Mary Bowser was a real person born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia. Freed by the daughter of the family that owned her, Bowser was sent North to be educatedbut she returned to the South and became a Union spy, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. When I first learned about Bowser while working on my Ph.D. in African American literature, her story intrigued me. What would it be like to have to leave your family and community to seize your freedom? What would make someone give up her freedom for a war she couldn’t be sure would end slavery? What was it like to be an educated person but live among people who regarded you as incapable of intelligence, and not even human? How could this story help readers today to understand the complexities of race, gender, and class in American history?
I explore these questions in The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which interweaves historical events and real people to introduce readers to little known aspects of American history, including the lives of free and enslaved blacks in industrialized Richmond, the vibrant African American community in antebellum Philadelphia, the conflicts that arose among abolitionists of both races, and the Union underground that operated in the Confederate capital throughout the Civil War. Although marketed for an adult audience, the novel is readable by high school students and even some middle school students.
The assignments and activities below are excerpted from a longer teaching guide, which also includes assignments focusing on school success strategies and on tying the book to contemporary issues, as well as assignments from other subject areas in the humanities, social sciences, STEM (science, technology, and math), and art. The full teaching guide is available for free download. The website also includes other resources about the novel and the history that inspired it. If you develop your own activity or assignment that you’d like to share with other teachers, please email it email@example.com and I will add it to the guide.
Understanding Historical Issues in THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER
1. Describe the black community in Philadelphia as it is depicted in the novel. How is it similar to the black community in Richmond? How is it different? What sources can you find to learn more about these communities?
Read Lois Leveen’s New York Times article “The North of the South” about race in antebellum Richmond. Compare this nonfiction account of the black community with the novel’s fictional representation. How does a newspaper article educate and persuade? How does a work of fiction educate and persuade?
2. An enormous number of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, died because of the Civil War. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust argues that as the death toll rose during the war, “death was no longer encountered individually; death’s threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences.” For which characters in the novel is this true? For which characters does death and mourning remain more an individual rather than a shared experience? What are the reasons for the differences? Does the war change mourning and ideas about death, as they exist in the novel before the war starts? (You can read more of Faust’s argument here).
3. We still don’t know how many people were killed in the war. Read about new efforts to estimate the number of war dead. What techniques have been used to count the dead? Why hasn’t an accurate account been achieved? Why does it matter now, 150 years later, how many people were killed in the war?
To what other topicsgenocide, environmental changes, etc.can the statistical approach that has recently been used to reassess the number of Civil War dead also be applied?
4. The novel incorporates several primary sources, including excerpts from letters written by Harriet Newby to her husband Dangerfield Newby (p. 200), the Richmond Examiner article “Southern Women With Northern Sympathies” (pp. 273-274), and an April 29, 1864 letter from General Robert E. Lee to President Jefferson Davis(pp. 397). How do historians use primary sources to learn about the past? What other types of primary sources can help us understand the historical eras and movements in the novel?
For example, Leveen consulted Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, Chesnut’s private diaries as edited and published by C. Vann Woodward in 1981; Jefferson Davis: A Memoir by His Wife, published by Varina Davis in 1890; and The Underground Railroad, A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters & c. published by William Still in 1870. What is the difference between these kinds of sources? How can historians best use them?
For more information on using primary sources in the classroom, see Reading Like a Historian, a resource created by the Stanford University History Education Group.
5. When we think of slavery, we usually think about plantations. How is the form of slavery depicted in the novel different from plantation slavery? How is it similar? Do historians use different sources to learn about urban slavery than when they study plantation slavery?
6. The novel’s second epigraph, “Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?” is from a lecture given by the abolitionist Maria Stewart in Boston in 1832. Think about the American blacks you’ve studied who worked to end slaveryMary Bowser, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and many others. Do you think gender shaped the roles they forged in the abolition movement?
7. Read a section of The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (you can find an excerpt online here). How does Mary’s journey North in 1851 compare to the examples from the twentieth-century Great Migration that Wilkerson describes?
8. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs wrote (using the pseudonym Linda Brent) about her escape from slavery in North Carolina. Even after making it to the North, she knew she could be claimed by her “owners” and brought back to slavery. Read Chapter 41 of Incidents, entitled “Free At Last,” in which Jacobs describes her response to learning that her white friends have purchased her freedom. Does her response surprise you? Why do you think she was upset her about the news? On pp. 194-196 of Secrets, Mary argues with other members of the Female Anti-Slavery Society about whether slaves should be bought and freed. What is her reasoning for the position she takes? What is the reasoning of those who disagree with her? Write a scene in which Mary and Harriet Jacobs share their perspectives with each other.
9. Consider Cheryl Harris’ argument in “Whiteness as Property.” What scenes in the novel support her thesis? What scenes challenge it? When Theodore Hinton responds to racism by exerting his family’s privilege as holders of real property (i.e. as the landlord for the confectioner’s shop), does the result confirm Harris’ thesis or challenge it?
10. List the state and national laws restricting free blacks and slaves that are referenced in the novel. Why would laws be directed at both of these groups, despite the significant differences in their legal status? How did laws enacted after the Civil War replicate or depart from these earlier codes? What were the legal bases for implementing race-based laws, and what were the legal bases on which they were challenged?
11. Mary gives the Upshaws a subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most popular magazines of the period. What type of magazine was this? What technological advances made the printing and distribution of the magazine possible? What changing aspects of American culture are reflected in the magazine? What effects did the magazine have on American culture in this period?
12. The Civil War is perhaps the most extreme example of the continuing conflict between states’ rights and federal authority. What other historical issues and periods have involved a tension between states’ rights and federal authority?
13. The website Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture offers insight into many elements of literary and material culture that shaped and were shaped by Stowe’s novel and the larger anti-slavery movement. Write an analysis of one or more of the Tomitudes, from the point-of-view of Mary or another character from The Secrets of Mary Bowser.
Lois Leveen is the author of the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. A former faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles and Reed College, Leveen lives in Portland, Ore.