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  • Two Stories by Barbara E. Pope
  • Eric Gardner

Until recently, Barbara E. Pope’s place in American cultural memory has been limited to brief references to her courageous challenge to segregation at the beginning of the twentieth century. After refusing to give up her seat in the white section of a Southern Railway train on 7 August 1906, she was arrested and fined ten dollars; with the aid of the fledgling Niagara Movement (led by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter), she challenged the fine—eventually going to the Supreme Court of Virginia and also seeking damages via the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. She won both battles, but neither court was especially supportive: Virginia essentially negated the fine, and the District of Columbia awarded her a single penny for damages. Even though these cases marked early post-Plessy legal victories, they were taxing both monetarily and emotionally for Pope.1

Jennifer Harris’s 2015 Legacy profile of Pope urged scholars to consider a set of four rediscovered short stories written by Pope and published in Boston’s Waverly Magazine between 1896 and 1900.2 The stories were later clipped from a copy of that periodical and bound into a collection labeled Storiettes that was displayed at the celebrated “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. Harris rightly links Pope’s activism and artistry, and she recognizes that “if we consider Pope’s civil disobedience in the light of her writing, it suggests that her [law]suit was nothing new; Pope had been a fierce critic of [dominant] expectations . . . for decades” (292). In a broader way, Harris reminds us that recovering Pope’s work “expands our knowledge of African American women writing in the late nineteenth century, especially their negotiations of a world that was simultaneously changing rapidly and not changing fast enough” (281–82). Most intriguingly, Harris cites a small [End Page 263] set of sources that claim, in the words of a 12 September 1908 Washington Bee obituary, that Pope had “written several stories which commanded her liberal pay” (“Miss Pope”).

The two additional stories recovered here, both published a decade before the Waverly stories, reaffirm and enrich Harris’s conclusions. “The Old and the New Order” appeared serially in the 20 February, 27 February, and 6 March 1886 issues of T. Thomas Fortune’s New York Freeman (which would, a year and a half later, take its better-known title, the New York Age).3 “Truth versus Hypocrisy” appeared in the second issue of the short-lived, Boston-based magazine The Negro in August 1886.4 These two stories are unlike Pope’s later Waverly work in three ways: they clearly label their main characters as African American; they focus specifically on race and racism; and they were published in Black-owned and Black-centered venues. They thus offer a richer sense of how Pope engaged with Black print culture at the end of the nineteenth century and expand our growing sense of “postbellum, pre-Harlem” Black literature.5

Skillfully combining material from periodicals and public records with information garnered from descendants of one of Pope’s siblings, Harris offers key information on Pope’s biography: her birth in January 1854 to Alfred and Hannah Pope, African Americans who had only recently gained their freedom; her place in the Black society of Washington, DC; her Southern Railway cases; and her death by suicide on 5 September 1908. Harris rightly places the Pope family “on the periphery” of “Washington’s ‘black 400,’ the nation’s most elite African American community,” and she notes Pope’s work as a teacher, primarily in Washington’s segregated schools, but also, for a year, at Tuskegee (282). Harris also alerts us to how Pope “became increasingly vocal about her dissatisfaction with the leadership of the local schools for African American children” in Washington, culminating in her 1888 resignation after being forced to readmit a student who had assaulted her (282). Harris further connects Pope to a 1901 letter from Robert Wesley Taylor to Booker T. Washington that spoke of Pope’s failed engagement to Black writer and gadabout William Hannibal Thomas in...


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pp. 263-271
Launched on MUSE
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