Thursday, September 11, 2014

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that all Schlesinger Library staff members hold a particular collection close to their hearts. When that collection is digitized, it affords us the opportunity to invite the attention of many more readers and to consider more deeply its contribution to how we look at a particular time and place. As we reflect on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the recently digitized writings of Ann Maria Davison (1783–1871) are one such example. Six diaries (1847–1860) and the manuscript of an antislavery tract are the work of an educated, articulate, and devoutly religious Southern woman who was unequivocal in her criticism of slavery. Even more remarkable, she went on systematically to analyze and refute proslavery arguments, collect eyewitness accounts of slavery’s horrors, detail her own efforts at ameliorating the living conditions of slaves, and trace a growing intransigence among slaveholders in her own family and social sphere.

A native of New Jersey, Davison had been a resident of Louisiana for nearly 40 years when she began her antislavery tract in 1856. A widow, she lived with her daughter and son-in-law on a plantation in St. Tammany Parish outside of New Orleans. There she had ample opportunity to observe the living conditions of the slaves—her diaries contrast the meals consumed by the family and those offered the slaves—and to instruct them in Bible readings, spelling, and mental arithmetic. This was, of course, in direct violation of law, but for Davison the contradiction between scripture and slavery was unmistakable. Extant in this collection are careful notes on her Bible readings, pointing to passages she believed were contrary to the notion of slavery and refuting those passages that ostensibly supported it. Moreover, her relationships with slaves and her visits among free African Americans in the North (where she met educators Sarah Mapps Douglass and Mary Ann Shadd) supported her view of the essential equality of the races:

If all things were equal from their birth—trainings, encouragements . . . education, family connection . . . I believe the colored race would be found fully equal to the whites. Instead of those advantages, the intellect of the slave child, is crushed from its birth . . . Could white children, contend against such “fearful odds,” and be, what they are?

As war drew near, however, Davison suffered increasing isolation from her friends, especially members of her Presbyterian church, and by January 1860, she came face to face with threats of violence:

“It was seriously contemplated to tar, and feather me . . . I can scarcely realize it; but it is true! I dare not speak in favor of freedom!”

By March she had left for the North where she remained until after the Civil War, when she was reunited with her family. Intimate with the anguish and misery of slavery, yet privy to the possibilities of a more just society, Ann Maria Davison represents an uncommon voice from the South, a struggle to maintain a spiritual and psychological independence in the face of mounting odds, and a reminder of how some extraordinary individuals manage to transcend the exigencies of time, gender, race, and class. The collection has been fully digitized and is available here: nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch00542.

 Diary entry, April 19, 1856, describing meals served on the plantation. MC 234, 4v. From the Ann Maria Davis Collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Diary entry, April 19, 1856, describing meals served on the plantation. MC 234, 4v. From the Ann Maria Davis Collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryA page from Davison's antislavery tract, "Chap 19th, A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton," 1855. MC 234, 22. From the Ann Maria Davis Collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryA page from Davison's antislavery tract, "Chap 19th, A Visit to the Colored People of Princeton," 1855. MC 234, 22. From the Ann Maria Davis Collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDiary entry, January 1, 1860, describing threats of personal violence. MC 234, 7v. From the Ann Maria Davis Collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDiary entry, January 1, 1860, describing threats of personal violence. MC 234, 7v. From the Ann Maria Davis Collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

"Slaves for Sale: A Scene in New Orleans." From The Illustrated London News (Jan-June, 1861), vol. 38, p. 307. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library"Slaves for Sale: A Scene in New Orleans." From The Illustrated London News (Jan-June, 1861), vol. 38, p. 307. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library