By Renee Bunszel
Gertrude Bustill Mossell, also known as Mrs. N. F. Mossell, was a prolific and ground-breaking nineteenth-century journalist and a member of Philadelphia’s Black elite. In 1855, she was born into a prominent African American family in Philadelphia whose ancestors gained freedom as early as the 1700s (Steitmatter 318). Dating back generations, her family was extremely politically active; for example, her father was involved in the Underground Railroad (Wright 96). Although she lost her mother at a young age, her father pushed her to further her childhood literacy by reading the Bible and literature. She earned her education through public schools and the Institute for Colored Youth (Steitmatter 318). The Insitute was central to Black community life when Mossell attended and aimed to train more Black woman educators (Wright 96). These early childhood experiences likely contributed to her later calls for better education and literacy for Black children. Mossell was only 16 years old when a speech she gave at school launched her journalism career; she soon began publishing essays and poems in newspapers (Steitmatter 318-319). This was the beginning of her extremely successful career as a journalist, which later led to authorial and activist pursuits. In the 1870s, she juggled teaching in Philadelphia and New Jersey with writing at newspapers like the Philadelphia Echo and the Philadelphia Independent (Steitmatter 319). In addition to writing for these newspapers, she expanded to the New York Freeman/New York Age, served as the women’s editor for the Indianapolis World, and wrote for a plethora of magazines like Woman’s Era and Colored American Magazine (Steimatter 319). Rather than completely giving up her career after becoming a wife and mother, she incorporated these themes into her writing. Remarkably, she was making a lot of money for a woman of any race and was “the highest-paid black newspaperwoman at the time” (Wright 98). Her ability to greatly contribute to her family’s financial stability and success likely influenced her writings, as she frequently advocated for other Black women to pursue careers and support their families and communities. This points to a rhetoric of racial uplift in which Mossell encouraged middle-class, well-educated women to further the success of Black Americans as a whole. This theme, which I will dissect later, carries across many of her journalistic and literary works.
Mossell’s column, “Our Woman’s Department,” stands out as a significant accomplishment in her career. This appeared in several newspapers, most notably The New York Freeman, and aimed to give practical advice to women and mothers, particularly Black women. This was “the first woman’s column in the history of the African American press” (Steitmatter 320). Although this column has not been critically examined by enough scholars, Nazera Sadiq Wright argues that its promotion of “models of public citizenship that widened the boundaries of black female purposefulness in the postbellum period,” makes it an important site of study (Wright 94). Through this column, we begin to glimpse the keen awareness Mossell had of the particular struggles faced by Black women. For example, she experienced the high mortality rates of Black children firsthand; childcare and health became a common theme of her writing (Steitmatter 321). Additionally, “Pragmatism and frugality were consistent themes in Mossell’s household tips as she attempted to teach newly emancipated Black women how to lead a comfortable life, while economizing at the same time” (Streitmatter 321). Mossell also utilized her voice and column to push for reform, championing women’s rights and suffrage (Streitmatter 324). Wright argues that the inclusion and placement of the column in The New York Freeman “suggests that domestic activities, the politics of the nation, and current events of the world would not have been viewed as mutually exclusive” (Wright 99). This refuses the minimization of domestic issues while tying them to the political realm. Therefore, women were encouraged to consume and become involved in politics, while men were able to read domestic advice as well. Although she held special praise for Black mothers, she also pushed women to expand into politics and new careers, particularly journalism (Steitmatter 324).
Her first book was published in 1894 and is titled The Work of the Afro-American Woman . This covers Black women’s leadership and careers, specifically highlighting Black women writers. However, she also “goes on to establish black women’s presence in and contributions to all areas of US society” (Moody-Turner 250). In a different vein, her second book was a short children’s story called Little Dansie’s One Day at Sabbath School, published in 1902. This tragic story sees a young African American girl in Georgia die after trying to rescue her teacher from an oncoming train during her first day of school. Recovering these stories and Mossell’s other writing provides telling insights about the intersections of class, race, and gender. Beyond her historical significance and contributions to fighting Black women’s oppression, I have included Mossell on the wish list because of her engagement on subjects of racial exclusion, including direct discussion of the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair in The Work of the Afro-American Woman. Her critical consideration of World’s Fairs and anger over Black people’s exclusion from projects highlighting Americans’ accomplishments, make her a necessary figure for our recovery project.
