Expanding the Private and the Public

Expanding the Private and the Public:
Analyzing the Writing Practices of Nineteenth-Century Black Women

Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
Assistant Professor
Loyola University Maryland

Intended Audience: Secondary Students and Undergraduates

Background Information for Students

In order to fully understand this lesson, students should have mastered the indicators analyzing the reasons behind the start of the Civil War; President Lincoln and his views on slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation; and, the role of women during the antislavery movement. They should also have a working knowledge of the work of Frederick Douglass, William Still, and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In addition, students should a) understand the differences between primary and secondary sources and b) know how to read and analyze historical documents.

Scope and Sequence

This lesson would work best in either a 75-minute class period or over a two-day period, where students would have the opportunity to study the primary sources, work together to complete the project, and present their findings. If possible, this class would also benefit from being taught in a "smart" classroom, where students would have access to the Internet to find additional background information.


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Interpret primary sources to identify, understand, and analyze the meaning behind the text;
  2. Examine the writings of nineteenth century women to compare and contrast them with 21st century blogs; and,
  3. Discuss and deconstruct the lives and writings of Emilie Davis, Ida B. Wells, Charlotte Forten, and Alice Dunbar Nelson.

Historical Thinking Standards (National Standards for U.S. History)


Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

  • Explain the influence of motives, beliefs, and actions of different individuals and groups on the outcome of historical events
  • Consider multiple perspectives
  • Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations

Topic Background/Materials

Emilie F. Davis (18 Feb. 1842 – ?) was a freeborn seamstress and a domestic in Philadelphia. Very little is known about her childhood, but her daily journal, which she kept from 1863 to 1865, provides some insight into her lifestyle, her educational background, and her political, social, and religious choices. Davis's three pocket diaries are one of only four known unpublished primary sources written by a free black woman during the nineteenth century. In her diary, which begins on 1 January 1863, Emilie Davis wrote about her life through a discourse that reflected both her training and her personality. Her decision to record her life attests to her sense of self-worth and her belief that she was living a life that was worthy of being documented and remembered. During a three-year period, at a time when the country was preoccupied with an internal war, Emilie wrote more than 30,000 words about her private life. Her commitment to the task suggests that this was not a new practice for her but rather that these were her only pocket diaries that survived. Because of the language that she used, Emilie's diary seems to have been used as a private space rather than as a public one. [Editors' Note: an AANB article on Emilie Davis is forthcoming in September 2012.]

Charlotte Forten

Alice Dunbar Nelson

Ida B. Wells

Words and Phrases (adapted from the National Visionary Leadership Project)

Black Americans vs. African Americans: In 1831, in The Liberator newspaper, Black Americans spent time debating about what to call themselves. The discussion ranged from Afric-Americans to Americans, Colored to Colored Americans and from African descendants to Africans. Since then, there has been a consistent and on-going debate about what is the best (and most appropriate) term to call formerly enslaved people who were bought to America from the continent of Africa. In this lesson plan, in order to narrow the scope of the ongoing discussion, the term Black American is used instead of African American. This document is specifically referring to black people of African descent and not Africans who have willingly migrated to this country, Africans who were born here but whose parents are immigrants or Africans who have dual citizenship. Additionally, as a form of empowerment, in this document, the word Black, when it is applied to this specific group of people, will be capitalized.

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857): Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia and had lived with his master in the free state of Illinois and Minnesota for four years. He sued for his freedom and argued that he had become a free man because he had lived on free soil. The U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, ruled against Scott and declared that since the Constitution never meant to include "Negroes," they could never be citizens and as such they had "no rights that a white man was required to respect." The decision further weakened the Missouri Compromise and denied Congress the power to prohibit slavery in any federal territory.

Free-born vs. Free(d): The term "freeborn" is used to help students understand the differences between women who have never been enslaved nor were they first-generation "freed" women and women who were "free" or "freed" and were less than one generation removed from bondage.

Part One: Preparation Work

Three days before teaching this lesson, tell the students that they are going to spend the next three days reading and studying a blog that was created (and is being maintained) by an African American woman. They should 1) read and respond to at least one post per day and write a one-paragraph analysis of each of the posts; 2) research the author and write a one-two paragraph biography; and, 3) write a one-paragraph statement of what you think the author can do to have more readers. The students should be split into four groups and assigned one of the following blogs:

Tell the students to print both the blogs and their posts and bring them to class.

