The riveting, little-known story of Mary Mildred Williams—a slave girl who looked “white”—whose photograph transformed the abolitionist movement.
When a decades-long court battle resulted in her family’s freedom in 1855, seven-year-old Mary Mildred Williams unexpectedly became the face of American slavery. During a sold-out abolitionist lecture series, Senator Charles Sumner paraded Mary in front of rapt audiences as evidence that slavery knew no bounds.
Weaving together long-overlooked primary sources and arresting images, including the daguerreotype that turned Mary into the poster child of a movement, Jessie Morgan-Owens investigates tangled generations of sexual enslavement and the fraught politics that led Mary to Sumner. She restores Mary’s story to history and uncovers a dramatic narrative of travels along the Underground Railroad, relationships tested by oppression, and the struggles of life after emancipation. The result is an exposé of the thorny racial politics of the abolitionist movement and the pervasive colorism that dictated where white sympathy lay—one that sheds light on a shameful legacy that still affects us profoundly today.