Exclusion, Travel, & the World’s Fair
There is no indication that Mossell, a Northerner, would have been present at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. However, the journalistic success she saw during that period and her authorial pursuits to come, mark her as a prominent woman writer of this time. Of course, because of the prejudice of its creators, she would have been excluded from the Woman’s Department regardless. Her discussion of similar exclusions and the Chicago World’s Fair less than 10 years later, provide insight and allow for some careful contemplation of how Black women writers may have reacted to or resisted such an exclusion. In a short letter to the editor of “Editors, Moulders of Public Opinion,” Mossell demands: “Put the Colored Editors In.” She recalls coming across the list and first checking if any women appeared on it; indeed, two women editors were present (“Put the Colored Editors In”). Her emphasis that she, “being a woman,” looked for someone representing her gender first rather than her race speaks to her desire for all women to succeed in battling their mutual oppression (“Put the Colored Editors In”). This points to why Black women may have wanted to be a part of the Woman’s Department rather than the Colored Department; not only would it expand what “woman” meant at that time, but showcase their commonalities experienced by being a woman in a patriarchal society. However, the women included as molders of public opinion were white, and no Black editors were present on the list. This stark lack of representation irked Mossell, as she knew there were “several [Black editors] who deserve this honor,” particularly T. Thomas Fortune of The New York Freeman and the editors of The Christian Recorder (“Put the Colored Editors In”). This exclusion is especially bothersome when it comes to the “Southern Question” that included only white opinions (“Put the Colored Editors In”). This privileging of white voices in key political and historical questions likely contributed to Mossell’s desire to create “a national Negro historical society,” (Kachun 305). Black Americans could not rely on white people to preserve and safeguard their historical artifacts as it could risk attempts to erase the slave past and oppressive present (Kachun 305). The aforementioned exclusions, though targeted at African Americans of all genders, resemble that of the New Orleans Fair’s Women’s Department. Mossell’s persistent advocation for Black historical accounts indicates the need to centralize Black voices in a society that would erase them from the record altogether.
We know that Mossell was aware of the New Orleans World’s Fair and highly concerned with the Chicago World’s Fair from her chapter “Our Afro-American Representatives at The World’s Fair,” in The Work of the Afro-American Woman. She speaks to the unfulfilled desire of African Americans to be represented in the Chicago Fair’s National Committee; instead, they gained only state representation (The Work 104). She runs through the appointees, the creation of a Woman’s Committee for Pennsylvania, and her excitement for the achievements of her various Black peers. She also speaks directly of Fannie Barrier Williams and her work at the New Orleans Fair: “At the New Orleans Exposition some years ago her pieces on exhibition were the theme of many favorable criticisms by visiting artists. In conversation Mrs. Williams is delightfully vivacious and pungent and displays an easy familiarity with the best things in our language” (The Work 111). This connection between Williams and Mossell displays the interconnected nature of the 19th-century Black literary scene, which can be traced in multiple ways to the New Orleans World’s Fair.
