Public Perception, Political Argument, and Presentation: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams, Senator Charles Sumner, and the Republican Party in 1855

By Anika Asthana

Published on January 30, 2024
Volume 9, Issue 1

The 1850s were marked by the rise of the Republican Party, America’s most successful third-party political revolution. The Republican Party emerged as a strong successor to the Whig Party, rallying people around anti-slavery political sentiments and building the case for the free labor system. In partnership with Black and white abolitionists, Republicans organized a variety of campaigns that attacked slavery, which ranged from moralistic to illustrating the degradation of white labor. However, one little-known history is the use of mixed-race enslaved children by Republican anti-slavery leaders in political campaigns to garner anti-slavery support.

Mixed-race children born into slavery threatened the boundaries between black and white, enslaved and free, as slavery was a matrilineal system. The occurrence of non-consensual sexual relationships between white enslavers and black enslaved women produced children who, despite their phenotypic presentation, were born as slaves. This phenomenon was widespread, to the point that former slave and abolitionist William Craft wrote in his autobiography, “It may be remembered that slavery in America is not at all confined to persons of any particular complexion; there are a very large number of slaves as white as anyone.”[1] The rule that “the child follows the condition of the mother” was created “to enslave all the issue in the maternal line to the remotest generation.”[2] Generations of sexual abuse within the slave system led to children born to mixed-race mothers, resulting in a wide range of phenotypic presentations.

In 1855, one of these children, Mary Mildred Williams, was catapulted to the status of an anti-slavery icon through a publicity campaign launched by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner, a prominent anti-slavery advocate within the Republican Party, saw a unique opportunity to use Williams to further his cause. The white-presenting enslaved girl Mary Mildred Williams was the first of many mixed-race children to be photographed, taken on tours, and ultimately used as a political argument. Her story became a powerful case study in political argumentation, public perception, and presentation.

Any discussion regarding mixed-race children must be contextualized by the ways race was assessed and understood in the 1850s. “Mulatto” or mixed children were not an uncommon occurrence, largely because of generations of sexual violence perpetrated by white enslavers unto enslaved women. Mixed-race children were assessed for blackness in a complex racial system determined by parentage. In the 1850s, ‘One ancestor in each generation being a white person, the child of the negro is called a mulatto; of the mulatto, a terceron; of the terceron, a quarteron; and a child of the latter is called a quinteron.’[3] People classified as tercerons, quarterons, and quinterons often passed as white, and some were considered fairer than Spaniards. In addition to features, skin, hair, and lineage, characteristics such as intelligence, beauty, and comportment, were the boundary demarcations of race. The fairness of William’s skin, the grain of her hair, even the brightness of her eyes, were all assessed when she was defined as white, rather than a ‘terceron,’ or a ‘quarteron.’

This blurring of racial categories can be seen through a letter by John Albion Andrew to Charles A. Sumner on January 22, 1855, that described Mary’s family:

  1. Elizabeth Botts (wife of Seth)—abt 30 yrs old, light-complexion + straight hair—wd pass for White.
  2. Oscar—oldest child (boy)—about 10 yrs old
  3. Mary Millburn [sic]—about 7 yrs
  4. Adelaide Rebecca—about 6 yrs.

The boy is abt Seth’s own complexion—but, the two girls are lighter, especially, the older of the two.[4]

In a decade characterized by “the slavery question,” society was clearly divided into two camps: those who called for the removal of the slave institution, and those who intended to preserve it. The line “wd pass for white,” showed that Republican leaders were keenly aware of how race was socially constructed and understood; Mary’s mother, and Mary’s ability to transgress racial boundaries and “pass,” became the foundation for the ensuing campaign.

Although she was largely forgotten by the Civil War, Mary Mildred Williams was “widely known among Northern abolitionists as ‘Little Ida May the White Slave.’”[5] Within the past few years, scholars such as Jessie Morgan-Owens, David Lee Atkins Jr., and Mary Niall Mitchell have sought to understand and reconstruct the story of Mary Mildred Williams.

The scholar Jessie Morgan-Owens, in her historical narrativization of the life of Mary Mildred Williams, argues that “white audiences in 1855 sympathized with Mary because of selective solidarity, or because she resembled them in color and manner.”[6] Whereas darker-skinned enslaved individuals were difficult for white individuals to relate to, Morgan-Owens argues that they could more easily see themselves in the shoes of light-skinned, white presenting Williams. This was no coincidence: “Those white abolitionists in 1855 who promoted Mary to public attention made slavery white in order to make its hardships legible to other white men, who could vote but who did not always recognize the full humanity of those who could not.”[7] Selective sympathy is difficult to prove, partially because of the nebulous nature of mapping public sentiment, and partially because of the documented public response by white northerners to the stories of dark-skinned, enslaved figures such as Anthony Burns.

