania added that slaves were in fact “far better off” than poor whites, and would soon be destitute if freed, for “the colored race were not capable of providing for themselves.”  And none of them believed a word of “Mrs Stowes book”—Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the famous antislavery novel published by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852.  When Davison spoke up to refute their arguments, the Pennsylvanian expressed his own astonishment:

But said he—it is strange, that you, a southern woman, should go against slavery, and I, a northern man, for it.

I asked him, if north, or south, made any difference in determining the question of right, and wrong? And how, he liked the separation of families—the taking away from a man all the fruits of his labor, and depriving him of the privilege of learning to read? He said he did not think such things happened often. I told him such were the attributes of slavery, and occurred every day, and that Mrs. Stowe had told the truth.[16]

“They were intelligent people,” Davison wrote, “and yet entirely ignorant of slavery.”  They had, however, raised a question that not even Davison could easily answer: what kind of lives did free blacks lead?  With little experience of the antebellum North, the New Jersey-born “southern woman” had no ready response.  But a few days later, on a visit to Princeton, Davison saw an opportunity to learn about a northern town’s free black community firsthand.

“I have frequently been in Princeton,” Davison wrote, where she often wondered about “the black people that seem’d to cluster around the College.”  Africans Americans worked on campus as vendors, janitors, cooks, and even research assistants for professors.  Meanwhile, the washerwoman at Davison’s hotel appeared “respectable in her deportment,” and the waiter “a very decent man.”  Elsewhere in town she saw “a seamstress of much intelligence and propriety.”  And she was especially pleased to observe a group of black schoolchildren on Nassau Street, well-dressed and laden down with books, “deporting themselves as well as white children.”  And yet, the local whites Davison encountered (like the proslavery northerners she’d met in New York) maintained that Princeton’s free blacks were “a poor miserable degraded set of beings, improvident, living hand to mouth, all congregated together in what they called Negro Town.”[17]

“I wondered to myself how all this could be,” Davison wrote, and “determined in my own mind” to visit Princeton’s black neighborhood and see for herself.  But when Davison told some southern students about her plans and asked for directions, the college boys were horrified.  Despite the fact that students interacted with black Princeton residents on a daily basis, they couldn’t imagine wanting to visit them socially.  For a respectable white woman like Davison to go was even more shocking.  “No decent ladies ever went among such filthy low people,” they told her.  Davison wasn’t impressed.  “I would go,” she said, and “they would tell me where they lived.”[18]

And so on Saturday May 26th, with seven hours left in Princeton before her scheduled departure for Philadelphia, Ann Maria Davison “sallied forth” to “Negro Town.”[19]

A Visit To The Colored People Of Princeton

"A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton," Ann Maria Davison's account of her 1855 trip to Princeton.

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"A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton"

Davison’s strategy was direct: over the course of several hours, she walked from house to house in Princeton’s black neighborhood knocking on doors.  If anyone was home, she introduced herself and explained her purpose in calling, telling them:

That I came from the south, where I had often been told that the free people of color living in the Northern States could not provide for themselves, and that they lived in great poverty and wretchedness, and were wholly unable to live otherwise.[20]

“Home visits” like these were a common practice among white moral reformers (particularly evangelical Christian women) in the 19th century.[21]  They demonstrated the entitlement educated white women felt to impose on people they considered their inferiors in race or class, believing they had a right to examine strangers’ homes and ask personal questions about their lives.  But Princeton’s black residents—perhaps seeing an opportunity to combat stereotypes held by so many white Americans—accepted the southerner with grace.

William Simpson

The first residence Davison entered stood on Witherspoon Street, just across from the college.  “It was a little confectionary store in a small front room,” she wrote, and the storekeeper was William Simpson, “a colored man.”[22]  Simpson was twenty-three years old at the time, with a wife and a young daughter.[23]  Davison thought the man’s stock of candy and cakes couldn’t be worth more than ten or fifteen dollars, but Simpson informed her that he was fully capable of supporting his family.  And when Davison asked how much he paid in rent, Simpson politely corrected her:

I own it Ma-m.
Do you really?
Oh yes! and I own a much better house than this that brings me rent.