The socio-political landscape of Louisiana during the World’s Fair is critical to understand when considering Black women’s real or hypothetical presence. Although it is important not to glorify the North or place it in a binary against the South, thus erasing the oppression still present in places like Philadelphia, we can also acknowledge the extreme violence and threat against Black lives in the Southern states during this time. The horrible racism in the South is represented by the “mass exodus from Louisiana in 1879, thousands of newly freed men and women left the South” (Steittmatter 317). This was only 5 years before the New Orleans World’s Fair; thus, beyond the exclusions faced by Black women, there was also rampant segregation, violence, and discrimination undoubtedly present at the fair. Even in the North, Mossell was aware of the difficulties of being a Black woman in the public sphere. In her column, she denied narratives that Black women were occupying “too much space,” instead speaking on experiences of indivisibility when alongside white women unconcerned with her comfort or well-being (Wright 113). These realities reflect the danger faced by Black women like Mossell when traveling. In her column, Mossell spoke about her confrontations with segregation and racial prejudice from law enforcement when traveling to New Jersey and Delaware (Streittmatter 323). In these unjust situations, Mossell describes resisting the racist policies and practicing “civil disobedience,” encouraging her readers to do the same (Streeittmatter 323). Mossell, and likely women like her, not only resisted oppression and pushed for reform in her writing but also in her daily life. Although there is no tangible evidence of Black women writers’ resistance to their exclusion from the Woman’s Department, we cannot assume that it didn’t exist.
True Womanhood & Racial Uplift
The designation of the “Woman’s Department” prompts the question of what the category of woman entailed within the context of the 19th century. This was the period when the “cult of true womanhood” defined much of what it meant to be a woman in America, that is, a white woman. This “emphasized innocence, modesty, piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Perkins 18). Like the department, this category excluded Black women. During the dehumanization of slaves, Black women were not seen as human, much less as women. This devaluation of Black womanhood carried into the postbellum period, where Black women were seen as falling short of a constructed ideal of white femininity. Linda Perkins argues that while white women’s education focused on this idea of true womanhood, African Americans viewed education from a racial uplift angle: “this education was for the entire race and its purpose was to assist in the economical, educational and social improvement of their enslaved and later emancipated race” (Perkins 18). However, Mossell combines the rhetoric of true womanhood and racial uplift in her writing. She viewed the Black Press as, like education, critical for Black uplift and was constantly trying to improve conditions for Black journalists (Streittmatter 317). By showcasing their talents and calling for reform, Black writing could make a difference in the rights and treatment African Americans received. The Black Press and Black journalists could also improve the “portrayal of African Americans,” in media overall (Streittmatter 323). With these aims in mind, we can look at the specific rhetoric Mossell used to speak to other Black women. She opened her column with these words: “The aim of this column will be to promote true womanhood, especially that of the African race. All success, progress or need of our women will be given prompt mention” (Streittmatter 321). By evoking “true womanhood” Mossell resists the notion that Black women belong outside of this category, but also reaffirms the idealization of a certain type of femininity, as defined above. She encouraged her readers to adopt this model of true womanhood by preaching modesty and manners for girls and praising mothers above all (Streittmatter 322). Women whom she sees as embodying the ideals of true womanhood include the Fair’s representatives. She describes Florence A. Lewis as representing “the symmetrical development and complete womanhood that it is possible for the Afro-American woman to attain under favoring circumstances” (The Work 107). She acknowledges the difficulty of striving for true womanhood under the constraints of racial and gendered oppression, but also evokes questions of class, as perhaps these things were more obtainable for this elite class of Northern Black women. She speaks about Fannie Barrier Williams similarly: “The life of this noble woman is being given to the uplifting of the girlhood of the race that needs, perhaps, more than any other in all this fair land, the guidance and fostering care of such a noble, Christian motherhood” (The Work 114). In her praise of Williams, she utilizes the concept of true womanhood and motherhood as a means of racial uplift. She also suggests as she does elsewhere, that it is the responsibility of elite Black women to elevate the lower classes of African Americans. Mossell’s words display how in touch she was with the rhetoric surrounding womanhood at the time. Although she essentializes womanhood and motherhood, she resists the historical exclusion of Black women from these categories.
