Badass American History: Mary Bowser

It’s funny what I remember from my pre-college educational experience. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget an American government teacher who described in great detail how ball bearings would eventually be made in space, or an American history teacher who pointed out that one of the Cold War targets of a nuclear attack was right next door to my hometown, or how my fifth grade English teacher complimented one line of one poem that I wrote, to the point that I still remember that opening stanza.

I’m pretty sure I recall nothing of trigonometry.

And seeing how it’s February, I can remember how even back in elementary school it puzzled me that every year we studied the same few notable people during Black History Month. I mean, there’s no escaping the fact that Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks were all giants, and worthy of recognition. And as I got older, Malcolm X was thrown into the mix, as well as excerpts from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the movie Glory. I’m just saying that my studies were a bit narrow in scope.

Fortunately, it’s 2016 and the internet exists in far more splendor than it did in 1998, so educational sites such as Tumblr have helped filled in the gaps of my early education. And before you say Tumblr isn’t at all educational, let me tell you that it introduced me to the badass slave turned free woman turned Union spy, Mary Bowser.

Bowser was born into slavery, which is ridiculous in and of itself, to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. Upon the patriarch’s death, his surviving family freed his slaves. Bowser remained with the Van Lew household, however, working as a servant only now she was presumably paid for her work.

Elizabeth Van Lew noticed the girl’s intelligence and sent her off for an education, and while the details are murky, it was more than likely a Quaker school in Philadelphia, and it seems she left the country for a while to be a missionary, was miserable, and eventually returned to the family, and became a huge asset to Elizabeth’s military intelligence efforts for the Union.

See Mary Bowser chose to return to slavery in order to spy for the Union. And she did so in the somewhat important household of one Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Given the idea that people didn’t expect slaves to be educated and generally disregarded their presence as long as they fulfilled their duties, Bowser was able to gather information and report it undetected for quite some time. She was also said to have had a photographic memory, so her location gave her access to documents that no one in the house would have suspected she could even read.

When suspicion finally fell on Bowser, she was able to flee, and she may have attempted to burn down the Confederate White House as a final act on her way out. Whether that’s merely legend or has some root in fact we’ll probably never know, because many of the records regarding spies were destroyed for the protection of the spies and their families in a post-war nation that was still very much in a state of unrest.

In 1995 Mary Bowser was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, and finally recognized for her work. Yet I’d never heard of her until someone on Tumblr decided to post about this incredibly brave woman who was willing to forsake her freedom and risk her life to report from the very heart of the Confederacy.

History is full of such stories that get lost in time, or even right after the fact. And with textbooks attempting to rewrite history to make it sound less ugly, we risk losing even more. However, I mostly wanted to share this story because I think Mary Bowser was a total badass, and worthy of recognition.

 

Sources or it didn’t happen:

One. Two. Three.

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I am my Mother’s Daughter

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My mom, well before she was my mom. Clearly.

When I was a kid, first learning about the Civil War in school, my mom dropped a bombshell on me. “Your grandmother worked for Abraham Lincoln,” she told me, suggesting that I ask her what it was like working for the President. I was astounded. I may not have known the term “primary source” at that age, or for that matter had any concept of time whatsoever, but I sure wanted to know what the White House was like.

So, at my mother’s urging, I asked my grandma for her own recollections of the time. And that went about as well as you would expect it to when you ask a woman to personally recall a time period over 120 years prior to the current date. What I remember most though was being disappointed that I wasn’t going to hear a firsthand account. I imagine I was probably excited when I asked, only to have that enthusiasm fade very, very quickly.

* * *

Of course, for having been so willing to age my grandma by quite a bit, my mom wasn’t so eager to age herself. I was taught as a child that if anyone asked me how old she was, I was to say 28 and leave it at that. We practiced.

“How old am I?” she asked.

“28 and leave it at that!” I dutifully replied, a little smartass in the making.

I have since learned how time works.

* * *

I suppose I was a gullible child. I mean, my mom did have me referring to her as “Beautiful Mommie Dearest” for quite some time during my youth.

We would be at the grocery store, and if I asked if we could get some cookies, I had a much better chance of those cookies ending up in the cart if I phrased the question, “Can we get some cookies please, beautiful mommie dearest?” I have no idea what other people thought when they heard me, or my sister, or my childhood best friend referring to my mom as such, but the experience taught me two important things about my mother:

  1. My mom has a twisted sense of humor.
  2. My mom can be a very, very patient woman.

I didn’t learn who the Mommie Dearest was until I was in college, at least ten years after the idea had first popped into my mom’s head to have us call her that. I came home one weekend, absolutely boggling at the revelation.

“Mom, do you know who Joan Crawford was?” I asked, rather naively. And my mother, who had waited a decade, finally got to see the look of abject horror cross my face as I realized that yes, my mom did know all about Mommie Dearest.

Once I saw the humor in it, my mom reached legendary status in my eyes.

* * *

I’ve inherited that quirky, twisted sense of humor, something that I’ve always been grateful for. I’d like to believe I’m slightly less gullible these days, but if there’s anyone who can get me going for a while, it’s my mom.

A few years ago, while maintaining an old blog of mine, I suggested to my mom that she start blogging. Eventually she decided to, and now she keeps her own blog going as she researches our family history. (It’s sadly lacking in stories of my grandmother working for the Great Emancipator, however.) Her blog has well outlasted my previous one, and the other day, as I was rambling on about how I was getting ready to play fantasy soccer for the first time, and my criteria for choosing the players who will be on my team when the season starts, my mom said, “You should really blog about that.”

And so I will, now that I’ve started a new blog.

Also, today is my mom’s birthday. Happy birthday, Mom!

She’s 28, and we’ll just leave it at that.