Reader’s Forum–Joan DeCollibus on Mary Bowser and her Mother, Minerva



I just finished reading Lois Leveen’s story about Mary Bowser, a Virginia slave who was freed in her teenage years and went on to school in Philadelphia and became active in the Underground Railroad. While the story focuses on Mary and her journey out of slavery, on Mother’s Day weekend, I am thinking of her mom, Minerva.

Minerva raised Mary in a slave household where they lived together, serving the Van Lew family. Minerva’s husband and Mary’s dad worked for and lived with another slaver. They were only allowed to see each other on Sunday’s. Minerva raised her daughter with care in their slave household, always protecting her from the dangers of slavery and teaching her everything she could so that Mary could steer clear of trouble with the Van Lew’s.

Upon the death of her father, Elizabeth Van Lew, an ardent abolitionist, inherited money, enough to buy the household slaves from her mother which she does. While Minerva and Mary are freed by Elizabeth, we are disappointed to learn that she can not buy Mary’s father’s freedom.

Elizabeth hatches a plan to educate Mary in Philadelphia. Mary’s mom stays on at the Van Lew household to be near her husband.

I was struck by the courage it must have taken Minerva to let her daughter go on to Philadelphia alone. Mary was going off to a city on her own at a time when she could have easily been enslaved again by any white person who claimed she was their runaway. Mary, as ever courageous as her mother, actually shielded Minerva from the greater dangers that she was exposed to as she was secretly working as an abolitionist spy.
If her mother had only known! I am sure she would have been worried to the core while also being very proud of the daughter she raised.

Today, growing up black in America continues to be a threat to young people who are routinely rounded up and harassed by the authorities. On Mother’s Day, my heart goes out to every mother raising kids in a world where their lives are undervalued and they face racism at every turn.

Joan DeCollibus, an independent, living in Manhattan, is the owner of, where she designs and produces clothing and accessories for little dogs and their humans.


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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

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Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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