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Mary Bowser’s secrets come to life at African American Museum and Library

on July 31, 2012

On Saturday, residents gathered at the African American Museum and Library (AAMLO) in downtown Oakland to hear the story of a former slave who spied on the Confederate government during the Civil War.  Award-winning author Lois Leveen read from her book The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel that combines historical information about Bowser while weaving those facts into a work of historical fiction about the life of a spy in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the time when “freedom” was a new concept for blacks in America.

Laveen was invited to share her work at AAMLO because of the library’s ongoing work in educating the public about the Civil War, said chief curator and executive director Rick Moss. “AAMLO was one of the institutions that had an ongoing program with the American Libraries Association and National Endowment for the Humanities called ‘Let’s Talk About It: The American Civil War,’” he said.

Leveen holds a degree in history and literature from Harvard University, an M.A. in English from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in English with a specialty in African American literature from UCLA.She is a former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College and resides in Portland, Oregon.

On Saturday, Leveen began her Oakland talk by asking how many in the audience were present because they liked African American history, were interested in the Civil War or because they like historical fiction. The latter won the vote, when almost all hands in the room went up.

“What is it about the Civil War that is so compelling for Americans?” Leveen asked. “It’s the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a fact in history that no one seems to care about,” she added, smiling as the audience laughed.

“Nothing is has been settled and so it continues,” offered one woman in the audience about why Americans are so fascinated with the Civil War.

“It was one of the most defining—if not the most defining—moment in American history as far as race relations,” said another woman.

“I think race relations and the way that those overlap are supposed to be the principles on which this nation is founded,” Leveen said.

Laveen’s book, as she explained it, is not only about history, but about relationships and how people define themselves and others. The real Mary Bowser, born in 1839, was a slave who was freed by her owner, the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, and sent away to school, an act virtually unheard-of during that time. According to historical records, after graduating Bowser returned to her home in Virginia where she embarked upon a campaign with Lew to outwit the Confederate army. Bowser lived in the home of President Jefferson Davis as a domestic servant.

Lew knew that Bowser had a photographic memory. She also counted on the fact that as a servant working in the president’s home she would go unnoticed. Bowser—pretending to be dim-witted and uneducated—set about gathering intelligence. Reading the documents left unattended in the president’s home, she memorized information and passed it along to Lew, who in turn made sure Union representatives received it.

“Slavery was predicated on the idea—the false belief—that blacks were incapable of intelligence, “ Leveen said. “To use that stereotype and to feign ignorance in order to become an intelligence agent was so powerful.”

Leveen emphasized to the audience that she wanted to capture what it was like to be black in during this time in history. Laveen’s presentation was very interactive, with audience members asking questions about the research involved in writing the book. But Laveen said there was not much documentation to draw from, as papers and other information about Bowser’s life had been lost, destroyed or thrown away.

She talked about the life she gave Bowser in the book and her relationship with her family—at one point Bowser, realizes that in order to remain a free woman, she must leave her home and her family. Although her role as a spy was important to her, so was her relationship with her family and with Lew, the woman responsible for her freedom, as presented by Laveen in the book

Laveen also asked audience members to list what they consider when they think about slavery.

“No property, no marriage, no literacy,” said a lady near the back of the room.

“So, no education, no legal marriage,” Leveen said. “No rights whatsoever.”

“Can’t go where you want when you want to,” said a gentlemen in the last row.

“No freedom of movement,” Leveen agreed.

“No respect,” said another lady.

“No freedom of speech,” said a woman in the front of the room.

As the discussion began to wind down, Leveen showed a partially blurred photo of Bowser. She said it was interesting that you could see her image, yet she remains indescribable, her features not quite defined in the image. “I like the idea that she keeps her own secret,” Leveen said. “She told the secrets that she needed to tell, but she kept the secrets that she wanted to keep.”

After the presentation concluded, Moss invited the audience to stay for drinks and cake and said that Leveen would be signing copies of her book. Almost immediately, several people moved in her direction to introduce themselves and to ask more questions about Bowser.

Audience member Karen Stroud lives nearby and visits AAMLO quite a bit. She tapped her finger on a signed copy of the book she’d just purchased. “Today, I learned something I didn’t know,” she said. “I was an African American Studies major in college and I never knew of Mary Bowser. It is a very fascinating story. She is the original spook who sat by the door.”

Therese Houer read the book before the event and came to see Leveen because she thought the novel was marvelous. “I am thrilled the book is out,” she said. “It is a warm human story. [Leveen] was thoroughly engaging and her knowledge of and her total embrace of the subject [the Civil War] was impressive.”

Veda Silva, the coordinator for the museum’s projects and one of the library’s curators, said it was a pleasure to host the event. “We love to have our authors here, especially if has something to do with some of the projects we already have in place,” she said. “We just finished the Civil War project here, so it was perfect timing.”

Silva chatted for a bit about the works currently on display and gave the visitors an overview of the history of the museum. “This is such a beautiful building with fantastic exhibits and these amazing resources just to encourage people to learn more about African American history,” Leveen said as she looked around at the installations in the museum. “In some ways it is the perfect place to tell this story.”

Laveen said that for a future project she would like to write another historical fiction novel based in another time and in another country. “There is another footnote from history that I started working on,” Leveen said. “Somebody about whom everybody has heard but no one really knows anything about this person’s life. It’s going to be a very interesting book one day.”

But for now, her book on Mary Bowser is finished but the work of telling the public about Bowser has just begun. “It’s really about how to take power of this story and connect as many people to it as possible,” Leveen said. “I think people need to know —and not end with Mary Bowser, but to have Mary Bowser sort of open an interest into this kind of history.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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