Teaching History through Homespun Heroines

More often than not, I encounter Hallie Q. Brown’s 1926 publication of Homespun Heroines and other Women of Distinction in the footnotes of the publications that I read on African American women’s history. In fact, I heavily cite this work in my ongoing dissertation likewise calling upon it as encyclopedic reference for details on the lives of the 60 African American women contained therein.

When Brown collaborated with nearly 30 other authors to write the biographies of these women, all born in Canada or the U.S. between the mid-1700s and the end of the 1800s, her primary purpose was to record both the strife and strides of this population. Although the compilation does strikingly well in this area, I have recently begin to engage this work in a fundamentally different way­­­—now viewing and understanding it as a valuable teaching resource for U.S. history survey courses.​

This process began on a day when I was flipping through my copy of Homespun Heroines, interested in perusing the account on Sarah J.S. (Tompkins) Garnett (1831-1911). Of course, I expected to read how Garnett’s sense of racial duty led her to serve as a teacher and principal as well as to participate in voluntary activism within the National Association of Colored Women ​and the Equal Suffrage League, a Black women’s organization that she created and led in Brooklyn. At that age of 79, this same interest led her to London for a presentation before the first Universal Race Congress in 1911. She died only a few months after her return, but not before she was honored by other Black women for her participation. Also during this same time, Garnett frequently distributed suffrage materials that she gathered during her time​ in England. Though noting her foreign travel and conference participation for my own dissertation, I was especially drawn to the portion of the account that proudly proclaimed her Native American ancestry.

It told that both of her parents “directly and partly” traced their lineage back to Native American tribes of Long Island. The Smiths passed down their rich history through the female members of the family, who boldly broadcast that they were the “Americans of the Americans.” Although the account recounts the familiar and tragic narrative of mistreatment and displacement, it also tells of Garnett’s father’s educational experience, which was supposed to be the same type of “larnin” as that of European settlers. Immediately, I thought of the meetings for my early U.S. history survey course, in which we were examining enduring images of and tales about early Native American society. To this point, we have studied the typical primary sources like Thomas Hariot’s Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia and Thomas Morton’s: Manners and Customs of the Indians of New England, documents most students find to be comprehendible even if some decide that they are a bit mundane.

Like these resources, Homespun Heroines is also conveniently accessible through online sites. In further interrogating this book as an educational tool, I eagerly searched for other homespun heroines who traced their Native American ancestry. At the preliminary level, I discovered five. In Martha Payne’s case this was the Catawba and for Charlotta Gordon MacHenry Pyles (1806-1880) it was the “famous Seminoles.” The Pyles biography like the others partly cites her Native American ancestry as being fundamental to her display of courage and tenacity in her activism to purchase her son-in-laws’ freedom and to portray the evils of American slavery before Northern audiences. Eventually though,​ she departed from the U.S. headed to Canada.

Teaching Pyles’ experiences alongside that of others like Elizabeth West Gross (1817-?), Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1849-1916), and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin 1842—1924), is one instructional method that may encourage students in U.S. history survey courses to think critically about the change and continuity in the perspectives of and interactions between African Americans and Native Americans, two populations whose experiences complicate developing notions of American liberty and freedom. Additionally, these biographies, which are free flowing with personal stories that simultaneously make them engaging and memorable, can serve as entrances into discussions about such themes as identity, memorialization, belonging, freedom, and citizenship. Factually, they cover a range of events and issues: the daily lives and concerns of Free Blacks (religion, family life, work, and activism), life as a plantation slave, the often ​laborious and convoluted process of manumission, responses to racism and how for some this meant emigration, participation in and reflections on wars like the American Revolution, and, of course, African American women’s activism along many lines, especially abolition, temperance, suffrage, and equality.

Thus, I have elected to incorporate the five biographies of these homespun heroines into in my U.S. history survey courses as reoccurring resources. First, in re-visiting these biographies (or portions thereof) on multiple occasions, I aim to teach my students how to glean historical knowledge about the topic that we are then addressing, as well as demonstrate to them how the same resource might lead to different interpretations and knowledge depending on the questions that we ask of it. Second, employing Homespun Heroines in the way that Brown intended it—as instructive “veritable history” for future generations—makes for a deeper, more inclusive narrative of the American past. It is one that incorporates and recognizes authoritative Black female voices from the past and promotes a real discussion about their lives and perspectives rather than has them emerge at certain points only to quickly rescind.



Homespun Heroines and other Women of Distinction is available online at the following websites:




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