She deserves much, much wider attention.
Born in 1844 to Charles and Hannah Francis Highgate, probably in either Syracuse or Albany, New York, Edmonia Highgate was immersed in Black activism early. Her parents, for example, were friends of Jermain Loguen and Henry Highland Garnet, supporters of Samuel Ringgold Ward’s early Black newspaper (the Impartial Citizen), and acquaintances of white abolitionist Samuel Joseph May. A rare Black graduate of Syracuse High School (1861), Edmonia Highgate taught in both Montrose, Pennsylvania, and Binghamton, New York, after being denied a position in Syracuse because of her race. Like a number of young Black women teachers, Highgate felt the call of education efforts for the newly freed people of the South, applied to teach for the American Missionary Association, and was eventually posted in Norfolk, Virginia, with, among others, Recorder writer Sarah “Sallie” Daffin.
She taught in Norfolk for several months, and it was a life-changing experience. The conditions there, paired with the stress of desperately working to help folks who had been enslaved for their entire lives, eventually took a toll on Highgate, and she seems to have had a breakdown. Accompanied back to Syracuse by friends and nourished by family there, though, she recommitted herself to the struggle and, only weeks after returning home, addressed the 1864 National Convention of Colored Men. A year later, she was teaching in schools for newly freed people again, and her work would eventually take her as far South as New Orleans. During these years, she was thinking through both practices and philosophies of activism, and she began writing to the Recorder to share some of those thoughts (as well as broader news) in 1865.
One of Highgate’s pieces I’ve talked about most, her 3 November 1866 Recorder “On Horse Back—Saddle Dash, No. 1,” directly invokes Henry David Thoreau and a marked Transcendentalist sensibility. She places this thinking in dialogue with her experiences as a teacher in rural Louisiana, in the midst of seething “unreconstructed” Confederates who, Klan-like, fire shots when she is out riding.
But the way she got to rural Louisiana is just as frightening and worth remembering just as much. That story also found print in the Recorder.
In an event that echoed racist violence across the South and is now known as the New Orleans Massacre or the New Orleans Riot, on 30 July 1866, former Confederates active in Louisiana’s Democratic Party attacked folks who were attempting to reconvene the state constitutional convention (originally held in 1864). The conventioneers hoped to fight to extend voting rights and civil safeguards to African Americans in the face of a Democrat-controlled state legislature that was quickly moving to codify new Black codes. Dozens of people—mostly African Americans—were killed; many more were wounded. Images depicting the riot at the NYPL can be seen here and here.
Highgate, then teaching in New Orleans, was there, and, in a letter published in the 18 August 1866 Recorder titled “New Orleans Correspondence,” she described the events that would soon push her from the city.
The original appears as a single long paragraph. I’ve added paragraph breaks for readability.
For the Christian Recorder
MR. EDITOR:— During a lull in the grand saturnalia of blood I write you. Any reconstructionist who has fanatically believed Louisiana’s loyalty, beyond doubt has had demonstration to the contrary which would convince the most incredulous. On Monday, the 30th ultimo, the friends of universal suffrage, including Michael Hahn, the ex-Governor, Dr. [A. P.] Dostie, Revs. Jackson and Horton, also, one Mr. Judd, met in Convention, and endeavored to revive the Conventional measures of 1864. They assembled in the Assembly Hall, Mechanics’ Institute, only to be assailed by armed policemen, who shot into the crowd of colored men who gathered outside, killing and wounding white and colored as they chanced to be within the range of their shot. All of the mentioned persons were wounded, some of them mortally, beside over one hundred negroes, who were also, many of them taken to the Marine Hospital, and were humanely cared for by Dr. Harris, surgeon in charge, his faithful assistants, and the noble-hearted Madame [Louisa] Demortie. Your correspondent did what she could of wound-dressing until near midnight.
Some ten died, to say nothing of those who died in the workhouse, and were locked up in the several stations by the “policemen under orders,” “all honorable men.” One of the local preachers in St. James’ Chapel was severely injured. There has been some equally unnecessary shooting of colored residents since the 30th, by our civil guard. For a day or two the city was under martial law, and we expected thorough justice from the Military Commission which was trying these rioters, but now civil power is supreme, and the revivers of the “’64 Convention” are considered “the disturbers of the public peace,” and they are to be tried before a civil tribunal. That being the translation which our mayor gave Andy Johnson’s telegram “to prevent the establishment of a new form of government here.” He was literally obeyed, and so bloodshed and carnage have their sway, all save the bloodhounds, as they had six years ago! But we must have no better government, even though the proved loyalists desire it, and simply because that government would be “new.” Dost thou forget, old Judas, the Freedom’s and Justice’s sway is as old as the heavens?
Nor is New Orleans yet perfectly safe. The hunted non-recognized defenders of the Republic are yet threatened, and the creole fire in their veins burns—for what they syllable in a whisper—REVENGE—but it is as forcible as the serpent’s hiss, and the portents are fearful. When unoffending people are treated like dogs while returning from their daily toil; even slaughtered in cool blood in their beds, and the school-building in which their offspring are instructed in Wisdom’s ways is burned as they tried to burn mine, may not this community expect retribution?
The Crescent City is not alone in this display of the old spirit of rebellion. In Jackson, La., about two hundred miles from here, a gang, one of whom was a “Justice of the Peace,” attempted the life of Mr. Geo. T. Ruby of Maine, because forsooth, as an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, he attempted to establish a school in that community for the freed people. They beat, and were only deferred from killing this brave, trusty colored educator, because they feared that some one of their party would betray the secret of his death. This party were brought before Judge Sherman, of the Military Commission of this city, and, after pleading “not guilty,” were bailed $1,000 each until November. In the mean time, Mr. R. is teaching steadily on, sublimely indifferent to the muttered threats against his life. We have some trusty men in the department and women, too, who “do and dare” for Freedom's cause. The estimable Rev. John Turner is on leave of absence from his charge for a few weeks. We need his calm, cheerful, powerful, executive arm in this disquieted region greatly.
E. GOODELLE H.
New Orleans, August 4th.
Certainly one of the goals of Black Print Unbound is to help recover texts and authors and histories like this. In this vein, I’ll note Highgate wrote in a rich range of genres and with a vast sense of subjects.
Additional Recorder works by Highgate include:
* “Salvation Only in Work,” 4 February 1865
* two parts of what seems a three-part short story “Congojoco,” 20 and 27 May 1865
* “Truth,” 27 October 1866
* “Letter from New Orleans,” 19 October 1867
* “The Work in Mississippi,” 16 January 1869
Highgate’s fellows—both writers for the Recorder and teachers and other Black activists in the post-Civil War South—similarly demand much more attention. Daffin’s letter on Highgate’s collapse, for example, is in the 8 October 1864 Recorder, and more on Daffin can be found in my Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature.
But I also hope that our recovery of Highgate helps combat the senses that are far too common in our nation: that incidents of violence by white men against African Americans are the exception rather than the norm in our history, that such violence can be seen as a collection of random acts rather than acts tied deeply to politics and power, or that the Civil War ended all of the conditions connected to the massive system of chattel slavery and the national racism surrounding that system.
Like much of the Black press, the Christian Recorder worked tirelessly to help America remember what many folks in power wanted forgotten, never known: think of the radical power in the paper’s title if we make it a verb: Christian recording.
I’ll take up some of these questions, these acts of remembrance, in my next post.