Clarissa Lawrence of Salem

The intertwined histories of Salem’s African-American community and Abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century are often referenced and represented by the work of two strong women, Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894), both born into families that were free, prosperous, and ardent advocates of abolition. Charlotte was a Philadelphia girl who came north to receive an integrated education in Salem: she graduated from the Higginson and Salem Normal Schools and became the first African-American to be hired to teach white students in a Salem public school when she accepted an appointment at the Epes School on Aborn Street. While in Salem she lived with the Remonds and became an active member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, and thereafter her continued advocacy for abolition was expressed primarily through her writing and her teaching, especially during her experience as a teacher of formerly enslaved children on the Union-occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina during the Civil War. Sarah Remond was a Salem native who followed in her parents’ and brother Charles’ footsteps in her dedication to the cause of abolition: she gave her first public speech for the cause when she was a teenager and was appointed a traveling lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society when she was twenty. In late 1858 she sailed for Britain to expose the horrors of slavery to a country which had close economic ties to the South, and delivered 45 lectures in the next few years, all of which attracted considerable crowds and press coverage–both abroad in the United States. Sarah never returned to Salem: after her citizenship status was questioned by the United States government upon her departure for Paris, she decided, in effect, to renounce it: she remained in Britain for several years, lecturing and taking classes at the Bedford College for Women, and then left for Italy after the Civil War.There she remained for the rest of her life, completing her medical degree, marrying, and entertaining family and friends from home.

There’s a lot more to say, and a lot more has been said, about both Charlette Forten Grimké and Sarah Parker Remond, but I’m interested in another African-American woman from Salem today: older, much lesser-known, but also an educator and an abolitionist: Clarissa Lawrence, also known as Chloe Minns, or “Mrs. Minns”. Her origins are obscure: we hear of her only in the Reverend William Bentley’s chatty diary when she is hired to run Salem’s first black public school in 1807. A “mulattoe” woman who could read but not write at the time of her appointment, Bentley is increasingly impressed with her as time goes by: every time he visits the “African School” on “Roast Meat Hill” he notes its “good order”. After he and Salem’s treasurer conducted a tour of all of Salem’s public schools in 1809 he observed that “In south Salem we found 40 children not provided with the best instruction. The African School by Mrs. Minns, 30 blacks, was better kept & several blacks repeated their hymns with great ease and propriety.” After the Reverend officiated at Mrs. Minns’ marriage to Schuyler Lawrence (her third, his second) in 1817 he commented that she “has acquitted herself with great honour, as to her manners & as to her instructions” and opined that the Lawrences were “the first grade of Africans in all our New England towns”. They settled on High Street, 8 High Street to be precise, where his seemingly-successful chimney-sweeping business was also located. She continued to teach (until 1823) and also held leadership positions in both the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem. She cast off “Chloe Minns” (a name given to her in slavery?) and became Clarissa Lawrence, or Mrs. Lawrence. Like Charlotte Forten, she combined the causes of free education for blacks and abolition into an engaging appeal, and (two years after Forten was born in Philadelphia) traveled to that city to address the third national convention of the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society, asking her mostly white audience to “place yourselves, dear friends, in our stead”, and observing that “We meet the monster prejudice everywhere….We cannot elevate ourselves….We want light; we ask it, and it is denied us, Why are we thus treated? Prejudice is the cause.”

And that’s all I know about Clarissa Lawrence, which is just not enough. Compared to the well-charted lives of Forten and Remond, hers is relatively marker-less, especially her early life. The divergent circumstances of birth, wealth, and family created different paths for these three women, but the existence of slavery led them to a common place. I am writing about Clarissa today because I unexpectedly came upon a fruit of her labors yesterday, a beautiful sampler produced by one of her students in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. Sarrah Ann Pollard’s sampler, produced at the “Clarrisa Lawrence School” in 1818, bears the inscription: virtue the [the] chief beauty of the ornament mind the nob/lest virtue of the female kind beauty without virtu[e] is [no value]. And now I’m wondering if I’ve even spelled “Clarissa” Lawrence’s name correctly, the way she would have wanted it.

Clarissa Lawrence School Sampler CWC

Clarrisa Lawrence School Sampler detail CWC

High StreetFramed Sampler by Sarrah [Sarah] Ann Pollard, 1818, Salem, Massachusetts. Collections of Colonial Williamsburg. 8 High Street, Salem: the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Schuyler Lawrence.


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