There are only two autobiographies written by 19th century African- American women in the Free Methodist Denomination. While this could be viewed as another example of segregation in Christian culture, I prefer to view the narratives of Emma Ray and Eliza Suggs as examples of women who bridged racial and gender barriers to actively engage in their chosen denomination. I’ve already written in detail about Emma Ray’s narrative, which is the more overlooked narrative of the two, but I would like to spend a few posts talking about Eliza Suggs influence. Suggs has received more attention from historians within the denomination and in the academia at large. This is part due to her amazing story. Suggs was born after the Civil War to parents who had moved north after the war ended. She suffered from rickets which severly stunted her growth and caused her to be viewed differently from her other siblings. In a time period when individuals who looked differently were often sent to freak shows, Suggs and her family refused to follow such a path. Suggs talks in depth about her disabilities and how she was viewed by neighbors and people on the street:
As I go about, being so small for my age, I am quite a curiosity to strangers. I have often been amused when people would crowd around me and ask mother or Sister Katie questions about me, such as, “Can she talk?” “Is she smart?” “How old is the baby?” ‘Has she got feet?” “Can she use her hands?” “Oh what a
big baby!” One lady on the train, not long ago, came up to me and began to talk baby talk. “Hello, sir! Hello, sir! Boo!” This was indeed amusing to me. It drew the attention of every one in the car. Of course, the baby did not respond in the way she expected, she supposing it would laugh and crow. When I was explained to her she was somewhat taken back. I am often asked if I do not get tired sitting all the time. Of course, I know nothing else only sit, as I never walked a step in my life. I know it must be grand to be able to walk, but I know nothing from experience, of the pleasures of walking. Some day, I expect to walk the streets of the New Jerusalem just as well as those who now have the full use of their feet; and that will be exceedingly grand. (pp. 57-58).
Suggs speaks with grace about her situation and notes that she feels a call to use her disabilities to empower other women and men through her testimony. Her father was a Free Methodist minister and her siblings would often lift her up in front of crowds at revivals so she could share her story. Whle her famil struggled financially, she refused to believe that going to freak show would be the right decision for her family. Her calling was to preach and her family respected that decision:
There have been persons who would say to my mother, “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, dear reader, God did not create me for this purpose. He created me for His glory, and if I can be a help to any one, and if God can get glory to His name out of my life, amen! To this end shall I live. It has never been a temptation to me to want to go with a show or to be in a museum for money making purposes. I once went to a museum in Chicago just to see and learn. I was asked by one there why I did not speak to the manager and get a place in the museum, and make lots of money. Oh, no! Such places are not for me. God wants me to live for Him, and I could not do it there. I must keep separated from the world. “Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you; and will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” The love of God in my heart keeps me from wanting to do the things that God disapproves and I love to do the things that He approves. Some wonder how I can be happy in my condition. It is the sunlight of God in my soul that makes me happy. (pp. 65-66).
What is remarkable about Eliza’s story is her devotion to her faith and her willingness to write and preach her story. Her life bridges barriers among race, gender and disabilities and over the next few weeks I hope to explore how her faith and her family empowered her to use her personal struggles as part of her public testimony.
Quotes taken from Sugg’s autobiography Shadows and Sunshine