I enjoyed reading Lois Leveen’s historical novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. While being based on a true life figure, Mary’s story is as incredible as if it had been total fiction. As I had no knowledge of Mary Bowser before, the book affected me on several levels beyond the enjoyment of reading a well-crafted novel.
Much of what has been written about the Civil War chronicles events from a military perspective, but not being a student of such things, I am not surprised I had never heard of Mary Bowser. However, for those who do study military campaigns, intelligence gathering would be an integral part of the story. A former slave, having been freed and educated in Philadelphia, voluntarily returning to Richmond, pretending to be a slave is remarkable. To then become a servant and spy in the Confederate White House is unimaginable. But then, I also had never heard of Katherine Johnson before the movie Hidden Figures was released.
Another surprise was how my visualization of slavery and the antebellum South had been limited to atrocities occurring in the bowels of slave ships, the brutality of plantation life, and the perils faced by those who attempted to escape and by those who aided them. Mary’s experience as an urban house slave of a well-to-do merchant may have been vastly different than those on plantations, but her bondage was nonetheless cruel and inhumane.
I live in the South. I first moved from Southwest Missouri to Florida as a teenager after my parents divorced. That was 1968. I only lived here for two and a half years before returning to Missouri to finish high school. After joining the Army and living abroad, then moving to California for a few years, I returned in 1987. Much has changed since 1968, but much has remained the same.
Just as Mary experienced segregation and discrimination as a free young lady in Philadelphia, vestiges of the past still afflict many today. Perhaps most prominently, the Jim Crow era manifested the lingering toxic attitudes displayed by whites in the South, however many people of color all across the country are adversely affected by our shared history and an institution abolished long ago.
While we can point to a plethora of anecdotal evidence on a daily basis, comparative data confirms this. Everything from disparities in wealth, quality of education, employment opportunities, and incarceration rates, points to an ongoing struggle for true equality. Our economic and political model imposes arbitrary limits on the resources available across the broad spectrum of society, and a pecking order exists within the context of competition favoring some more than others. While the struggle is not exclusive to communities of color, one cannot help but believe our history plays a role in amplifying the disparities.
That history, and its impact, is still a point of contention and continued debate. From a call for reparations to simply seeking to remove monuments to the Confederacy from prominent public spaces, the ghosts of our past still haunt us.
Steve Hough is a lifelong independent and became an activist for political reform after retiring as an accountant. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.