Works of Annie Fields
Laura M. Towne
by Annie Fields
(The simple announcement in the evening paper, a few days ago, of the death of Laura M. Towne at St. Helena, S.C., has led her friends, both in Philadelphia and Boston, to ask that some brief account of her life and work might be given to the public.)
In the year 1862, the second of our Civil War, a party of ladies were seated around a pleasant breakfast table at a country house in the neighborhood of Philadelphia. The morning paper had been that moment brought in. It chanced to contain the proclamation issued by General Saxton, then stationed at Beaufort, S. C., his headquarters as general of the department of the South.
The proclamation contained an appeal to the women of the United States to the effect that although their work in the sanitary commission and in the hospitals was beyond praise, the most important question of all for the future of the country was the education of the Negro, and women, as teachers of the colored people, were needed everywhere. He begged the women who could leave home to answer his appeal and come South to him, where they might work in safety under the protection of the flag.
One of the ladies read this bulletin aloud. "What do you think of it?" said another, when she had finished. "I think," said Miss Sarah Freeman Clarke, who was visiting her friends at that time, "if I were free as you are I should respond to General Saxton's appeal."
Laura Towne, who was the best equipped of her family at that moment for such as undertaking, did not wait for these words to be spoken twice.
Twenty-six years later it was my privilege to visit Miss Towne at St. Helena Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, a low, water-soaked land without the benefit of the open sea on its eastern front, where it is covered by another wild hunting island used chiefly for the breeding and training of the small southern ponies peculiar to that locality, and reserved up to that time by rich planters for hunting and shooting.
Hearing I was at Beaufort, Miss Towne sent a rowboat with two colored boys to convey me to St. Helena, the only method of approach, and there, very near the beach, a carriage and two horses were waiting to bring me to the house. As the horses walked on during two long hours, the intense heat forbidding more rapid travel to Northern bred animals, I was able to look about and to ask many questions. The coachman was a colored man, of course, but he was intelligent and could usually give me satisfactory replies. "You see, mis', I 'us one of Miss Towne's boys," he said by way of preface to his remarks. I reflected that he must have been a small child, just the age to go to school, when she began her work.
"Seems to me these are very nice looking houses," I said, as we passed at suitable distances good frame buildings of two stories, painted white with very bright green blinds. He then bade me observe a shed or pigsty standing near each house, and explained that in the days before Miss Towne came, the colored people lived in those sheds, but now they all had comfortable houses. I understood still further that when the planters fled and were obliged to abandon their lands, the colored people continued to raise the cotton and live upon the land, which became ultimately their own.
"How many colored people are there in the island?" I asked. "Between five and six thousand," he answered, "and about twenty white people." Meantime, we plodded along over the shelly road, crossing many little bridges and seeing small pools of water wherever a hole had been made in the land for any purpose. There was very little shade, only the wide cotton fields on either hand, an occasional liveoak tree and over many of the houses vines of Cherokee roses, which were then in bloom covering everything with masses of foliage and lovely cream-white blossoms. Presently a much larger building than the rest came in sight, standing among trees. We stopped the carriage for a moment. Here's the library and hall, he said, where we get our books and have our town meetings and our dances. It was not even then altogether finished, but there had been long years of waiting before the donor appeared for this much-needed place of reunion. At last, Mr. Henry L. Pierce of Milton, hearing what was wanted, indeed, what was so much needed at Helena, gave the whole sum necessary for the building.
But I was too impatient to linger longer than was necessary. At last we reached the door of the pleasant-looking house, with a real garden in front sloping down to the water, and I was met by Miss Towne and her devoted friend, Miss Murray, who shared her labor and experiences from the first.
Soon after my arrival, when we were sitting together in the drawing-room, I returned eagerly to the story of this undertaking. How did it happen? was my first question; to which Miss Towne responded by telling me of Miss Clarke's suggestion, and adding, "I sent to Miss Murray, my English friend, then living in Newport, the same afternoon. With admirable promptness she came to me at once, and before two days had gone we were standing in General Saxton's presence at Beaufort.
"He was receiving army men and others who were asking audience. We stood aside until the long succession of visitors had passed, when, perceiving us, he said: 'Ladies, what can I do for you?' We told him as we stood with our bags in our hands that we had come in answer to his appeal. 'Well done!' he said. 'Where do you wish to go?' 'Wherever you wish to send us,' was the answer. 'Very well,' he replied, after a moment. 'I would like to send you to the Island of St. Helena. There are not half a dozen white people there but between four and five thousand Negroes. The island has been a most valuable possession to the rich planters of the neighborhood, because fine long cotton, the only kind to be woven with silk, comes from there. The owners seldom visit it, however, except to ride across it on their hunting expeditions. They left everything to the care of their overseer, and it is his house, now vacant, which I shall ask you to take possession of and see what you can do for the island people.' "
Miss Towne was not a woman of many words, especially when the topic concerned herself and her own work. The perfect dignity and simplicity with which she reigned over her domain were felt and quietly observed by everyone who approached her.
She soon arose and asked if I should like to see the house.
Then I saw that a rambling, one-storied bungalow, which they had found on the spot, had been converted into a comfortable house by the addition of one story and other plain but necessary improvements. In front of the door was a noble specimen of a liveoak tree, in both sides of which chains were bolted. Here it was, before Miss Towne came, that in the evening, when the men and women brought home their measure of cotton, they were manacled and whipped if the proper quantity were not delivered; the men on one side of the tree, the women on the other. The ladies found on every side the signs of utter neglect of the people; the poor sheds in which they lived and the chains on the trees were proofs enough that the colored race existed in the eyes of their masters only to plant and gather the cotton crop. Among other causes of suffering was the absence of water to drink. Water had been so scarce on the island that during the heat of midsummer every year cattle died and not infrequently human beings also.
