093: Black women in Britain 1850-1897

Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1876

Although the British monarch was female, during the Victorian era it is much more difficult to trace African descent women than men. Some earlier pages on this site have identified Jane Rose Roberts (page 051) widow of Liberia’s president, Sarah Bonetta who reached England from Africa in 1850 and married in Brighton in 1862 (page 020), the almost anonymous South Africans who were publicised because of their children (pages 086 and 087) and the two students from the Congo in North Wales in the 1890s (page 009).

There were African American women who had either escaped from slavery or, free born, sought a better life in Britain. Escaped slave Ellen Craft came with her husband in 1850 and left in 1869, having lived in Ockham (Surrey) and Hammersmith and raised five children; her husband ran a school in Benin (then Dahomey) for over three years. Their son William Jr returned to England where he died in 1927 (see page 059). The mother of Mercy and Sarah Powell was a Native American, their father a free born African American. With five sons they settled in Liverpool 1851-1861, where the eldest boy (William Jr) worked as a doctor in the hospital before serving as a doctor in the Union forces in the US Civil War. He and a brother died in Liverpool but what happened to Mercy (born 1840) and Sarah Powell (born 1842) is unclear (see page 081).

Sometimes a black woman is mentioned in the newspapers and then vanishes. “Josephine” escaped American slavery in 1856 and when smuggled into Liverpool was helped by the Powells. Mary Syson was reported in Cheltenham in 1864; a Yoruba interpreter in London in 1859 was a Miss M. B. Servano who had been educated in England, and Anne the wife of ex-king Pepple of Bonny lived in Tottenham from 1856. American sisters Henrietta Johnson and Issadorah (sic) Richardson are known because their husbands attended Spurgeon’s College in London in 1876-1877 before working as Baptist Missionaries in Cameroon where Henrietta died.

Jamaican Mary Seacole is very well known these days through biographies and her own Wonderful Adventures of 1857. She died in London in 1881. An earlier author Olaudah Equiano had a daughter Joanna born in Soham, Cambridgeshire in 1795. She married a church minister and died in London in 1857. Her grave in Abney Park cemetery has recently been located but we lack details of her life let alone an image.

Human zoos and ethnic performers included women, such as the Somalis (61 men, women and children) who were on show at the Crystal Palace in the summer of 1895, and two Zulu/South African choirs which toured Britain from 1892. Sannie Koopman broke away from them and was in Chesterfield in 1892. Dahomey Warrior troupes were mainly female. Millie-Christine McKoy, born in slavery in America, for ever linked by a conjoined spine, worked as The African Twins 1855-1857 and returned to tour Europe when freed. There is an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Joanne Martell, Mill-Christine. Fearfully and Wonderfully Made was published in 2000 by John F. Blair in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. See top illustration.

Another free born American, Sarah Remond, toured Britain 1859-1866 explaining slavery, became a British national, then qualified as a doctor in Italy where she died. Anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells was in Britain in 1893 and again in 1894, and was aided by a Nigerian medical student and his friends in London. Amanda Smith went to India as a Christian missionary, visiting England 1878-1879, 1881, and touring from early 1895 to mid-1896. Her autobiography was published in London in 1894. Hallie Quinn Brown was a temperance lecturer who was active in Scotland from February 1896 for over a year, talking on “women and the drink question”. Eliza Meyer, from Ghana (then the Gold Coast) was educated in England and Switzerland and married Dr Benjamin Quartey-Papafio in St Bartholomew’s church, Smithfield (London) in October 1896.

There was a fashion for African American singers and recitalists, and several had the patronage of the very wealthy Duchess of Sutherland in London. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was in England 1853-1854; Marie Selika in 1882-1883, and Sissieretta Jones (known as the Black Patti) in the 1880s and 1890s. Other female entertainers included actress Amy Height (1866-1913) who was in England from 1883 and died in London, and several who worked in Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows. There were four in a Cabin show in Belfast in January 1879. Cassandra Walmer born in London in 1888 of a black actor father was in Cabin shows at the age of three (Leicester, 1891) whereas Birmingham-born Esther “Hettie” Johnson joined one in her twenties. She died aged 102 in Fareham in 1973. The Poland-born acrobat Olga Kaira was “Miss Lala” and appeared at the London Aquarium in March 1879.

There were women in the Fisk Jubilee Singers and in the Wilmington Jubilee Singers, which criss-crossed Britain and the continent from the late 1870s. The Wilmingtons are named on page 085. The Fisk Jubilee Singers first reached Britain in 1873 and their successes in gathering financial support by presenting Spirituals was detailed in The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs published many times (the London, 1876 edition had the above photograph) and in Andrew Ward Dark Midnight When I Rise (New York: 2000). Thomas Rutling (top right) died in Yorkshire in 1915. The charismatic Jennie Jackson (left) born a slave, died in 1910, having toured with slave-born Maggie Porter (top left) and her independent choir as well as that run by Frederick Loudin (next to Rutling) who is credited with introducing British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to the music. Porter refused to step foot in the South, and kept that vow until 1931; she died aged 89 in 1942. Mabel Lewis (seated, 2nd from left) also founded her own troupe and died in 1935. Ella Sheppard (left elbow on table) died following an operation in 1914; Maggie Carnes with Porter and Jackson toured round the world including many months in Australia in Loudin’s troupe before reaching England again in the late 1890s. America Robinson was also born in slavery, and had been one of the first to study at Fisk University in 1866 aged eleven and was the only Jubilee Singer to received a B.A. from Fisk. The Fisks were neat and polite, sang very well, and made good impressions all over Britain and the continent. Other women who toured with the Fisks over the years included Georgia Gordon, Minnie Tate and Julia Jackson. Photographs of the groups and the individuals were taken in Edinburgh in 1873, Birmingham and Manchester in 1874, Carlisle in 1876. Their recitals were always reviewed in the local press. Loudin’s troupe benefited from the financial wisdom of his wife Harriet who welcomed Coleridge-Taylor to their home in Ohio in 1904, not long after her husband’s death. There were spin off groups using the Fisk name, such as the Fisk Trio which was active in Britain in the 1900s and 1910s (see page 049) and had two female members.

A Jamaican named Agnes Foster spent forty years in England and returned to Jamaica where, in the 1880s, she was one of the two pioneers establishing the Salvation Army on the island. See page 156 of this site, written in November 2015, which shows she died in Eccles, England in 1910.

Since writing the above more detailed information led to more pages, also relating to other black women in 19th century Britain: pages 099, 120, 129,  131 and 143. And in mid-2015 pages 149 and 152. And 156.


I am indebted to David Killingray for suggesting this topic

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