Eliza Suggs: Early #disabledsnark at its finest
Updated: Feb 11
Eliza is someone I read about while reading an article by Laura Elliot on "Badass Disabled Women You Should Know About". I'm annoyed it's taken this long to get to the history of a woman but sometimes the sources don't point to what you're looking for!
If you've come across any more awesome disabled women in history, let me know!
Eliza Suggs seems to have been one of, if not the, first disabled African American women to have her writing published. She was a religious lecturer, and managed to get an education just like her able bodied sisters which was almost unheard of at that time.
She was also an officer for the Orleans Women’s Foreign Missions Society and wrote for the Free Methodist magazine ‘Missionary Tidings’. Eliza’s writing is considered a key source for the history of African Americans in the Free Methodist church, as well as an advertisement for her specialist interest in religious lecturing on the subject of temperance (avoiding alcohol), and the entire Suggs family are counted as “hardy pioneers of Free Methodism in Kansas and Nebraska” as a religious movement that only began in 1860 and very quickly spread and grew.
Alongside her poetry she wrote a book on the subject of herself and her family, following her parents’ story inside and outside of slavery, as well as her life and development, and sadly this is pretty much all the information we have about her as it is the only source.
A lot of the book is about her parents and their stories of slavery, but I still consider this a big part of her story as well (even though she was born after her parents were free) as well as it being all written by her, showing her accomplishments as an author. So if you think this post is a bit people-who-aren’t-her heavy, that’s my explanation.
Eliza’s father, James, was separated from his mother and twin brother aged 3. He only ever had a faint recollection of his mother and never saw his family again. James was a blacksmith by trade, which allowed him a few extra luxuries that not many other slaves got. His master was kind (by those standards) and allowed James to work in his spare time to make a little extra money for himself, which he used to pay for nicer clothes than everyone else. He was said to have stolen his education, from the children of the master when they told him of their lessons.
He met Eliza’s mother, Malinda when they were both still fairly young and they married. Soon after he was converted.
Malinda had many stories of slavery which Eliza recited in her book, one of which is particularly high on the YIKESometer: A baby was ripped from his mother at 2 years old, and there was no trace of him. After the civil war, when the slaves were free, the mother unexpectedly met and fell in love with a younger man, and they were married. She noticed an odd scar on his head, and told him about her son who had a similar scar for being kicked in the head by a horse. Yeah, you can guess the end of this story. SHE MARRIED HER SON. We don’t find out how this story ended but I’m guessing there was a lot of screaming.
When the war came, James took his opportunity and ran off with the Yankee (Northern) forces to fight for his freedom. This unfortunately wasn’t great for his wife Melinda and the children who were left behind and blamed for his disappearance, and accused of concealing his current location. Many of the slaves had taken their families north with them, so James hoped that he would be able to return and get them, but the army and war was happening so going back to get families wasn’t a top priority. While up until this point, Eliza believes that “my mother knew little of real trouble”, she concedes that she struggled during the war. Her mistress would tell her lies of James being dead or injured or tortured to try and keep her miserable, and understandably she lost her faith. Two of her children were sent away, but by a stroke of luck were brought back two months before they were freed, so were able to stay together as a family.
After the war, James was unable to go back south to find his family as his life was at risk, and so he got his captain to go and get them. Meanwhile, he was working as a blacksmith to get together enough money to be able to get his family a house and get remarried in a Christian ceremony according to “the white man’s law”, as the slave marriage ceremony had a clause giving the slave owner the right to separate them as he saw fit.
James was called to preach, but quite liked making money and so was only preaching half heartedly, until God got annoyed and said he had to choose between preaching and working. There was some pushback to the Free Methodist preaching, as they were a breakaway methodist group founded by someone who was expelled from the Methodist church for writing articles disagreeing with some of their actions, such as charging rent to sit in particular pews. Also, as a church they were opposed to slavery and had many African American preachers from the start, which could rub people up the wrong way. This is potentially the cause of the “rowdies” that Eliza tells us attacked the tent where her father and his friends were preaching. They cut it down and threw stones, injuring a number of people after which they needed protection from the city authorities.
