Americans have a long history of advocating for their rights and principles. With our Women and the American Story (WAMS) curriculum, teachers can trace this narrative of activism through the women reformers of the 1800s who worked for social change alongside and apart from men—inspiring their students, both boys and girls, to be engaged citizens and exercise their own agency. In the 19th century, women’s activism stemmed from the movements and benevolent societies they joined. At a time when women were perceived as custodians of the nation’s moral fiber; temperance, prison reform, Native American rights, co-education, suffrage, and abolition became rallying points for antebellum reformers of all races and social classes who sought to realize their vision for the new nation.

Mary and Emily Edmonson, ca. 1850–1860. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C

Mary and Emily Edmonson were two such women with an extraordinary story. They joined the abolition movement after being freed from slavery themselves. Their life story (which can be found in Module 2 of Saving Washington: The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790-1860, the first unit published of WAMS) demonstrates some of the methods 19th-century reformers used in pursuit of an America that better fit their values.

In April of 1848, Mary and Emily fled enslavement aboard a ship called the Pearl. At the ages of 15 and 13 respectively, they were just two of the 70 fugitives comprising the largest escape ever attempted by enslaved people in the United States. Their ship left Washington, D.C., under the cover of darkness, but was forced to drop anchor while still in Southern waters after encountering heavy winds on the Chesapeake Bay. The delay allowed enough time for a steamboat to catch the Pearl and capture those on board, who were brought back to Washington and sold back into slavery. A month later Mary and Emily were in the hold of another ship, the Union, heading south to New Orleans for sale.

Manifest of Negroes, Mulattoes, and Persons of Color taken on board the steamer Columbia, sailing out of the Port of Alexandria, VA, in 1848. New-York Historical Society Library (featured in Saving Washington). Mary and Emily are listed as passengers 16 and 17. They are described as “yellow,” which meant they appeared to be of mixed-race parentage. It is not clear where the Columbia took the girls, though the manifest declares they will be “sold or disposed of as Slaves.”

Because of their youth, beauty, and light skin tone, the Edmonson sisters fell under the slave market category of “fancy girls,” a euphemism for sex slaves, and a high price of $1200 each was set for them. Mary and Emily’s father, Paul Edmonson, worked alongside William Chaplin and other prominent abolitionists to raise the money needed to purchase their freedom. Using rhetoric that spoke of Mary and Emily’s piety and morality—both traits antebellum women were lauded for—advocates for the sisters presented the American public with a personal face for the particular horrors that enslaved women encountered. At a time when the widespread sexual exploitation of enslaved women in the South was not well-known in the North, the Edmonson sisters became powerful symbols of the dangers that slavery posed for young women. Collections taken up by white parishioners and abolitionists on their behalf were sufficient to secure the sisters’ freedom in November of 1848.

Following their emancipation, Mary and Emily were active among the Northern abolitionist set. They moved to New York State, attended school, and worked with their father to free their still-enslaved siblings. At an 1850 antislavery meeting in Cazenovia, New York, they flanked Frederick Douglass while one of the sisters—most likely the elder Mary—spoke out against the imprisonment of William Chaplin just days before. For a black woman to address a crowd at a time when some abolitionists, and many Americans, felt that women should not speak in public at all was a remarkable feat.

Ezra Greenleaf Weld, Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York, 1850. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Frederick Douglass, who presided over the proceedings, is seated at the corner of the table. Mary Edmonson (in plaid shawl) stands over his left shoulder. Abolitionist Gerrit Smith stands over Douglass’s right shoulder, with Emily Edmonson (also in plaid) to his right. 

The Edmonson sisters later enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio. Soon after their arrival, Mary died of tuberculosis and a grieving Emily returned to Washington. She became a teacher at a school for black women, continued her abolitionist advocacy, started a family, and remained a lifelong friend of Frederick Douglass.

Mary and Emily Edmonson were two of the many reformers who asserted their influence upon 19th-century American society through their advocacy. Their story illustrates some of the ways in which formerly enslaved women worked to achieve emancipation for all, and highlights important intersections between race, gender, and reform. For our students, the Edmonson sisters are a powerful reminder that young women’s voices and experiences can be an avenue for change. Their story, as well as the others profiled in the first and forthcoming WAMS units, also reminds us that activism in the past took many forms and had many faces, just as it does today. Women have always been forces of change and improvement in the United States, and we are excited to help teachers bring these stories to their classrooms.

– Lee Boomer, Assistant Manager of Special Projects, Education Division

This post is part of our new series, “Women at the Center,” written and edited by the staff of the Center for Women’s History. Look for new posts every Tuesday! Once a month, we will feature posts from our Education Division on teaching women’s history.  #womenatthecenter

Top Photo Credits: Detail of Ezra Greenleaf Weld, Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York, 1850. Daguerreotype. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.