WASHINGTON – In a new book, Emma’s Postcard Album, Black Lives in the Early Twentieth Century, author Faith Mitchell tells her family story through her grandmother’s 1906 to 1910 postcard collection, providing an authentic narrative of African American culture in an overtly racist society, where lynchings, segregation, and discrimination were all commonplace. The setting is Southeastern Pennsylvania, where teenager Emma Crawford received postcards from family, friends, and admirers that chronicle the world they lived in.

After her mother passed away in 2003, Mitchell discovered her grandmother’s treasure trove in a locked trunk that held her mother’s valuables. Once Mitchell, a medical anthropologist whose career has bridged research, philanthropy, and social and health policy, found the postcard album, she was compelled to unlock its secrets for the world.
The Black Caucus of the American Library Association recently announced that Emma's Postcard Album: Black Lives in the Early Twentieth Century was selected as their 2023 Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation Award winner.

The stunningly beautiful book, filled with colorful postcards, as well as newspaper clippings and other archival material, peeks behind the curtain of minstrel shows, reiterates the importance of educational and religious institutions for Blacks and puts Emma’s life in historical context. It also vividly portrays the daily tribulations that Blacks faced, even in the North, and delivers a history lesson through lived experience.

“During this time, Booker T. Washington was telling people to build up their communities, open stores, and start businesses,” Mitchell says. “People did that.

Tragically, the White response was to burn down these successful Black businesses and neighborhoods. There was no police protection. People were just on their own. There was the disenfranchisement of the Black vote. A 1908 riot in Springfield, Illinois, where Whites attacked the Black community, was a major factor in the launch of the NAACP.”

Many of the postcards in the book are from Emma’s older brother, Merris, a musician who toured with minstrel shows. He used the stage name Mike Ford and played the tuba and baritone horn. Traditional minstrel shows consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances by White actors who wore blackface and gave unflattering portrayals of African Americans. Merris played with all-Black minstrel groups, which were extremely popular, and used the postcards to show Emma, who worked as a domestic servant, the world outside her rural confines.

“I didn’t know much about minstrel shows when I started working with the postcards, but I learned a lot in the process,” says Mitchell. “We know that minstrel shows tap into the essence of American racism and cultural contradictions. They were started in the 1840s by White men who said that they were imitating Blacks. And then subsequently, Black men created minstrel shows where they imitated the White men who were imitating Black men. So, it is like an echo chamber in some respects. It was an enormously popular form of musical entertainment that dominated American stages from the 1840s until the 1910s.”

The Black performers traveled on their own railroad cars, which was efficient, and kept them safe. “Merris was sometimes attacked by White mobs after the show, even when the audience had cheered and enjoyed the performance,” Mitchell says. “In some cities, there wouldn't be places where the minstrel company could eat or sleep.

 You can understand the value of having a train car.” Merris’s postcards were sent from the road, places like a tiny town named Harlem, Montana with a population of 500 people. The minstrels were taking music to these small towns, but racism and racial stereotypes came as well.

Emma also received postcards from male suitors. She lived near Lincoln University, Pennsylvania—one of the country’s first HBCUs—and knew some of the students.

“Some of the messages were very romantic,” Mitchell says. “One wrote a message saying, ‘This message, dear, I send post haste; It is that I would be with you; And from your lips the nectar taste; Oh birdie, give my message true.’ And another says, ‘I was down to Mrs. Wesley's Saturday evening thinking you would be there but failed to find you. When will you be there? Would like to come down on the evening.’ Others reflect social settings, where Emma met young men in places chaperoned by adults.”

One of Emma's last positions before she married and stopped working was with Woodrow Wilson's household when he was the President of Princeton. This was 1910, and she sent her mother a postcard when she first got there, saying “This is the house where we are working. I guess you can imagine how large it is.” Emma was an apprentice with Wilson's chef. “But it did not go well because Wilson was a notorious racist from Virginia. They treated Emma and her friend, who also worked at the house, very badly. My mother told me that they burned the letters that Emma got from home. They were very mean to her,” Mitchell says.

In 1910, Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey, and that is when Emma left his household and came back to Pennsylvania. Two years later, she was married and a new mother and entered another stage of her life.

At the time, Mitchell says Blacks were fighting against their secondary status with all the tools that they had available, always hoping that the tide would turn in their favor. “None of the cards in Emma’s collection mentioned race specifically, but through what the cards say and do not say, we can glean a spirit of perseverance that kept people going,” Mitchell says. “Here we are 125 years later, and we are still dealing with so many of the conditions that Emma and her friends dealt with.”

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