James “was one of the ablest and comeliest preachers of his race whom I have known. He considered himself of unmixed blood. His manly form, fine countenance, and strong and melodious voice, made him attractive, both in speech and song.” according to C.M. Damon. Soon enough, according to Eliza, Satan was “busily at work to hinder and destroy his labours” with a LAUGH OUT LOUD wrongful arrest for murder that a fellow preacher and testimony writer describes as “exciting”. Nothing came of it as the religious community rallied around him and it was painfully obvious that it was nothing to do with James, but he still had to spend some time in prison until he was exonerated, where he preached and held meetings and at least one fellow prisoner was converted. The mistake “cost the detective severely”. The family moved around the area numerous times, finally to Nebraska so that his daughters could have opportunities and go to the seminary school and James continued preaching and travelling until he died in 1889.
Eliza was the youngest of James and Melinda’s children. There were 4 children born in slavery (of which 3 had died when Eliza wrote this) and 4 outside slavery, of which Eliza was the youngest. She was born on December 11th 1876 and seemed as any other child until she was a few weeks old, when her parents realised her bones were breaking remarkably easily. Whenever one healed another would break, constantly for 6 years. Shaking hands with her sister caused her arm to break.
She writes that “she knew nothing of the pleasures of childhood” and could only watch the other children out of the window, and sometimes she couldn’t sit upright. Doctors tried to treat her, but it didn’t actually help because they really didn’t understand what Eliza’s disability was.
They later believed it to be an extreme case of rickets, but with the benefit of hindsight and more experience, it seems more likely to have been a case of Osteogenesis Imperfecta.
Nobody believed that Eliza would live very long, to the point that her burial clothes had been made ready and were just waiting there for her to look at each day. And yet she never needed them (well not never, she did die eventually)
She saw it as God deciding she should live.
She stopped growing, and she weighed 50 pounds (22kg or 3.5 stone) and was 33 inches tall (2ft9 or 84cm) and was usually carried around in an old baby pram or what she calls a go kart which prompts a wonderful mental picture of her riding down a really big hill.
Eliza in her pram was quite an unusual sight at the time, but depressingly her story shows that attitudes haven’t changed all that much since, even though the sight of a disabled person isn’t all that unusual. People would ask her mother or her sister “can she talk?” “has she got feet? Can she use her hands?” She has the story that one lady approached her on a train and started to baby talk at her, and everyone was staring at them. “Of course, the baby did not respond in the way she expected… When I was explained to her she was somewhat taken back” which is frankly hilarious, as many of us know from similar interactions, the shock of a stranger who has assumed she would get a smile or a gurgle who actually got a lecture on disability. Goals.
Inaccessibility prevented her education for a long time. Her sisters taught her some of the basics that they had learned at school in their spare time, like how to read and write which Eliza loved. In Kansas, her sister Sarah was a teacher, but as there was no school building she had to teach from home, which meant Eliza was able to go to school, as sitting down learning was one of few things that didn’t break her bones.
After the family moved to Nebraska so that the children could go to a good school at the seminary (theological school/priest training/missionary training), still no-one considered that it would be possible for Eliza to go and learn like her sisters, until the Principal of the seminary offered her free tuition as long as they could get her there, and it finally occurred to people to put her in an invalid chair. (This sounds harsh because I know it’s a different time and there were financial aspects but it’s kinda annoying it took this long.) The chair was donated, and Eliza was carried up the stairs each morning (ACCESSIBILITY) by her sister or mother, and back again at the end of the day.
The seminary school was a big influence on her later temperance campaigns, and she was awarded a medal for her accuracy in temperance recitations. One of the reverends used to give temperance lectures at schools in the area and would sometimes take Eliza with him to speak or sing at the meetings.