Mossell also utilized her column to recenter young Black girls as important members of American society and the Black community. Speaking not only to adults but to girls, Mossell offered advice to prepare them to become productive members of society and learn self-protection techniques against employment inequities, violence, and oppression (Wright 95). The barriers to Black girls’ potential careers made this area of advice no easy feat. On one hand, Mossell depicted Black girls as vital for “the black home as a well-organized, industrious and egalitarian space in which black fathers, mothers, and children all had something to offer the community,” (Wright 102). This framing of the home suggests more equal involvement across a variety of fields rather than alignment with strict gender roles. Mossell encouraged these girls to work outside of the home. However, she also acknowledged the difficulties in obtaining satisfactory and well-paying jobs, as another area of exclusion was employment: “While industrialization was beginning to open new doors for white women, black female workers were being crowded into the lowest-paying and lowest-status work” (Wright 104). Mossell did not, however, look down on domestic work. In fact, she frequently advised domestic workers on workplace protections and believed in their importance to the community’s advancement (Wright 105). Mossell did not practice the same exclusionary measures as the Women’s Department and ensured that women across many fields and domestic positions were included in her book, The Work of the Afro-American Woman.
Recovering Mossell & Black Women Writers
Although Gertrude Bustill Mossell was an important figure in the Black elite, journalism and literary fields, and reform movements, her name is rarely mentioned in history. Instead, she and many other Black women writers have been erased from the record. While there is a comparatively vast number of primary sources and scholarship available on her now, we can only imagine the number of Black women for whom this is not available. However, by using Mossell as either a synecdochal figure or by closely looking at her writings on Black women, we can begin to responsibly recover the work of more of these women. For example, Streittmatter points to other Black women journalists like Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin of Woman’s Era and Delilah L. Beasley of the Oakland Tribune whose experiences, along with Mossell’s, can help us imagine the work and lives of other Black women journalists. Additionally, Mossell’s The Work of the Afro-American Woman should be considered a key archival resource for recovery work. In her chapter, “Afro-American Literature,” she details the 19th Century Black literary scene and even provides an extensive list of Black writers working at that time. More Black women writers – like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, and Victoria Earle Matthews– can be recovered by working with Mossell’s writing. Additionally, her book provides information on Black women beyond the scope of the literary world. In including “names of journalists and editors, black women medical professionals, lawyers and artists, public servants, and even the unnamed multitudes of black women laborers whose work counts, even if their names are not known and recognized,” Mossel contributed to this vital documentation and recovery by making “a record for posterity, a call not to forget their names, an injunction to learn about them, to read their works, to learn about their contributions,” (Moody-Turner 250). We present Mossell and the other women on the Wish List as only a start to the recovery work that must be done and encourage others to take up the attentive research for these primary sources and Black women writers.
Kachun, Mitch. “Before the Eyes of All Nations: African-American Identity and Historical Memory at the Centennial Exposition of 1876.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 65, no. 3, 1998, pp. 300–23. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27774119. Accessed 3 May 2023.
Moody-Turner, Shirley. “Recovery: Nineteenth Century and Now.” Legacy, vol. 36, no. 2, 2019, pp. 249–52. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5250/legacy.36.2.0249. Accessed 3 May 2023.
Mossell, Gertrude Bustill. Little Dansie’s One Day at Sabbath School. Philander V. Baugh, 1902.
Mossell, Gertrude B. E. H. “Put the Colored Editors In.” The Christian Recorder, Vol. 27, no. 47, 1889.
Mossell, Gertrude Bustill. The Work of the Afro-American Woman. G. S. Ferguson, 1908, Philadelphia.
Perkins, Linda M. “The Impact of the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ on the Education of Black Women.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 39, no. 3, 1983, pp. 17–28.
Streitmatter, Rodger. “Gertrude Bustill Mossell: Guiding Voice for Newly Freed Blacks.” The Howard Journal of Communications, vol. 4, no. 4, 1993, pp. 317–28, https://doi.org/10.1080/10646179309359786.
Wright, Nazera Sadiq. “‘Teach Your Daughters’: Black Girlhood and Mrs. N. F. Mossell’s Advice Column in the New York Freeman.” Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press, 2016, pp. 93–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1hfr07t.7. Accessed 3 May 2023.