Mitchell argued that Mary’s image allowed white audiences to map themselves onto her: “Gazing at Mary Botts, middle-class Northerners could no longer separate themselves from the peculiar institution. In her face and form, they could see their own children. . . . As ‘Little Ida May, the white slave,’ Mary Botts closed the gap between a white viewer and a black slave. Sympathy became empathy.”[8] This real-life “white slave” became the most accessible icon of the anti-slavery movement. Here, Mary’s status as a “white slave girl” implicitly threatened slavery upon the audience. Mitchell’s argument takes the threat of white slavery a step further, stating that the “white slaves” brought north by abolitionists did more than demonstrate white people’s vulnerability to enslavement: “White-looking slaves were the embodiment of racial transgression.”[9] Once again, however, it remains difficult to prove that white audiences looking at Williams felt they could also be subjected to enslavement.

David Lee Atkins Jr. remains similarly concerned with racial transgression: “For decades abolitionists printed stories about light-skinned slaves to highlight the evils of slavery and the lustfulness of Southern men, and now they had a face to put with these stories.”[10] Mary’s skin was indeed a map that American audiences knew to read and shone as a testament to the transgression of racial boundaries by illicit sexual relationships. For Atkins, “the stories of light-skinned slaves in these sources point to the rape of slave women and the mistreatment of slaves and slave families on Southern American plantations. Abolitionists used these slaves and their stories to prove to Northern audiences that slavery was evil and a system that should not be allowed to continue.”[11] Within this argument, the racial transgressions of light-skinned or white-presenting slaves were used to show the immorality of slavery.

Historians have attempted to understand the responses Mary evoked in northern Republicans. Morgan-Owens argued selective sympathy, Mitchell argued mapping, and Atkins that Mary unmasked slavery’s sins. Within the context of this larger scholarly conversation, it is worth examining the mechanisms of the publicity campaign. How did a seven-year-old girl inspire such sentiment in the first place?

This paper closely examines the publicity campaign constructed by Senator Charles Sumner around Mary Mildred Williams to trace her evolution into an anti-slavery icon. I argue that Sumner’s campaign of a white-presenting, mixed-race slave child as “the Real Ida May” turned the normative assessments of race and slavery on their head to invent Mary Mildred Williams herself as an anti-slavery argument. In order to prove this argument, I trace the publicity campaign by examining the inception, construction, procession, and public reception. I detail how her daguerreotype was carefully created so that she was read as a white, middle class child, and how Mary was sensationalized through the shock value of a “white slave.” Within the daguerreotype and her public appearances, Sumner constructed the African American slave girl as “the Real Ida May,” who by all accounts, appeared just as any other white, middle-class child. Mary was constructed as Ida May, a white fugitive slave, and used by Sumner and Republican leaders to disentangle race and slavery as part of the broader anti-slavery campaign. I focus on Sumner’s deployment of the moniker “Ida May,” for Mary, and the use of this characterization to advance anti-slavery arguments, especially regarding the Fugitive Slave Act. Through deconstructing and critiquing the publicity campaign Mary was taken on, I trace her evolution into an anti-slavery icon, who complicated the normative assessments of race and slavery through her presence.

Ida May: A Story of Things Actual and Possible, was an anti-slavery novel written by Mary Pike (pseudonym Mary Langdon), a white woman who was horrified by the atrocities of slavery. The novel, which was published in November 1854, was released right after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and right before Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. In the novel, a five-year-old girl named Ida is kidnapped on her birthday from her white, middle-class family in the North and sold into slavery in the South.[12] A free, racially white, middle-class child was captured by greedy traders and sold into slavery. The use of a white heroine, many historians argued, was what drove the anti-slavery narrative and made it compelling. Readers sympathized with the plight and misfortune of the poor girl who was wrongfully captured and sold into slavery. In the story, slavery transgressed the North/South divide and posited the slave system as a problem for white northerners.

The publishing of Ida May in 1854 set the stage for Sumner’s campaign of Mary Mildred Williams. The book had already stoked public outrage and fear at the possibility of white Northerners being wrongfully captured and sold. The idea of the “white slave girl” was conjured in the public imagination, and Mary Mildred Williams brought her to life a year later.