Davison asked for paper and a pencil then, so she could record William Simpson’s name.  Rebecca Simpson, his wife, entered from a back room, having overhead at least the last part of their conversation.  She was “a well looking woman,” Davison noted, “with some sewing in her hand.”  She was also perceptive.  Likely suspecting that Davison’s request for writing materials was a test, Mrs. Simpson said:

I guess Madam you will not go into any of the houses of the colored people that you will not find pen, and ink, or paper and pencil.[24]

Evelina Braziers

The next home belonged to thirty-eight-year-old Evelina Braziers, a widow whom Davison felt compelled to note looked “almost white.”[25]  Unlike Simpson, Braziers rented her rooms—she was a washerwoman with a teenage daughter and a ten-year-old son in school.[26]  She was literate too, with two rooms and “enough furniture to be comfortable,” though Davison thought she personally looked “poor, and unneat.”[27]

Rachel Tenyke

Another widow lived next door, thirty-seven-year-old Rachel Tenyke, who owned her house and lot (though she still owed some money on it).[28]  Rachel had seven “healthy” looking children, and her eldest daughter was the one to answer the door that morning as Rachel herself was out cleaning homes.  Though the house was “not in very good order” (understandable, considering the number of children), the Tenyke family had “plenty of bedding and all kinds of furniture to be comfortable”—along with, as Mrs. Simpson had predicted, “Pencil Pen Ink and Paper.”[29]

Flora Vantyne

Davison wrote that Flora Vantyne, whose house was distinguished by the presence of a doorbell, was a “tidy prim looking woman, who invited me to enter most cordially.”  Vantyne was an “old Maid,” Davison said, though clearly able to support herself.  Her lot was 175 by 65 feet, “well improved & ornamented with shrubbery.”  Inside, she had a front parlor, dining room, kitchen (“neatness itself”), and a garden—all of which “she seemed to take great pleasure in showing me.”  

Davison was especially impressed by the books in Vanytyne’s elegant parlor: a “handsome Bible,” a collection of the Psalms, John Owen’s The Holy Spirit, Richard Baxter’s The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, and other religious texts.  All of the homes Davison visited had bibles, but forty-five-year-old Flora Vantyne in particular was a woman after her own heart.[30]

James and Margaret Titus

James Titus and his wife Margaret lived next door, on a lot the same size as Vantyne’s but (in Davison’s opinion) “not equal to Flora’s.”[31]  James Titus, sixty years old with thick white hair, worked at the college as a messenger and boot-black; students had (for unknown reasons) nicknamed him “Navigator.”[32]  The Tituses owned the property and were affluent enough for Margaret not to have to work as a maid or washerwoman like her neighbors.  The 1860 census listed James’s occupation as “College servant” and hers as “Keeping House.”[33]

James Titus

Photograph of James Titus, a free black man who worked at the College of New Jersey as a boot-black and messenger.

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Joseph and Rachel Striker

Joseph Striker and his wife Rachel likewise owned their house and land (the same sized lot as Vantyne’s and the Tituses’).  Sixty-seven-year-old Joseph was illiterate, but his thirty-seven-year-old wife could read, as Davison commented that “Books were on the center table—always the Bible.”[34]  When she asked for pen and paper, they offered her “a good pen, and portable inkstand.”[35]

Matthias Vanhome

Matthias Vanhome, a forty-year-old farm laborer, and his wife and three children did not own their house, nor did they “appear to be as well off as the others.”[36]  They did have “plenty of furniture” in their two rented rooms, however, with a pen, pencil, and bible.

Henry and Charles Craig

Two adjoining houses (both “very much improved”) on Green Street belonged to brothers Henry and Charles Craig.  Margaret, Henry Craig’s twenty-six-year-old wife, was “arranging shrubbery in her front yard” when Davison arrived.  She was “a very intelligent woman,” Davison wrote, with a parlor “that might be called genteelly furnished for any white people in middling circumstances.”  The china on display, large mirror, “handsome chairs” and sofa, rich carpets and books impressed Davison.  And though—running short on time before her departure for Philadelphia—she didn’t enter Charles Craig’s home, Davison thought it seemed “equal to his brothers.”  Overall, these two residences “exceeded all others” that she’d seen on her walk.[37]

Mrs. Clay, Mrs. Beekman, and Mrs. Cudges

At the corner of Green Street and “John’s Alley,” Davison met “Mrs Clay.”  She was busy cooking dinner when Davison arrived (a meal “which looked very, very good, and sent forth a fragrance that created a desire for some of it”).  Clay, who didn’t own the house, looked “rather poor” but still comfortable.  Directly across the street stood a small, “good looking two story house” which Clay said belonged to her aunt Mrs. Beekman, who owned the house and lot.  Next door lived a Mrs. Cudges, who rented her rooms—although, Davison noted, the owner himself was “a colored man.”[38]

Gilbert Reden and Samuel Scudder

Mrs. Cudges’s neighbor, thirty-four-year-old Gilbert Reden, was a laborer with a wife and ten-year-old son; he rented his small house.[39] In general, Davison considered these homes on John Street “rather poorer compared to the others” on Witherspoon or Green Street.  But Samuel Scudder’s property, next to Reden’s, was an exception.  