Part Two: Motivation

When students enter the classroom, have them sit in pre-assigned groups of four (one person from each of the four highlighted blogs). They should give a one-two minute overview of their blog; and, select one of the blog posts to share it with your group, and either read or briefly share their posted response.

Part Three: Procedures

  1. Introduction: tell the students that they will read and analyze primary source documents in an effort to conduct a historical investigation to examine the writing practices of nineteenth century women. More specifically, they will read primary sources written by four black women—Ida B. Wells, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Charlotte Forten, and Emilie Davis—to determine some of the issues that they were facing and how these issues have changed since then (or in other words, are black women still writing about the same issues today that they were during the nineteenth-century). Students should keep their blog notes close by so that they can compare their final list to those notes.
  2. Lecture: provide a brief overview of each of the four women and an overview of the free black community. If time permits, have each student log into the Oxford African American Studies Center to read each of the biographies in depth.
  3. Refer the students to the Words and Phrases list. Go through the list with them and then take time to answer any clarifying questions that they may have.
  4. Next, hand out a primary source package to each of the groups (the package should consist of selected writings from each of the women; see suggestions below) along with several copies of the Text Analysis Worksheet (every student should get their own sheet) and the PROP Worksheet.
  5. Independent Activity: tell the students to read through the Text Analysis Worksheet and fill out #1 in each box using the blog post that they focused on.
  6. Group Activity: after working independently, have one-two students share their responses and answer any follow-up questions. Students should then work together to discuss and complete items #2–#5, using the primary sources in their package. They should use the PROP Worksheet as a guide as they begin to analyze the primary sources.
  7. Tell the students they have 20–30 minutes to use their primary source package in order to complete items #2–#5. While they are working, circulate amongst the groups to make sure that they are spending time discussing the primary sources and working together to complete the Worksheet.

Part Four: Closure

Share-Out: at the end of the assignment, students should then share-out their findings and discuss how the writings (specifically the topics) of 19th Century women is different from or similar to the blog entries that they have studied over the last couple of days.

Extension Activities

  1. Students can select one of the 19th Century women and create a blog with her text and her biography.
  2. Students can create and keep a classroom diary for three days. Once everyone has had an opportunity to write in the diary, it should be copied, discussed (and analyzed), and then given to each class member.
  3. The class should be split into two groups, one representing 19th Century women and one representing 21st Century women, and stage a debate on some of the topics that the women discuss in their writings (issues that include friendships, relationships, lynching, and abolitionism).

Further Reading

Decosta-Willis. Miriam, ed. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman, with a foreword by Mary Helen Washington. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995.

Forten, Charlotte L. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

McMurray, Linda O. To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Whitehead, Kaye Wise. Emilie Davis: Her Life, In Her Own Words. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013 (forthcoming).

The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson V. 2, ed Gloria T. Hull. New York: Oxford University Press US, 1988.


(If necessary, primary source excerpts can be shortened, or other documents can be collected from the Further Reading list above.)

Emilie F. Davis

Oh, if I had a kind friend
A friend that I could trust
It would be a source of joy to me
To know that I was blest

With one in whom I could confide
My secrets hopes and fears
And who would not in coldness turn
From me in furture years

But, oh I fear I never shall
Have that consoling thought
To help me on through lifes cold stream
Though very close I've sought

To find this jewel of a friend
That poets so applaud
And as I have not found one yet
I fear it is all a fraud.


Saturday, April 15, 1865
Very sad news was received this morning of the murder of the President. The city is in deep morning. We were at meeting of the assassination. We decided to postpone the hour.
*Emilie was a member of the Ladies Union Association of Philadelphia, which was formed For the Purpose of Administering Exclusively to the Wants of the Sick and Wounded Colored Soldiers.
†President Lincoln died from complications from his gunshot wounds and Andrew Johnson was inaugurated as the 17th president of the U.S.


Sunday, April 16, 1865
Very fine day. Everyone seems to partake of the solemnity of the times. Doctor Jones spoke for us.


Monday, April 17, 1865
To day was set apart for a general holiday but seems to be a day of mourning. I went to Mr. Livelys* then to school. Working was not very likely.
* Addison Lively was born in Virginia around 1820 and was Emilie's guitar teacher.