Throughout 1854, Sumner worked behind the scenes with John Albion Andrew to raise funds and secure the manumission of Mary Mildred Williams and her family. Andrew, a young lawyer who founded the Home for Aged Women of Color, became inspired by the anti-slavery speeches he heard at Bowdoin, especially by British abolitionist George Thomson. In 1854, Andrew worked closely with his longtime friend Charles Sumner, especially on the case of Mary Mildred Williams.[13] Andrew was first made aware of Mary’s existence when her father, Henry Williams, referred to in the South as Seth Botts, came to him for support with manumission. From this moment on, Andrew and Sumner corresponded about the Williams family.[14] Andrew worked with Sumner to negotiate Williams’s deed of manumission, an ultimately successful event which attuned both anti-slavery activists to the happenings and events of this enslaved family from Virginia. [15] As the lawyer learned more about the enslaved family, he noted their phenotypic deviance from normative characteristics, and the ability for some members of the family to pass as white.[16] A “white” or “white-presenting” family born into slavery was valuable currency to the anti-slavery activists. As illustrated by Morgan-Owens in Girl in Black and White, the anti-slavery Senator found great opportunity in Mary, the middle child, who was recently manumitted:

On February 13, Sumner divulged his plans for Henry and Elizabeth’s children: he would launch a publicity campaign around Oscar’s “bright and intelligent” little sister, Mary. . . . First she would be photographed, then her daguerreotype would travel northward to be copied and displayed. The entire family would be publicly exhibited as they made their way north, first in New York and then in the State House in Boston, where Mary would be presented to the legislature. Sumner would join them in April, at the close of the senatorial session. He would present Mary at his lecture in Tremont Temple in May.[17]

From the outset, Sumner’s plan outlined the use of a daguerreotype as central to his publicity campaign, which “marks the beginning of efforts to use photography…in the service of raising sentiment and support for the abolitionist cause.”[18] The Senator displayed a level of sophistication of political strategy that far outshone his time, and pioneered portraiture, and later exhibition, of children as a form of anti-slavery advocacy.

That same month, Mary Mildred Williams was daguerreotyped at Vannerson’s Gallery by Julian Vannerson, a photographer who was known for working with the Washington elite. Mary’s gold jewelry, dress with lace trimming, and fine hair framing her face gave her the appearance of any other well-to-do white child. Her styling was carefully constructed. Best delineated by historian Mary Niall Mitchell, “the child in the photograph looks like a schoolgirl…Without a marker of some kind, she might be taken for the child of a middle class New England family.”[19]

Mary could have been photographed in a variety of ways, but her appearance was intentionally constructed to resemble a middle class white child for the sake of political argument.[20] The creation of Mary’s image, then, spoke for itself. Appearing as a well-off white girl, “the Real Ida May” evoked the characteristics of the finer points of whiteness, such as cleanliness, civility, education, wealth, comportment. The photograph was effective because “Mary successfully combined the figure of the unprotected whitelooking child with that of the white female slave, inspiring the fears white audiences associated with both.”[21] Viewers gazing at Mary’s image would struggle to reconcile her appearance as a white middle class child with her status as a slave girl.

The novelty of this publicity campaign begs further examination of Sumner’s intentions, which could be best expressed through a letter he authored to Dr. James Stone just six days later. In an oft-quoted line, he wrote, “She is bright and intelligent - another Ida May. I think her presence among us (in Boston) will be a great deal more effective than any speech I could make.”[22] Mary’s value as political currency shone through; just her presence, her presentation as white and her position as a manumitted slave girl, speaks for itself. By labeling her as “another Ida May,” another kidnapped and enslaved white girl, Sumner labeled her as white. Moreover, Sumner’s letter to Stone illustrates his intention to elide Mary Williams with Ida May. His use of “bright and intelligent” as descriptors for her only further corroborated this labeling. He enclosed a daguerreotype of Mary, which he asked Stone to “exhibit among the members of the legislature, as an illustration of Slavery. Let a hard hearted Hunker look at it and be softened.”[23] Simultaneously an enslaved girl and “white,” Mary became the living embodiment that slavery and race could no longer be elided with one another. Her image alone, Sumner anticipated, would be enough to “soften” the hearts of politicians in favor of the anti-slavery cause.