Fifty-year-old Scudder owned his home, a “comfortable” house with a garden.  He worked as a mail carrier to support his wife and “a number of grown girls.”  Some of Scudder’s daughters may have been home when Davison visited, as she observed that they did ornamental needlework and one could play the piano—revealing that Scudder was affluent enough for his daughters to engage in ladylike leisure pursuits.  Perhaps Miss Scudder performed for the visitor, demonstrating her ability to hold her own with any young, middle-class white woman.[40]

Route Of Anna Maria Davison

Map of Ann Maria Davison's route through Princeton's black neighborhood.

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Conclusion

Davison recorded her observations in a manuscript she titled “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton”—chapter nineteen of the unpublished antislavery monograph she began the next year.[41]  By the end of her visit, Davison was fully convinced that free blacks were as intelligent, industrious, and capable of supporting themselves as white citizens.  They were homeowners and homemakers with taste and dignity.  They were devout Christians, with a church and a flourishing Sunday school John Maclean Jr. (then president of the college) told her had more than one hundred students.  Even “the poorest house” Davison visited, Evelina Braziers’s, “was far superior in comfort than the very best that I ever saw on any Plantation in any slave state.”  The arguments that African Americans were incapable of surviving outside of a system of slavery were groundless, Davison concluded:

These poor miserable people (as they were called) live in their own comfortable homes, with no one to control them, or make them afraid.[42]

The next time Ann Maria Davison encountered someone who told her slaves were “far better off” than free blacks, she’d be ready to respond.

About the AuthorPanel Toggle

Isabela Morales is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University, specializing in the 19th-century United States, slavery, and emancipation. Her dissertation is a multi-generational narrative history of one African American family’s migration from Alabama across the American West during the 19th century. She completed her M.A. in history from Princeton in 2014, and a B.A. in history and American Studies from the University of Alabama in 2012. She has a strong interest in public history, and has been involved in the Princeton & Slavery Project as a researcher and contributing writer (2013-16) as well as the website's Content Editor and Project Manager (2017-18).

View all stories by R. Isabela Morales »

ReferencesPanel Toggle

[1]

Ann Maria Davison Papers, 1814-1866; Diary, 23 August 1857. MC 234, folder 5v. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

[2]

For the slave trade in New Orleans, see Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[3]

Ann Maria Davison, Diary, 23 August 1857.

[4]

Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 13-14.

[5]

Ann Maria Davison, Diary, 9 August 1857.

[6]

Ibid., 14 April 1857.

[7]

Ibid, 9 August 1857.

[8]

Ibid., 12 April 1857.

[9]

Ibid., 22 September 1857 and 9 August 1857.

[10]

“Ann Maria Davison,” Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, accessed 6 September 2017, https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/inside-the-collections/ann-maria-davison.

[11]

Ann Maria Davison, Diary, 23 August 1857.

[12]

Ibid., 3 May 1857.

[13]

“Ann Maria Davison,” Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, accessed 6 September 2017, https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/inside-the-collections/ann-maria-davison.

[14]

Ann Maria Davison, Diary, 29 April 1857.

[15]

Ibid., 14 April 1857.

[16]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton,” Ann Maria Davison Papers, 1814-1861, MC 234, folder 22, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[17]

Ibid.

[18]

Ibid.

[19]

Ibid.

[20]

Ibid.

[21]

For the work of women in moral reform movements in the United States and internationally, see Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987) and Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[22]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[23]

1860 Federal Census.

[24]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[25]

Ibid.

[26]

1860 Federal Census.

[27]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[28]

1860 Federal Census.

[29]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[30]

Ibid.

[31]

Ibid.

[32]

Titus, James ["Navigator"] -- African American; "Navigator -- Boot Black of East & West College"; circa 1861; Historical Photograph Collection: Individuals series, Box AC067.LP001, Folder 046; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[33]

1860 Federal Census.

[34]

Ibid.; Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[35]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[36]

1860 Federal Census; Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[37]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[38]

Ibid.

[39]

1850 Federal Census; Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

[40]

Ibid.

[41]

“Davison, Ann Maria, 1783-1871.,” Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, accessed 6 September 2017, http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~sch00542.

[42]

Ann Maria Davison, “A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton.”

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