Tuesday, April 18, 1865
Nothing special on hand to day. I had meeting at eight. Very good meeting. After meeting Nellie* and (I) went to Sarah Shims. Vincent** invisible.
*Although Nellie was Emilie's closest friend and is mentioned more than 150 times in the diary, I have been unable to locate any background information on Nellie —perhaps Nellie was a nickname?
**Vincent was Emilie's suitor from 1863–1865. Although he was her suitor and is mentioned more than 70 times in the diary, I have been unable to locate any background information on him.
†Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Sherman near Durham in North Carolina.


Wednesday, April 19, 1865
To day is a general holiday. The churches are open and the day has every appearance of Sunday. The President is concidered buried to day. I was out in the afternoon. We did not have church, Mr. Gibbs* being away. Vincent was up a little while, as usal.
*Reverend Jonathan Gibbs was the fourth pastor of First African. He was officially installed on January 29, 1860 and served until 1865. Prior to working at First African, Gibbs was the pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York and had attended the 1858 Second Presbyterian and Congregational Convention in Philadelphia.


Thursday, April 20, 1865
Everything with a solemn afect. The streets look mournful. The people are sad. I went to Mr. Livelys in the afternoon. I did not get far for from it. Rained all the afternoon and evening. I spent the evening with Nell.


Friday, April 21, 1865
Cloudy and very dork (dark) morning. The funeral procession pass through tomorrow. I have not bin out to day. I am tired of the st(reet). Vincent was up this evening, He is so full of business.


Saturday, April 22, 1865
Lovely morning. To(day) is the day long to be remembered. I have bin very busy all morning. The President comes in town this afternoon. I went out about 3 in the afternoon. It was the grandest funeral I ever saw. The coffin and hearse was beautiful.
†President Lincoln's body laid in state at Independence Hall. The line of mourners stretched three miles from the Schuykill to the Delaware River.


Sunday, April 23, 1865
This morning (I) went down to see the President but could not for the crowd. Mr. Robinson spoke for us in the afternoon, Very interesting sermon, after church, Vincent and I tried to get to see the President. I got to see him after waiting four hours and a half. It was actually a sight worth seeing.


Ida B. Wells

The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance.
—Ida B. Wells, "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases" (1892)


Booker T. Washington made a great mistake in imagining that black people could gain their rights merely by making themselves factors in industrial life.
—Ida B. Wells


Again, the white women of the North came South years ago, threaded the forests, visited the cabins, taught the schools and associated only with the Negroes whom they came to teach, and had no protectors near at hand. They had no charge or complaint to make of the danger to themselves after association with this class of human beings. Not once has the country been shocked by such recitals from them as come from the women who are surrounded by their husbands, brothers, lovers and friends. If the Negro's nature is bestial, it certainly should have proved itself in one of these two instances. The Negro asks only justice and an impartial consideration of these facts.
—Ida B. Wells , "Mob Rule in New Orleans"


Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves in Jacksonville, Fla., and Paducah, Ky, and prevented it. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.


The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.
—Ida B. Wells, "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases"


Alice Dunbar Nelson

No race can rise higher than its women is an aphorism that is so trite that it has ceased to be tiresome from its very monotony. If it might be phrased otherwise to catch the attention of the Negro woman, it would be worth while making the effort. No race can be said to be a growing race, whose birth rate is declining, and whose natural rate of increase is dropping sharply. No race will amount to anything economically, no matter how high the wages it collects nor how many commercial enterprises it supports, whose ownership of homes has not kept proportionate pace with its business holdings. Churches, social agencies, schools and Sunday schools cannot do the work of mothers and heads of families. Their best efforts are as cheering and comforting to the soul of a child in comparison with the welcoming smile of the mother when it comes from school as the machine-like warmth of an incubator is to the chick after the downy comfort of a clucking hen. Incubators are an essential for the mass production of chickens, but the training of human souls needs to begin at home in the old-fashioned family life, augmented later, if necessary, in the expensive schools and settlements of the great cities.
—Alice Dunbar Nelson, "Woman's Most Serious Problem"


I have served on boards and committees of schools, institutions, projects. I have seen the chairmen, or those with appointing power, look at me apologetically, and name someone whom they knew and I knew was unfit for a place, where I could have best helped and worked. But they did not dare be accused of partiality on account of color. I have had my offers of help in charity affairs refused, or if accepted grudgingly, credit withheld or services forgotten. I have been turned down by my own race far more often than many a brown-skinned person has been similarly treated by the white race. I have been snubbed and ostracized with subtle cruelties that I am safe to assert have hardly been duplicated by the experiences of dark people in their dealings with Caucasians. I say more cruel, for I have been foolishly optimistic enough to expect sympathy, understanding and help from my own people—and that I receive rarely outside of individuals of my own or allied complexion.