As instructed, Stone placed his copy of the daguerreotype in the Boston State House, and the story of Mary Mildred Williams broke nationally. The letter Sumner wrote to Stone and an article written by the editor of the Boston Telegraph, Richard Hildreth, were reprinted in newspapers throughout the East Coast, such as the Albany Evening Journal, the New-York Daily Times, the Washington Sentinel, Frederick Douglass’s Paper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and the Liberator.[24]

The world first became aware of Mary Mildred Williams, though not by name, in the reprinting of these two works. In Sumner’s letter, she was described as “a child about 7 years old, who only a few months ago was a slave in Virginia, but who is now free by means from Boston. . . . She is bright and intelligent - another Ida May.”[25] Hildreth’s article in the Boston Telegraph indirectly described Williams: “The daguerreotype mentioned in the following letter is a portrait of one of the family referred to, a most beautiful white girl, with high forehead, straight hair, intellectual appearance, and decidedly attractive features. It may be seen for a few days at the State House, in the hands of the Clerk of the House of Representatives.”[26] Although Hildreth had never interacted with Williams, and could not attest to her mental faculties, he chose to describe her with an “intellectual appearance.” Intellect, at the time regarded as a marker of whiteness, was ascribed to Mary as proof of her “race” in the public eye. William’s beauty is mentioned multiple times as further proof of her whiteness, illustrating that appearance was another component in the racialization of white women.

Only by viewing both of these pieces in conjunction can we understand public’s immediate fascination and curiosity with Mary. Richard Hildreth, after seeing this daguerreotype, outright described her as “a most beautiful white girl,” a persona directly in contrast with her status as a slave girl. The editor of the Boston Telegraph explicitly read Mary as “white” after seeing her daguerreotype, rather than reading her as mixed-race, with African American blood. Hildreth’s inclusion of the location of the daguerreotype in the Boston State House casted a political slant, marking Williams as an anti-slavery icon from the start.

Mary’s invention as a “white slave girl,” a living embodiment of two incompatible identities, immediately made her a sensation. This newspaper debut kicked off Sumner’s publicity campaign of Williams. Public appetite for Mary was whetted, and upon popular request, her daguerreotype was copied into smaller ninth-plate daguerreotypes and distributed.[27]

Although Mary was not presented to the people of Washington DC, she was there with Sumner in March 1855. The public, upon reading the articles printed in the Boston Telegraph, weighed in on the speculation about the little daguerreotype girl. An article written by Beverley Tucker described Sumner’s newfound focus on “a most beautiful white girl” as an “improvement” from his prior work with “sons and daughters of Africa.”[28] The Washington Reporter, on March 14th, noted that “Senator Sumner, of Mass, sometimes since purchased three slaves in Virginia, and brought them to Washington with the view of sending them North, where they would be of course free.”[29] These articles, along with the distribution of the daguerreotypes, set the publicity campaign in motion by building suspense and public intrigue.

In March, when Mary was formally exhibited to prominent members of legislature and the public in New York, she became a spectacle.[30] A long series of exhibitions, characterized by the scandal of the ‘little white slave girl,’ were conducted to determine Mary’s race. The nature of these meetings was described by Morgan-Owens, who wrote: “When meeting Mary, New Yorkers. . . examined her for traces of the African race: in her skin, in the arrangement and size of her facial features, in the shape of her head, in the curl of her hair, and in the whites of her eyes.”[31] The tactical descriptions of the New Yorkers’ viewership of Mary show how closely the seven-year-old was scrutinized, bared open for the public’s eye. Mary was then presented to journalists at The New York Times, who wrote, “She was one of the fairest and most indisputable white children that we have ever seen.”[32] The public exhibition of this seven-year-old-girl, and the ensuing gawking and hyper-fixated examination, created exactly the kind of reaction Sumner hoped would happen. Moreover, the public came to consensus, broadly speaking, that Mary’s fair appearance was incompatible with her previous slave status, with the majority of people determining Williams to be white.

As part of his plan, Sumner capitalized on the campaign’s momentum by taking Mary to Boston, where she would be exhibited for the Massachusetts state legislature. The local newspapers took note of her arrival. The Boston Courier, announcing the “Arrival of Senator Sumner’s Protégés,” confirmed that Mary was indeed, “a very handsome child, with fair skin and regular features.”[33] The next day, Mary was presented to the legislature at the Boston State House alongside the abolitionist Solomon Northup, which caused quite a sensation.[34] The Worcester Spy remarked that “the little girl has no feature which indicates any negro origin,”[35] and Frederick Douglass’s Paper described her as “perfectly white.”[36] However, an article published in St. Albans Messenger wrote, “The girl, although mulatto, has quite a fair, white complexion, and will easily pass for “white folks.””[37] The acknowledgement of Mary’s ability to pass as a white person echoed the sentiment displayed by John Andrews in his letter to Sumner while in the process of manumission. This article was one of the few instances of public perception of Mary as mulatto. Although Mary was largely read as white, this article showed some nuance in the campaign’s effects; some people read Mary as ‘mulatto’ or able to pass as white, rather than being white. Frederick Douglass’s Paper wrote extensively of Mary’s appearance at Boston:

