The riveting, little-known story of Mary Mildred Williams—a slave girl who looked “white”—whose photograph transformed the abolitionist movement.
When a decades-long court battle resulted in her family’s freedom in 1855, seven-year-old Mary Mildred Williams unexpectedly became the face of American slavery. Famous abolitionists Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Albion Andrew would help Mary and her family in freedom, but Senator Charles Sumner saw a monumental political opportunity. Due to generations of sexual violence, Mary’s skin was so light that she “passed” as white, and this fact would make her the key to his white audience’s sympathy. During his sold-out abolitionist lecture series, Sumner paraded Mary in front of rapt audiences as evidence that slavery was not bounded by race.
Weaving together long-overlooked primary sources and arresting images, including the daguerreotype that turned Mary into the poster child of a movement, Jessie Morgan-Owens investigates tangled generations of sexual enslavement and the fraught politics that led Mary to Sumner. She follows Mary’s story through the lives of her determined mother and grandmother to her own adulthood, parallel to the story of the antislavery movement and the eventual signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Girl in Black and White restores Mary to her rightful place in history and uncovers a dramatic narrative of travels along the Underground Railroad, relationships tested by oppression, and the struggles of life after emancipation. The result is an exposé of the thorny racial politics of the abolitionist movement and the pervasive colorism that dictated where white sympathy lay—one that sheds light on a shameful legacy that still affects us profoundly today.
About the Author
Jessie Morgan-Owens is the dean of studies at Bard Early College in New Orleans, Louisiana. A photographer with the team Morgan & Owens, she received her doctorate from New York University and lives in New Orleans with her family.
Captivating... A powerful salute to the memory of Mary Williams, antebellum America's demure symbol of human freedom. Highly recommended.
Morgan-Owens has located a fascinating story and tells it with verve, adding a new dimension to the much-studied struggle against slavery in America.
A valuable contribution to abolitionist history.
In a tour de force of historical recovery, Girl in Black and White combines a compelling, meticulously researched biography of the slave child abolitionists adored (and exploited) with a fascinating history of photography and visual culture. At the same time, Morgan-Owens’s careful inquiry into the complexities of so-called white slavery provides a disturbing look at the limits of social sympathy that relies on similarity. This beautifully written book challenges sentimental notions of national progress and offers new ways to patch together the true story of America’s racial past.
— Carla Kaplan, author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance
Girl in Black and White tells a mesmerizing story made vivid by the author’s keen eye for detail. This is a riveting story of an individual’s life, an important biography of an era, and a phenomenal contribution to discussions about the meaning of race in America.
— Emily Bernard, author of Black Is the Body and editor of Remember Me to Harlem