Black History Month: Mary Bowser

Black History Month: Mary Bowser


As many of you are aware February is Black History Month, a time where we celebrate, highlight, and bring awareness to the impact and achievements of black history and culture on a global scale. For our part, Abbey Research is dedicating a blog series to women of color who are leaders, innovators, and boundary breakers.


The Good Doctors are both social scientists, who understand that the intersection of race and gender means that women of color, as opposed to white women, have different experiences, stories, voices, and struggles. This month we will write about four women of color who have impacted our lives, our understandings, who are fierce and formidable leaders on their own paths. We’re making this an annual celebration, as last year we talked about Ava DuVernayNoma Dumezweni, Dr. Mae Jemison, and Oprah Winfrey.


This year we’re kicking off the month by celebrating Mary Bowser, the freed slave who infiltrated Jefferson Davis’ Confederate White House posing as a slave in order to spy.


This photo has long been assumed to be Mary Bowser, but some recent evidence says it may be another freed woman from Virginia. However, this is the photo you’ll see in all conversations about her, so we wanted you to see it!

We don’t know a ton about her early life, which is not surprising as she was born an enslaved person on the Richmond plantation of John van Lew. What we do know for sure is that when John died, his daughter Elizabeth inherited everything. She immediately freed all slaves and used other parts of the wealth to buy family members from other plantations and purchase land for families so they were not forced into sharecropping.


Bowser remained in van Lew’s house as a (paid) lady’s maid, and when van Lew realized Bowser’s incredible intellect, sent her to Philadelphia to be educated in a Quaker school. While all this was happening, the Civil War broke out and van Lew realized that she was in a unique position to enact real change. She started personally volunteering in hospitals and such, but when Bowser returned from Philadelphia, the two concocted a plan that would advance the abolitionist cause exponentially.


Quoting from All That’s Interesting:

With Van Lew’s assistance, Bowser was planted in the Confederate White House, the headquarters of the President of the Confederacy himself: Jefferson Davis. Due to the prejudices of the time, black servants such as Bowser were viewed more as furniture than employees, which meant people would largely ignore their presence. However, Bowser was clever enough to play on these prejudices, and exaggerated her role as a stupid servant, pretending to be much slower than she actually was.

As a result, guests took no care to mind what they said in front of her, nor did anyone imagine that Bowser was actually literate and could read confidential documents left out in the open.According to Thomas McNiven, a local baker who made deliveries to the Confederate White House while also acting as Bowser’s point of contact, Bowser also had a photographic memory and could repeat documents “word for word” when she relayed information to him.


Bowser ended up having to leave Davis’ house before the end of the war, but, according to President Grant, provided some of the most reliable and useful information to the Union of the entire war.


After the war, van Lew was shunned by Virginia society and by all accounts lived a quiet life until her death. Bowser opened a school for black children and freed slaves and in 1995 was posthumously inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.


We could think of no better lady to kick off our celebration of Black History Month than Mary Bowser. Join us next week for our celebration of filmmaker Julie Dash.


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