Honorable Charles Sumner, the pride of Massachusetts, has arrived home, and brings with him “Little Ida May.” She is perfectly white, and on that account produces intense excitement. . . . When white men learn this, and that their own liberties are in danger, then they will see the reasonableness of an unconditional emancipation. S. Northrop and “Ida” visited both branches of the Legislature on Saturday.[38]

Describing Sumner as the “pride of Massachusetts,” the paper called attention to the anticipated impact of his publicity campaign. The use of Mary as a “white slave,” allowed white men to map themselves onto her and the “white fugitive,” thereby realizing the importance of unconditional emancipation. Mary here evoked a different kind of empathy, one that instilled fear in white men for the safety of their own liberties and inspired them to take action towards emancipation. The recourse here was political action, as implied by the closing sentence outlining the sympathetic figures’ previous visits to the legislature. Frederick Douglass’s Paper moved beyond the excitement and scandal of Mary’s visit to make the connection between her public appearance and the political landscape and alluded to the campaign’s larger impact.

The visit, within historical context, can be read as carefully orchestrated. That Saturday, the State legislature would consider two petitions by the Vigilance Committee, and the presence of Mary Mildred Williams and Solomon Northup would add impressiveness to the issues under consideration.[39] In this context, it is worth examining why Mary was almost exclusively referred to as “Little Ida May,” Sumner’s moniker for her. Although she was born into enslavement and manumitted, in the eyes of the public, she was the real life version of “Ida May,” the protagonist in an anti-slavery novel, a free white girl sold into enslavement. By presenting Mary as “Ida May” along with Solomon Northup, Republican leaders attempted to raise sympathy for people wrongly captured and traded into slavery. Both figures were anti-slavery icons in their own right, Mary with her recent celebrity and shock value, and Solomon Northup with his memoir of slavery that had sold tens of thousands of copies.

Rather than evoking selective sympathy or mapping, as outlined by Jessie Morgan-Owens and Mary Niall Mitchell respectively, I argue that the partnership of these two figures presented a dualistic argument against the Fugitive Slave Act. The presentation of these two to the Massachusetts State Legislature was in accordance with a political logic that focused on slavery in the north. Northup’s life and story portrayed slavery as a kidnapping business, rather than a peaceful rural institution in the separated South. Although Mary Mildred Williams herself was born into enslavement, the presentation of this “white slave girl” as “Ida May” created the image of a free white child being captured and sold into slavery. Whiteness no longer served as complete protection from slavery. The former enslaved individuals, one black and one white, showed that slavery was not only a kidnapping business, but one which was no longer racially bound. Together, the two figures formed a complete argument that positioned slavery as a prevalent threat and political matter for white northerners, and one that necessitated immediate political action against the Fugitive Slave Act.

After her explosive appearance at the Boston State House, Mary traveled with Solomon Northup to the Non-Resistant Convention, which Morgan-Owens described as “a radical pacifist movement best understood as an experiment in Christian perfectionism.”[40] On March 27, 1855, the convention held “The Soiree of the Free Church,” one of the most readable examples of Mary’s tokenization as an anti-slavery icon, best described by Morgan-Owens:

At the height of the evening, an announcer called for girls under ten years of age to join him on stage. There was a delay, as the Mrs. Inmans in the audience considered the propriety of such an exhibition. The crowd pulled children up to the stage, as parents reluctantly gave them up in the spirit of the evening. To the five local girls, the organizer surreptitiously added Mary. Once the girls were on the platform behind him, he gestured toward them and asked the audience, which of them was the redeemed slave child that the press called “Little Ida May”? Could they determine which girl was born to slavery by the color of her skin alone?[41]

The spectacle displayed within this soirée is in direct opposition to the rigorous methods of reading race displayed in some of the journalistic accounts of Mary’s appearances. The pageantry of displaying six “white” children and asking the audience to determine which one was born into slavery only heightened the scandal surrounding Mary and her story. Ultimately, this procession served to reinforce Mary’s whiteness. An article titled “The White Slave,” written once again by the Worcester Daily Spy, wrote that the slave girl’s status was indicated by her position at the end of the line, and by the announcer running the show.[42] Her indistinguishability from the white girls she was in line with created awe among the audience. How, then, could she ever have been a slave?