Other Free Methodist Preachers who met Eliza wrote of her disability (a lot). Burton R Jones in a testimony at the start of her book “Sunshine and Shadows” wrote that Eliza “does not belong to the despondent class” and describes her disability as “physical embarrassments” which is an entertaining way of putting it. Another testimonial from C.M. Damon says that Eliza was “born of such heritage of physical infirmity as is seldom known” which sounds patronising but obviously with slavery, very few African Americans with significant disabilities would have survived into adulthood outside the circuses and freak shows that Eliza herself rejected in her life so I’ll let that one slide.
Temperance campaigning was what Eliza devoted her life to but her writing indicated she would have preferred to do missionary work. She tells of one of her friends who went to do missionary work in Africa and her longing to be able to do that too, but unfortunately so many options were cut off to her. She stayed in contact throughout her friends’ mission away, she “longed to go too and work for the elevation and salvation of [her] own race”. She was able to meet missionaries through her work as an officer for the Orleans Women’s Foreign Missions Society who had been all over the world and “have come to feel a deep interest in every heathen land”.
Her family were offered significant sums of money on many occassions to ‘showcase’ Eliza in a circus or freakshow, and strangers on the street would offer unsolicited advice (no way??!) that her family should send her away: "Why don't you take her to the show or museum? That wouldn't be any harm and you could make your living easily." Others would say, "There is a fortune in that girl." “Quite recently a gentleman said to my niece, as he saw me for the first time, ‘There is ready money.’”
But Eliza knew her own purpose was to serve God, and had no intention of ever being isolated in a museum no matter how much money it would make her. She says that she visited one of the museums once to see what it was really like, see the conditions just so that she could learn. One of the other ‘exhibits’ told her she should speak to the manager to get herself in but she refused to be segregated from the rest of the world as was so common for disabled people at that time.
She tried to explain this, at the time, radical idea that it was possible to be both happy and disabled, that while she has restrictions she can hear and read and speak and see just fine, her hands work and despite the attitudes of ableds, she has achieved more than many of them have. She’s a badass is what I’m getting at.
Eliza is a very unusual case, as a disabled person at this time who was actively taking control of her own narrative, she decided how other people knew who she was and had a good amount of #disabledsnark.
She was also of course an African American woman living at the turn of the 20th Century, living in the midwest (there was a large western migration of former slaves in the years after the civil war, understandably) in the years after the Supreme Court case of Plessy vs Furgusson (a supreme court battle that determined segregation of public facilities, such as trains and buses, was constitutional as long as the facilities were equal in quality, has become well known in the phrase “separate, but equal”)
There are plenty of theories of the reasoning for the lack of disabled voices in the history of African American studies, a primary one being that there was a very long process to unpick the association of blackness with being considered physically or cognitively ‘substandard’, or in short, “a handicapped race”, and in showcasing people with physical and visible disabilities, it would only confirm the theory. Eliza is therefore an unusual primary source of the intersection between blackness and disability at the turn of the century, but has been somewhat forgotten in the annals of time. Alas, all we know about her is what she’s written herself.
Now, I am by no means experienced in African American/Black British studies or similar, and as such I don’t feel like the right person to go into any more detail than is related to the life of Eliza, so I will collate some of the (fascinating) articles I’ve read related to disability in African American studies and stick them with my sources at the bottom.
Eliza died on the 29th January 1908, aged 31, but continued to be well respected alongside her father after her death. C.M. Damon said that Eliza herself was a “valuable assistant” in the religious work and presiding in public meetings where she often lectured, assisting her father while he was still alive and on her own after he died. However like many other figures, Eliza was forgotten, and the only things we know about her are what she wrote herself.
Shadow and Sunshine- Eliza Suggs 1906
Summary of Shadow and Sunshine- Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
Eliza Suggs’ Poetry, Free Methodist Feminist, Dr Christy Mesaros-Winckles
“The $700 Little Book” and “Early African American Leaders in the Free Methodist Church”, Free Methodist Historical Society Newsletter, Spring 2006
Dis-abled Citizenship: Narrating the Extraordinary Body in Racial Uplift- Stephen Knadler, Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture and Theory- 2013 https://muse.jhu.edu/article/522243/summary
Developing and Reflecting on a Black Disability Studies Pedagogy: Work from the National Black Disability Coalition, 2015 http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4637/3933