Preface
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xiii Preface I was in rural Pennsylvania, holding a box of letters from “Lulu,” written from Washington, DC, and addressed to Genie Webb in Camden, New Jersey. No one in the family who owned the letters knew who Lulu was; they didn’t even know her last name, but her middle initial was “M.” Please let it be Matilda, I thought. If I hadn’t been saturated in the history of Edenton, North Carolina, if I hadn’t recently devoured the two-volume edition of the Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, if I hadn’t known that Genie Webb’s grandfather was a cousin of Louisa Jacobs’s father, I would not have immediately hoped that the author would be the only Lulu I had ever heard of—Louisa Matilda Jacobs. We frantically searched the letters and found the lines, “You want to know what the M in my name stands for, not Minerva the wise, oh no, only plain Matilda. Turn it as you will there is no poetry in it.” I had been brought to Louisa Jacobs’s letters by a series of nagging questions, obscure footnotes, odd intuitions, unbridled curiosity, and the freedom, as an independent scholar, to follow my nose. I hadn’t been looking for Louisa Jacobs; I had been looking for Annie Wood Webb. My documentary editing work on the slaveholding Skinner family of Edenton had led me to an interest in the town’s free and enslaved African Americans, especially those who had made their way north to antebellum Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, and New Bedford. One particularly intriguing émigré was Geoffrey Iredell, the brother of a former Skinner slave, who had moved to Philadelphia and shared a home with Annie Wood Webb, another North Carolina native. Who was Annie and what was her connection to Iredell? After many twists and turns, I speculated that Annie Wood Webb might be the mixed-race daughter of wealthy Edenton bachelor James Cathcart Johnston—and that she might also be connected to African American novelist Frank J. Webb and activist writer Charlotte Forten. As I moved forward in my Annie Wood (Webb), ca. 1847, was Genie Webb’s mother. (AWWP) Preface xv search in a distressingly nonlinear manner, signs that at first had seemed to be insignificant began to point the way: historian Julie Winch’s footnote about the sisters Annie and Mary Virginia Wood, coming originally from Hertford, Perquimans County, North Carolina; John Zehmer’s highlighting of Annie Wood Webb’s claim to be Johnston’s daughter; the appearance of Edenton’s Geoffrey Iredell in all the right times and places in Philadelphia, his marriage to Elizabeth Susan Webb, and the death of his son, Frank Webb Iredell; Charlotte Forten’s diary entries about her aunt Annie, “Mrs. J.” and “Lu”; William Cooper Nell’s observations about Miss Wood in Salem, Massachusetts; a typescript history of the Wood family of Hertford, Perquimans County, noting slave Edy Wood and her daughter Mary. An accumulation of minutia began to add up to something. I had tried to ignore Annie Wood Webb, but she would not go away. She was an alluring mystery, the linchpin of a fascinating story of antebellum antislavery activism and a crucial missing piece to the story of the famous 1867 Johnston estate trial. One day I found a photograph of someone named Annie Wood Webb buried among old family pictures on an artist’s personal website. She had the right birth year—1831. She appeared to be white. I stared at her picture in amazement and could not get over the fact that she was the spitting image of James Cathcart Johnston of Edenton. Could I approach the owner of the website on the basis of a photographic resemblance? Did he know that his great grandmother was African American? Did he really have boxes of old family papers? The answer to all of those questions was yes. r My deepest thanks go to Del Thomas, the owner of the Annie Wood Webb Papers, who welcomed me into his home in November 2012 and invited me to his family’s Thanksgiving table. My first American Thanksgiving showed me the simplicity and grace of Quaker tradition and the open-hearted abundance of Jewish hospitality. I sat in the proverbial empty chair reserved for the unexpected stranger. Del wanted his great-grandmother’s story told—in her own words. Raised an only child by his Victorian aunt and mother, Del had grown up in Philadelphia immersed in...



Subject Headings

  • Jacobs, Louisa Matilda, 1833-1917 -- Correspondence.
  • Purvis, Annie (Harriet Ann), 1848-1917 -- Correspondence.
  • Webb, Eugenie, 1856-1919 -- Correspondence.
  • African American women -- Correspondence.
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