As if there is not enough stupid cruelty among my own, I have had to suffer at the hands of white people because of my likeness to them. On two occasions when I was seeking a position, I was rejected because I was "too white," and not typically racial enough for the particular job. Once when I was employed in a traveling position during the war, I came into headquarters from a particularly exhausting trip through the South. There I had twice been put off Jim Crow cars, because the conductor insisted that I was a white woman, and three times refused food in the dining-car, because the colored waiters, "tipped off" the white stewards. When I reached headquarters I found three of my best so-called brown skinned friends protesting against sending me out to work among my own people because I looked too much like white.
—Alice Dunbar Nelson, "Brass Ankles Speaks"


Charlotte Forten Grimké

The long, dark night of the past with all its sorrows and its fears was forgotten; and for the future — the eyes of these freed children see no clouds in it. It is full of sunlight, they think, and they trust in it, perfectly.
Charlotte Forten


"Monday, October 23, 1854: I will spare no effort to prepare myself well for the responsible duties of a teacher, and to live for the good I can do my oppressed and suffering fellow creatures."
—Charlotte Forten, diary entry


"Sunday, January 18, 1856: But oh, how inexpressibly bitter and agonizing it is to feel oneself an outcast from the rest of mankind, as we are in this country! To me it is dreadful, dreadful. Oh, that I could de much towards bettering our condition. I will do all, all the very little that lies in my power, while life and strength last!"
—Charlotte Forten, diary entry


"Wednesday, November 5, 1862: Had my first regular teaching experience, and to you and you only friend beloved, will I acknowledge that it was not a very pleasant one."
—Charlotte Forten, diary entry


"Thursday, November 13, 1862: Talked to the children a little while to-day about the noble Toussaint [L'Ouverture]. They listened very attentively. It is well that they should know what one of their own color could do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition (of a noble sort), and high purpose."
—Charlotte Forten, diary entry


"The first day of school was rather trying. Most of my children are very small, and consequently restless. But after some days of positive, though not severe, treatment, order was brought out of chaos. I never before saw children so eager to learn."
—Charlotte Forten, Life on the Sea Islands, 1864


"I shall dwell again among 'mine own people.'" I shall gather my scholars about me, and see smiles of greeting break over their dusky faces. My heart sings a song of thanksgiving, at the thought that even I am permitted to do something for a long-abused race, and aid in promoting a higher, holier, and happier life on the Sea Islands."
—Charlotte Forten, Life on the Sea Islands, 1864

"Text Analysis" Worksheets

Text Description

Restate the text in your own words in one–two sentences.

Text Research Questions

  1. What phrases and words catch your attention?
  2. What was the author's purpose in writing the article?
  3. What important historical information does this source provide?
  4. Do you think this article/letter/entry accurately represents the situation or is it biased?
  5. What is the author's reason for writing this article/letter/entry?
  6. If you were able to ask the author one question, what would it be?

PROP: Evaluating Viewpoints

Source: O'Reilly, Kevin. Evaluating Viewpoints: Critical Thinking in United States History Series - Book Four: Spanish American War-Vietnam War. Midwest Publications: Critical Thinking Press and Software, 1991. Pg. 3.

P: Is it a primary (eyewitness) or secondary (not an eyewitness) source? Primary sources are invariably more desirable. To reach valid conclusions, you need to realize the importance of primary sources and gather as many as possible to use as evidence in an argument. You should depend on secondary sources, like encyclopedias or history tests, only when primary sources are unavailable.

R: If the source is a person, does he or she have any reason to distort the evidence? Would those giving the statement, writing the document, recording the audio (or video), or identifying the object benefit if the truth were distorted, covered up, falsified, sensationalized, or manipulated? Witnesses with no reason to distort the evidence are more desirable than those who might benefit from a particular presentation of the evidence.

O: Are there other witnesses, statements, recordings, or evidence which report the same data, information, or knowledge? Having other evidence verify the initial evidence strengthens the argument.

P: Is it a public or private statement? If the person making the statement of evidence knew or intended that other people should hear it, then it is a public statement. A private statement may be judged more accurate because it was probably said in confidence and is, therefore more likely to reflect the speaker's true feelings or observations.