Instances of white women lined up onstage as a political argument were not uncommon during the early formations of the Republican Party. The 1856 processions of white women playing “states” during the Kansas-Nebraska Act debates, with one woman wearing a black dress to represent Nebraska, were a way for women to participate in the political scene and stake their own arguments.[43] Here, however, Mary was not voicing her own opinion regarding the anti-slavery political argument. Shockingly little is known about Mary’s own life, and her own opinions on the anti-slavery movement. Attempts of reconstructing her life, as done by Mary Niall Mitchell or Jessie Morgan-Owens, contain almost no instances of writing or dialogue by Williams. While her own politics are unknown, at seven years old, Mary Mildred Williams became an icon of the anti-slavery movement.

Williams’s fame reached its height at the Tremont Temple on March 30, 1855, when Charles Sumner delivered “The Anti-Slavery Enterprise: Its Necessity, Practicability, and Dignity, With Glimpses of the Special Duties of the North.” Sumner’s now-famed lecture was delivered as part of the “Independent Lectures on Slavery,” organized by Dr. James Stone to garner support for the anti-slavery movement. As reported by the Boston Evening Telegraph, Sumner was joined on stage by “the liberated slaves, Anthony Burns and Ida May.”[44] Within the speech, Sumner pointed to marriage rights, literacy, and wages as three keys to unlock freedom. As summarized by Morgan-Owens, “Sumner and Andrew’s legal efforts had secured Henry and Elizabeth Williams’s marriage. The family had been taught to read and write, and their children expected to have an education in Boston’s schools.”[45] The seven-year-old girl joining him on stage was proof of all three of these routes. Mary did not need to speak in order to act against the slavery movement. The effort put in by Sumner and his allies had freed her and her family from enslavement, which then opened the door for marriage, wages, and eventually education. “The Real Ida May” served as a vision for the future, of what could come.

Moreover, Mary’s presence onstage served to politically disentangle slavery from race. When Sumner spoke of the “alleged distinction of race,” he stressed that “unless such difference be clearly established, every argument by which our own freedom vindicated - every applause awarded to the successful rebellion of our fathers - every condemnation directed against the enslavement of our white fellow citizens, by Algerine corsairs, will plead trumpet-tongued against the deep condemnation of Slavery, whether white or black.”[46] The use of “whether” blurs the racial boundaries of the slave system, and creates the possibility of white slavery in the public imagination. Although his notation of “the enslavement of white fellow citizens” was fantastical given the constructs of his time, the strong language was only corroborated by the sight of Mary. Her presence on the stage as the “white slave girl” only further unfixed the distinction of race as a boundary demarcation within slave systems. As clearly stated by Owens, “he argued that chattel slavery depended upon an untenable distinction between the races…this was his intent in inviting her to the stage.”[47] Sumner entirely subverted the normative assessments of race as a boundary marker within the slave system through showing Mary as proof of the enslavement of white people. At this moment, her presence truly was just as strong, or even stronger, than any speech he could have hoped to make.

Sumner’s publicity campaign of Mary created a model for anti-slavery and abolitionist activists. In the following years, other mixed-race children were photographed and taken on tours as evidence for political arguments. For example, the mixed-race Isaac and Rosa were similarly born into enslavement in the South, freed by the Union army in 1863, and taken on a tour in the North, visual proof of the sexual exploitation of black women in the slave system.[48] The carte-de-visite, “Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans,”[49] was widely circulated in the 1860s as an anti-slavery argument. Organizations such as the American Missionary Association and the National Freedman’s Relief Association helped sponsor tours and photography visits of mixed-race slave children throughout the 1860s.[50] Charles Sumner left his mark on American politics, and one particularly underemphasized aspect was his creation of such an innovative campaign.

In 1855, a seven-year-old girl was transformed from a newly manumitted slave into a political icon. Mary Mildred Williams, a mixed-race girl born into slavery, was invented as the “Real Life Ida May” or “the white slave girl” by Charles Sumner. Simultaneously white and a slave, Mary’s mere presence was scandalous. Charles Sumner used Mary to complicate and undermine these assessments, to divorce slavery from race, and sway public opinion in favor of anti-slavery arguments. Mary Mildred Williams transgressed social boundaries and challenged structural norms, and her publicity campaign caused an outpouring of responses. Although this campaign has since faded from popular political consciousness, it caused quite a stir in the 1850s, set a model for anti-slavery political campaigning in the 1860s, and turned normative assessments of race and slavery on their head. Her story illuminates the complex racial politics of the abolitionist movement in the antebellum era, and the lengths anti-slavery advocates went to take down America’s “peculiar institution.”


