What I'm Reading: March 14
There's so much to love here.
There's a broad range of subjects—some extremely well-known, some less so—and a different illustrator to depict each one.
Which, hooray! My favorite thing about reading books like this—collective biographies AND books that showcase the work of multiple illustrators—is that they so often highlight people who are new to me, historical figures and contemporary artists alike. And that is very definitely something that happened here.
Also great: Different entries in different poetic forms! I'm always here for that.
Also also: A timeline that puts all of the featured women and their accomplishments in a temporal context! YAY TIMELINES!
I loved, too, the format of the backmatter. The bibliography is broken down by each woman featured, with a few highlighted sources for each! Here's an example of that:
Here's my stumbling block.
In the very first spread—which is about Molly Williams, a black woman who lived from 1747-1821 and is/was the first known female firefighter in the United States—Williams is described as "a servant of volunteer firefighter James Aymar".
I've done some poking around, and source after source after source—including one in The Journal of Social History that I'm not linking to because it's behind a paywall—maintain that Williams wasn't a servant, but that she was enslaved by the Aymar family.
Again: According to almost everything I've read, the Aymar family owned Molly Williams, they didn't employ her. Servant =/= slave.
In the backmatter, Hood writes that there are "many errors circulating on the internet about Molly," though she doesn't say anything about slavery vs. service—even though it seems like that would have been the perfect opportunity to bring it up? Rather, she says:
For example, some say the famous snowstorm was the Blizzard of 1818, but Molly would have been seventy-one by then; the actual date is probably in the early 1780s.
She continues by explaining that most of the available information about Molly comes from researching her husband, Peter Williams Sr., and cites this article, which states:
Taking the young couple with him, Aymar, a British loyalist, left New York to avoid the American revolutionaries. Their only child Peter Jr. was born around 1780 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Three years later Aymar decided to move to England. Unlike his master, Williams was a devoted nationalist. The young father contacted the officials at John Street Church, and in 1783, at Williams’ request, Aymar sold the Williams family to the John Street Methodist Church, the successor to Wesley Chapel, for £40.
[Just before that passage, the article states that Mary Durham (Molly Williams) was "an indentured servant from St. Kitts in the West Indies"—but then goes on to talk about the whole family being sold off... so... question mark? Even if that is accurate, the word "servant" on its own absolutely does not mean the same thing as the phrase "indentured servant." Meanwhile, this book refers to both Molly and Peter Williams as "slaves," full stop. So, again... question mark?]
At any rate, all of the accounts I've been able to dig up suggest that Aymar sold Peter and Molly Williams before leaving the country to move back to England—and so logically, during the time that he was volunteering with the Oceanus Engine Company No. 11, he still owned them.
Referring to Williams simply as a "servant"—as well as the author's choice to not include the information that Molly Williams had been enslaved, or, if that one account is correct, an indentured servant—is a dealbreaker. It feels inaccurate at best, and deliberately disingenuous at worst.
It should ALSO be noted that all of this has come up before, in re: Dianne Ochiltree's Molly, By Golly!... which is listed as a resource in this book's backmatter.
Finally—and I feel like this should be obvious, but I want to state it clearly anyway—NONE of this diminishes Molly Williams' heroism. But it is absolutely a vital part of her story, of this country's history, and one that shouldn't have been glossed over.