Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: Poor Oppressed
Composer: Benson, E.A.
Engraver: Slinglandt, J.
Dedicatee: Miss Dinah Dobson
Publisher: C.D. Benson
Year & Place: 1862, Nashville, Tennessee
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Conf. Music #456
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: conf0456
This lithograph depicts a fussily dressed African American woman in profile. She is wearing a blue gown with a Victorian-style bustle and a red shawl. The ribbons of her feather-decorated bonnet are tied below her chin and fastened in a bow. She holds a delicate parasol in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. A white petticoat shows beneath her dress but her feet are barely visible. The bustle of the dress casts a shadow behind it, making it seem more bulky. The colors of the composition, including the woman’s dress and the lettering of the song title, are predominantly red, white, and blue.
The woman gazes up at the parasol as if amused or slightly perplexed. The decision to position her in profile and render her clothing in extreme detail makes the engraving look like a nineteenth-century fashion plate. The subject of fashion illustrations is usually the clothes, not the person inside them. However, the woman’s fascinated look at the parasol draws some of the attention to her and makes it appear as if the clothes don’t “fit” her. The title of this instrumental song, “Poor Oppressed,” seems to be ironic, especially since J. Slinglandt made this engraving in middle of the Civil War, the year Lincoln issued the first order of the Emancipation Proclamation. Made in Nashville where slavery was legal, this image may be an attempt to undermine abolitionist claims to the moral righteousness of emancipation by presenting a seemingly frivolous African American woman who doesn’t look “oppressed” at all. It may also be gesturing, in a mocking way, toward the emerging women’s suffrage movement.
Sarah Jane Woodson Early
The fifth daughter and last child of Thomas and Jemima Riddle Woodson, Sarah Jane Woodson Early was born on November 15, 1825, near Chillicothe, Ohio. When Thomas Woodson was a young man he purchased his own and his family’s freedom for nine hundred dollars. Her family moved to Jackson Country, Ohio in 1829, and she was educated in this community until she was 15. In 1850 she left home to attend Albany Manual Labor Academy in Athens, Ohio. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1856.
By 1859 she had taught at various schools endorsed by the AME Church. That year was asked to teach at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where her brother was a member of the board of trustees. She taught courses in literature at the school. In 1868, she left Wilberforce to teach in an all-black girl’s school funded by the Freedman’s Bureau in Hillsboro, North Carolina. In September of that year, at age 43, she married John Winston Early, a widowed AME minister.
For the first nineteen years of the marriage, Early taught wherever her husband’s preaching took them. From 1869 until 1888, when she and her husband retired to Nashville, she taught in various cities and towns all over Tennessee. She was a dedicated teacher whose belief in the principle of self-help was best expressed through her efforts to educate the children of her race.
As an extension of her religious commitment, Early became an activist in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1884, when she succeeded Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as superintendent of the colored division of the organization. When the prohibition movement began in Tennessee, she served the State Prohibition party as a spokeswoman and canvasser, going from door to door to warn people of the evils of liquor and tobacco. She also became a leader in the AME temperance efforts, delivering a number of lectures in churches, colleges, and prisons.
Through her work with the temperance union, she encouraged black women to work for the benefit of their communities. Temperance was only one part of the religiously inspired holistic movement for moral reform. In 1893, Early gained national acclaim when she was named “Representative Woman of the World” at the Chicago World’s Fair and was included by Lawson Scruggs in his celebratory work Women of Distinction. With the growing stereotype of black women as immoral, black women leaders were increasingly convinced that if the race was ever to equality, they must exhibit exemplary demeanor, moral standards, and domestic capabilities. However, consistent with her upbringing, Early believed that the entire race had to concentrate on developing self-reliance and high moral principles. These were common themes in speeches and writings throughout her life.
Although she married too late to have her own children, by the time she retired she had taught over six thousand children and had been principle of several large schools in four cities. She died at the age of 82 in Nashville in 1907.