One of Miss Towne's first labors, I discovered, was to make artesian wells all over the island, one by one, as fast as the money could be raised for them. There were twenty, if I remember correctly, at that time.
But the schoolhouse was, of course, the great centre of interest. Here one generation of people had already been taught, and they were sending in turn their children and children's children.
The building was Miss Towne's own gift. She had made provision for using it as a ward room for voting when the season came. In carrying out her many necessary plans for these neglected beings much money was needed. Her own fortune was freely given, but she also enjoyed the pleasure of assistance from her family and friends at the North.
The government of South Carolina soon recognized the value of Miss Towne's work, and gradually appointed her supervisor of other schools, one by one, until she found herself with the supervision of seventeen schools upon her hands beside her own.
It will easily be seen that every waking hour was occupied. She had studied medicine, but without the intention of becoming a practicing physician. She had her books with her and was soon regarded as their physician by all the people. Of law, too, she was not wholly ignorant, and the people brought their disputes for her to settle, and their wills for her to make, which, with the help of a few good law books, she was able to do. Indeed the story would be far too long to describe in detail how she gave herself and all she possessed for the natives of the island, and the dignity with which she reigned.
It was the month of April, but already intensely hot, so hot that it was difficult for me to sleep; all the more I felt myself in a kind of saint's rest when I saw the heroism which had faced exile and every difficulty for the sake of an oppressed people.
The year before my visit to St. Helena Miss Towne was one day surprised by a call from a party of teachers and friends from the mainland, bringing gifts as if for a festival. They were at last obliged to explain that they came to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of her arrival. She alone did not seem to have remembered how long she had been there.
In the residence of these two ladies, Miss Towne and Miss Murray, for Miss Murray's name must never be forgotten in this connection, on the distant desert island they adopted as their home, we possess an almost unparalleled history. Every detail would possess the keenest interest if it had been written down. They made the place beautiful for others and a living spring of happiness for themselves.
We have before us, nevertheless, even in its bare outlines, a noble picture of the power of continuance, of unconscious devotion, and the carrying out of an undertaking to what may be called a ripe conclusion.
These qualities make Miss Towne's service one of the most distinguished and heroic achievements, resulting from the great war for freedom of the colored race.
"Laura M. Towne" appeared shortly after Towne's death, in the Boston Evening Transcript of Saturday March 9, 1901; pages are not numbered; this piece appears on the 29th page.
Laura Matilda Towne was born May 3, 1825 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and died February 22, 1901 on St. Helena Island. With her friend, Ellen Murray, she established the Penn School and, in myriad ways, served the freed slaves in the Sea Islands near Beaufort, SC, as part of what has been termed "The Port Royal Experiment." See Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne.
In Sarah Orne Jewett, Paula Blanchard says that in January, 1888, Annie Fields contracted pneumonia and nearly died. Her doctor recommending warm weather, Fields decided to go to St. Augustine, Florida, with Jewett to help her. They broke their journey at Aiken, South Carolina and at St. Helena. At the Aiken lodgings, "they ran into the distinguished abolitionist Senator George Edmunds of Vermont.... " At St. Helena, "they stayed with Annie's old friend Laura Towne, a homeopathic physician and educator who, many years earlier, had established a clinic and school on the island for its large population of freed slaves. By 1888 her work was largely done, and the community served as a model for others throughout the islands.... 'The result of her work lay like a map before us,' Annie wrote .... 'Every step spoke to us of the sacrifice and suffering of humanity and of its endurance in the present time'" (193-4).
Blanchard's account is not perfectly consistent with Fields's narrative in this memorial, but Blanchard did not draw upon this essay and Fields was recalling the event after about thirteen years. At the end of the Blanchard's story, she quotes from a letter Fields wrote soon after returning home from her trip. The letter may be found here: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University; Ellis Gray Loring Family papers, 1828-1923 (A-115), folder 74, box 1. Annie Fields letter of June 18th 1888. 6 pages.
Jewett set a story in Beaufort and St. Helena Island, making use of the context of Towne's work: "The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation" (1888). The copy that appears at the Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project includes extensive notes and photographs relating to the story, the school, and Laura Towne.
Marie Thérèse Blanc (1840-1907), a French journalist, essayist, and novelist, and a mutual friend of Jewett and Fields, took notice of Towne's death and of Fields's memorial piece. In the Revue des Deux Mondes 5 (1901), "L’autobiographie d’un Nègre," she wrote:
In the Boston Transcript of March 9, 1901, Mrs. Annie Fields devotes a very curious article to the memory of Miss Towne, who recently died at St. Helena in South Carolina, where, beginning in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, this valiant woman had gone, under the protection of the American flag, to devote herself to the education of a small group of almost primitive Negroes who had been abandoned by the planters to whom they belonged . To do that, she had left an easy and pleasant existence among the best society in Philadelphia and Boston. The rest of her life was spent on a marshy island devoted to the cultivation of cotton and so hot that summer is torture. There she brought education and order to five or six thousand Negroes, among whom there were little more than twenty white people . Her fortune, her time, her influence, she gave it all for these pitiful people who today have been rescued: a Miss Murray helped her in her heavy task. We are indebted to these ladies, and to their many friends , for the existence of artesian wells, bridges, schools, a library, the transformation of squalid huts into little homes that are clean and solidly constructed, and the resulting creation, in spite of the climate, of a kind of Arcadia of which Miss Laura Towne was truly the queen. We must speak of her work remembering that it took place at the same time as many other efforts which, though less original, were nevertheless laudable, and in which women always played a large part. [Translation: Jeannine Hammond.]
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller. Typescript by Linda Heller.
Works of Annie Fields