Primary Sources

Boston Evening Telegraph. “Mr. Sumner’s Lecture.” March 30, 1855.

Bowditch, William Ingersoll. “White Slavery in the United States.” American Anti-Slavery Society [New York], 1855.

Craft, William and Ellen Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. University of Georgia Press, 1999. Originally published 1860.

Hildreth, Richard. “Another Ida May.” Boston Telegraph, February 27, 1855.

Langdon, Mary. Ida May: A Story of Things Actual and Possible. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2017. Originally published 1854.

Nell, William Cooper. “From Our Boston Correspondent.” Frederick Douglass’s Paper. March 16, 1855.

The New-York Daily Times. “Letter from Hon. Charles Sumner - Another Ida May.” March 1, 1855.

———. “A White Slave from Virginia.” March 9, 1855.

Papers of Charles Sumner. Princeton University Library digital collections. Accessed May 7, 2023.

Paxson, Chas. Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, Slave children from New Orleans. 1864. Albumen silver print from glass negative. 8.4 x 5.4 cm. The MET.

St. Albans Messenger. “Boston Correspondence.” March 22, 1855.

Sumner, Charles. “The Antislavery Enterprise: Its Necessity, Practicability, and Dignity, With Glimpses of the Special Duties of the North.” Speech, Metropolitan Theatre, May 9, 1855.

Tucker, Beverley. “Senator Sumner - Young Negroes and Daguerreotypes!” Washington Sentinel, March 2, 1855.

Washington Reporter. “Purchase of Slaves.” March 14, 1855.

Worcester Daily Spy. “Redeemed Slaves in the House.” March 12, 1855.

———. “The White Slave.” March 29, 1855.

Secondary Sources

Atkins, David Lee. “Perfectly White: Light-Skinned Slaves and the Abolition Movement 1835 - 1865.” Master’s thesis, Virginia Tech, 2017.

Mitchell, Mary Niall. Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery. New York: New York University Press, 2010. ———. “The Real Ida May: A Fugitive Tale in the Archives.” Massachusetts Historical Review 15 (2013): 54–88.

Morgan-Owens, Jessie. Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.

Rozinek, Erika. “Trembling for the Nation: Illinois Women and the Election of 1860.”     Constructing the Past 2, no. 1 (2004): 6–28.


[1] Ellen Craft and William Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 2.

[2] William Ingersoll Bowditch, “White Slavery in the United States,” American Anti-Slavery Society [New York], 1855, 1.

[3] Bowditch, “White Slavery in the United States,” 1.

[4] John A. Andrew to Charles Sumner, January 22, 1855, Papers of Charles Sumner, Princeton University Library digital collections, reel 12, series 1, slide 0075, accessed May 7, 2023.

[5] Mary Niall Mitchell, “The Real Ida May: A Fugitive Tale in the Archives,” Massachusetts Historical Review 15 (2013): 54-55.

[6] Jessie Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White: The story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020), 21-22.

[7] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 21-22.

[8] Mitchell, “The Real Ida May,” 57.

[9] Mary Niall Mitchell, Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 62.

[10] David Lee Atkins, “Perfectly White: Light-Skinned Slaves and the Abolition Movement 1835 - 1865,” Virginia Tech, 2017, 15.

[11] Atkins, “Perfectly White," iii.

[12] Mary Langdon, Ida May: A Story of Things Actual and Possible (1854; Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2017).

[13] Mitchell, “The Real Ida May,” 62.

[14] John A. Andrew to Charles Sumner, January 22, 1852, Papers of Charles Sumner, reel 8, series 1, slide 0501.

An example of the activists’ correspondence about Seth Botts, otherwise known as Henry Williams, Mary’s father.

[15] John A. Andrew to Charles Sumner, January 22, 1855.

“I wish to obtain your friendly aid, a little further, in behalf of Seth Botts, the col’d man, for whose deed of manumission I negotiated through you.”

[16] John A. Andrew to Charles Sumner, January 22, 1855.This letter uses skin tone and hair texture to describe Mary’s family.

[17] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 140.

[18] Mitchell, Raising Freedom’s Child, 72.

[19] Mitchell, “The Real Ida May,” 55.

[20] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 17.

[21] Mitchell, Raising Freedom’s Child, 75.

[22] “Letter from Hon. Charles Sumner - Another Ida May,” The New-York Daily Times, March 1, 1855.

