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The elusive story of Mary Mildred Williams begins with a daguerreotype portrait made in 1855. It shows a round-faced, serious-eyed little girl of about 7 years old. Her curled hair is neatly parted; she’s wearing a plaid dress trimmed at the collar and short sleeves with lace. Her face and exposed arms catch the light, as they are meant to, displaying her pale skin. In looking at Mary, white Northerners opposed to slavery — her intended audience — were supposed to see their own children, vulnerable to kidnap and entrapment in a brutal system that no longer had reliable racial boundaries. But Mary’s skin was not, in fact, a marker of her distance from the institution of slavery. Instead, it was evidence of how it really worked — of the routine sexual exploitation of enslaved women at the hands of their white masters, for generation after generation.

In her engrossing narrative history, “Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement,” scholar and photographer Jessie Morgan-Owens traces the complex route by which Mary Williams’s image became a powerful piece of political propaganda in the mid-1850s, intended to shock and convert her white audiences to the antislavery cause. That cause had recently been re-energized by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which enlisted the entire nation in the project of policing slavery on behalf of slave owners, and converted many moderate abolitionists into hardliners.

The story begins with Charles Sumner, a senator from Massachusetts and leader in the antislavery movement, who encountered the little girl in the course of helping to free her extended family from slavery — a slow and expensive legal process. Although Sumner was well-acquainted with Mary’s true history — that she was born to an enslaved mother, but appeared white — he decided it worked better as fiction. Mary reminded him of the young heroine of a recent bestselling abolitionist novel, “Ida May,” in which the young daughter of a white family is violently kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. “Ida May” was published in 1854, a year after Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave”; at least twice, Northup gave lectures with Mary standing by his side onstage.

Morgan-Owens first encountered Mary’s story in Sumner’s correspondence, which described “little Ida May.” At the time, she was researching a dissertation on how 19th-century abolitionist writers responded to the new technology of photography. But it was Mary’s story and her image that “haunted” her, Morgan-Owens says over the phone. Sumner had commissioned photographs of Mary and put her image on display in the Boston State House — all for a public curious to see “little Ida May” for themselves. His associates had the portrait copied and distributed among prominent abolitionists, and sold the prints to make money for the cause. The tiny but arresting image of the white slave girl could be studied at leisure, and it made the story of Ida May come vividly to life.

It was much easier for white abolitionists to see Mary as a real-life Ida May than it was to confront what she actually represented: the reality that rape was fundamental to the economics of slavery.

“Her story was whitewashed by this fictional narrative,” Morgan-Owens explains.

“So her whole family, and the sexual trauma that they went through for generations, was erased in order to make this story more palatable for white audiences.”

The reality of Mary’s story was both widely acknowledged and never discussed, requiring feats of cognitive dissonance from the white population. “It’s a real trick of the imagination,” Morgan-Owens says, “to understand that there was sexual enslavement, to hear about it regularly, to meet children of senators, right there in Washington — and then also to act astonished when meeting someone who was born a slave but presents as white.”

Audiences were indeed astonished and fascinated by Mary, in-person and via her widely circulated photograph. Journalists minutely calibrated her whiteness, down to the smallest details of her face, skin and hair. As Morgan-Owens puts it in the book, Mary’s skin was “a living document American audiences apparently knew how to read.” But its message was far from clear.

Did it proclaim Mary’s innocence and humanity, or the guilt of generations of men?

In “Girl in Black and White,” Morgan-Owens traces the story of Mary’s mother and grandmother, exposing the intimate entanglements of rural southern life. In 1810, a widow named Constance Cornwell, who ran a small tobacco farm in northern Virginia, purchased Mary’s 18-year-old grandmother, Prue. Prue’s life was entwined with the Cornwell family and their associates for decades, and she would bear children to her freedman husband and to the white man who would later become her owner — Mary’s grandfather. The complex legal status of Prue and her children, and their eventual path to freedom, would be shaped by these illicit encounters and family secrets, in households where the designations of property and kin overlapped.

Author Jessie Morgan-Owens. (Morgan & Owens Photography)
Author Jessie Morgan-Owens. (Morgan & Owens Photography)

But Morgan-Owens is determined to resist any comforting euphemisms for this power structure. “There’s still language like mistress and relationship being thrown around,” she notes — the kind of language that was often used to describe Sally Hemings, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, before modern historians began to point out its inaccuracy. “It allows us to normalize what is absolutely rape, but in a daily fashion.”

Enslaved women raised the offspring of men to whom they could not say no, knowing that their daughters would face the same situation.

Their children were the legal property of their owners and could be sold without warning. It was the same horror of kidnap that white parents felt so strongly when they read little Ida May’s story, but woven into daily existence. “I can’t possibly guess the emotional relationships between these people,” Morgan-Owens says. “There’s fear and suspicion and hardship, but is there some tenderness there? I don’t know — how would we know?”

Like her mother and grandmother, who left no trace of their lives beyond their appearance in the wills and legal documents of their owners, Mary remains silent in historical documents. When she visited the Boston State House to appear onstage with Northup, a journalist wrote that “her eyes sparkled” as she took in the building’s ornate interior — but nobody recorded anything she said, then or later. After her early fame in the mid-1850s, she retreated from the spotlight. And as an adult, Mary passed discreetly into white society. She never married, but lived for several years with a female companion, in an arrangement whose contours remain unknown.

“She chose independence,” Morgan-Owens writes in “Girl in Black and White.”

What that really meant to Mary, and if it brought her happiness, we can only speculate.

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