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  • Barbara E. Pope (1854–1908)
  • Jennifer Harris

Avisitor to the American Exhibit of the Paris Exposition Universelle de 1900 could hardly have missed “The Exhibit of American Negroes,” located as it was on the right-hand side as one entered (Provenzo 2). But they could be forgiven for overlooking a very small, unusual volume tucked away on the low bookshelves of the exhibit. While most of the books assembled for the display represented earlier publications, this volume appears to have been produced exclusively for the exposition. Four stories, published in Waverley Magazine between July 1896 and May 1900, had been carefully cut from the magazine and bound for inclusion in the exhibit. When the list of works exhibited by African American authors was circulated and reprinted in the pages of the black press, the collection was titled simply Storiettes, the author identified as Barbara Pope. Undoubtedly, few—if any—in Paris had heard of her. Yet in a few years that name would become known to many in the United States as the primary player in the W. E. B. Du Bois–led Niagara Movement’s first challenge to interstate segregation laws. Just as quickly, within another decade, Pope would be forgotten, her contributions effaced, perhaps deliberately, with the result that today she is virtually unknown and completely absent from studies of African American literature. Yet her work engages explicitly with issues of race, class, activism, and racial uplift addressed by scholars of the New Woman in literature, such as Martha H. Patterson and Charlotte J. Rich, and in studies of late-nineteenth-century African American women’s literature by Hazel Carby, Carla L. Peterson, Claudia Tate, Frances Smith Foster, P. Gabrielle Foreman, and others. Such a silence around Pope and her life reflects more the realities of her era than of ours; recuperating her work for future study expands our knowledge of African American women writing in the late nineteenth century, especially [End Page 281] the university of nebraska press their negotiations of a world that was simultaneously changing rapidly and not changing fast enough.

Pope was born in January 1854 into a family determined to better their situation. Her father, Alfred Pope, was among those seventy-seven enslaved individuals who participated in the Pearl Affair, commandeering a ship and attempting to sail it north to freedom from Washington, dc. Although the attempt failed, Alfred and his wife, Hannah, were freed in 1850 by the death of the man who held legal title to them. Remaining in Georgetown, Alfred established himself as a savvy businessman, parlaying a business in waste removal into significant real estate holdings (Lesko, Babb, and Gibbs 23–26). The Popes were committed to education, with Alfred serving as an early trustee of the Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown.1 Thus it is not surprising that of their nine children, several served as school teachers. As of 2 September 1873, sixteen-year-old Barbara Pope was among them. According to records, it appears that by 1876 she was among the highest-paid teachers in the first or second district—above famed abolitionist and editor Mary Ann Shadd Cary—with the exception of Mary J. Patterson, a principal and Oberlin graduate.2

As a teacher and member of one of Washington’s oldest established black families, Pope had several advantages. She and her sisters traveled and vacationed annually, with Silcott Springs in Loudon, Virginia, a favored destination. Many of those she socialized with were members of Washington’s “black 400,” the nation’s most elite African American community—although the Popes appear to have been somewhat on the periphery of this exclusive group, not pursuing overt markers of privilege or belonging to a fashionable congregation.3 Unmarried, Pope turned her attention to her career. This included a one-year faculty appointment in 1884–85 at Tuskegee Normal School under the leadership of Booker T. Washington (“Faculty Roster”). There she taught a course titled “Rhetoric, Grammar, and Composition” (Chandler). Pope was probably aware her position was temporary, replacing another faculty member who was assuming new administrative duties (Willis); whatever the case, by 1886 she was again employed in the Washington school system, where she was granted another...


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