[23] The New-York Daily Times, “Letter from Hon. Charles Sumner - Another Ida May.”

[24] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 450.

[25] The New-York Daily Times, “Letter from Hon. Charles Sumner - Another Ida May.”

[26] Richard Hildreth, “Another Ida May,” The Boston Telegraph, February 27, 1855.

[27] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 182.

[28] Beverley Tucker, “Senator Sumner - Young Negroes and Daguerreotypes!” Washington Sentinel, March 2, 1855.

“An improvement seems to be going on in the Senator and in the grave, dignified, and enlightened legislators of the great State of scholars. They have heretofore worshipped the black, flat-nosed, thick-lipped sons and daughters of Africa. But, from the above account, it seems that they have become fascinated “with a most beautiful white girl, with high forehead, straight hair, intellectual appearance, and decidedly attractive features.”

[29] “Purchase of Slaves,” Washington Reporter, March 14, 1855.

[30] “A White Slave from Virginia,” The New-York Daily Times, March 9, 1855.

“The child was exhibited yesterday to many prominent individuals in the City, and the general sentiment, in which we fully concur, was one of astonishment that she should ever have been held a slave.”

[31] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 202.

[32] The New-York Daily Times, “A White Slave from Virginia.”

[33] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 268.

[34] “Redeemed Slaves in the House,” Worcester Daily Spy, March 12, 1855.

 “Solomon Northup, of N. York, who spent twelve years as a slave on the Red River, and Ida May, the little redeemed slave, from Washington, were in the Hall of the House on Saturday, for a short time, and excited much sympathy and interest.”

[35] Worcester Daily Spy, “Redeemed Slaves in the House.”

[36] William Cooper Nell, “From Our Boston Correspondent,” Frederick Douglass’s Paper, March 16, 1855.

[37] “Boston Correspondence,” St. Albans Messenger, March 22, 1855.

This piece further corroborates the sensation caused by Mary’s arrival. “Hon. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist and Senator from Massachusetts, has created no little sensation in this city, with his ‘white slave girl,’ whom he bought and brought from Virginia.”

[38] Nell, “From Our Boston Correspondent.”

[39] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 314.

“A few weeks earlier John Andrew had written Sumner, ‘I feel also desirous that Members of the legislature shall have a sight of those children,’ for ‘their presence may add impressiveness’ to the issues under consideration. Dr. Stone had organized Northup and Mary’s visit—it would be a spectacular sideshow on a day when the State House would have the public’s full attention.”

[40] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 330.

The historian elaborates on the intention of the Convention further down the page, characterizing it as “deeply committed to ending slavery and worked toward peaceful, immediate emancipation through moral suasion.”

[41] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 334.

[42] “The White Slave,” Worcester Daily Spy, March 29, 1855.

“Little Mary Botts, the white slave child was present, and excited all the sympathies of those who saw her. She, in company with five other little girls, taken promiscuously from the meeting, was placed upon the platform, and she was the last child amongst them, indicated by the persons present, as the slave child.”

[43] Erika Rozinek, “Trembling for the Nation: Illinois Women and the Election of 1860,” Constructing the Past 2, no. 1 (2004): 11.

[44] “Mr. Sumner’s Lecture,” Boston Evening Telegraph, March 30, 1855.

“There was a crowded audience last night at the Tremont Temple to hear Charles Sumner lecture on ‘the Necessity, the Practicability, and the Dignity of the Anti-Slavery Enterprise.’ The Governor of the Commonwealth, and many other distinguished citizens occupied the platform, on which also sat the liberated slaves, Anthony Burns and Ida May.”

[45] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 350.

[46] Charles Sumner, “The Antislavery Enterprise: Its Necessity, Practicability, and Dignity, With Glimpses of the Special Duties of the North” (Metropolitan Theatre, May 9, 1855): 9.

[47] Morgan-Owens, Girl in Black and White, 356.

[48] Mitchell, “Raising Freedom’s Child,” 2.

[49] Chas. Paxson, Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans, 1864, (New Orleans, LA: 1864)

[50] Mitchell, “Raising Freedom’s Child,” 54.

About the Author

Anika Asthana is a student in the Class of 2025 concentrating in History and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is particularly interested in societal constructions of race and gender. Her current research concerns border crossings: How does the ability to pass between racial or gendered categories inform understandings of the construction of the categories themselves? She also engages with sexual violence, power dynamics, decolonial theory, and global histories of sexuality. She can be found either exploring a new country or curled up in a library.