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Disability Pride Month - Eliza Suggs

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 7/14/2023

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

“My father and mother were slaves,” began Eliza Sugg’s remarkable autobiography, Shadow and Sunshine. In this 1906 publication, she recounted for readers the story of her parents.


The first Suggs referenced in the book is a Mississippi slave owner. “A slave had no real name of his own, but was called by the name of his master; and whenever he was sold and changed masters, his name was changed to that of the new master.”


Eliza’s father James Suggs was trained as a blacksmith, a highly valuable skill. According to Eliza, “Mr. Suggs was a kind master.” He permitted her father work for himself after his tasks were done, which allowed James to sell a few things and make a little money.

Her mother Malinda had come from significantly less gentle enslavement; in Alabama, she’d witnessed her own mother’s brutal beating and disfigurement for the minor infraction of falling asleep and failing to keep the fire lit when the owner’s sons stayed out drinking until dawn.


Both James and Malinda had learned to read, a precious—and often illegal—skill among enslaved people. James, who grew up in North Carolina before being sold to the Suggs, gathered knowledge from the white schoolboys who would show off what they’d learned that day. Though they mocked his illiteracy, James remembered and practiced the letters they dared him to write. “Father said he had to ‘pick up’ what education he got,” Eliza said, “much as a rabbit might be supposed to pick up some tender morsel with the greyhounds hot in pursuit.”


Malinda, however, was deliberately taught to read. After the death of the first slave owner, Malinda and her mother fell to the ownership of one of his sons, but his excessive drinking soon left him in debt. He sold mother and daughter to a Mrs. Fillbrick. “Mrs. Fillbrick was a good Christian woman,” Eliza wrote, “and took a great deal of interest in her little slave girl. She taught her to read and was always kind to her.”


As a girl, Malinda knew that Mrs. Fillbrick was intensely disliked by her neighbors. Only later would she understand that it was because she vocally opposed slavery. “Speaking almost prophetically, she would sometimes tell mother that some day the slaves would all be free,” Eliza wrote. “Soon this woman left the south, and of course, had to sell her slave.” Left unspoken, perhaps, is that Mrs. Fillbrick also could have freed her.

Eliza's mother Malinda. New York Public Library Digital Collections

When Mr. Suggs purchased a young woman named Malinda from Mrs. Fillbrick, James took notice. Malinda, in turn, took a liking to the spirited, educated young blacksmith on the Mississippi plantation. Eliza said, “After they were married they were never torn from each other and sold to different masters; for Mr. Suggs said he did not believe in separating husband and wife. Thus God dealt very tenderly with my parents and spared them the horrors and heartaches which were the common lot of most slaves.” 

The couple had heartaches of their own, however. In 1864, during the height of the Civil War, James was away from the plantation on a task when he ran into Union soldiers. James had heard tales of enslaved men joining the fight and finding freedom with their wives and children. He hoped to do the same. “[F]ather fondly hoped he could get some soldiers to come back with him to get mother and the four children. He knew but little of army life and discipline, and so was bitterly disappointed in never getting back.”


Indeed, it was over three years before Malinda saw her husband again. The Suggs blamed Malinda for what they thought was James’s desertion, and their treatment of her and her children grew considerably less lenient. They insulted and berated her. Her two oldest children were taken to Georgia and kept away from her. The ongoing Civil War had disrupted the regular business of the plantations—in her book, Eliza referenced stories of slaves just walking off, even under the eyes of their taskmasters—so “comparatively kind” Mr. Suggs separated the family to prevent their easy escape.

Eliza (left) with her sisters in 1906
New York Public Library Digital Collections

Then, in “the lull before the bursting of the thunderbolt,” believing the war to be almost over with a Confederate victory, Mr. Suggs and many other plantation owners ordered their slaves returned. Malinda was reunited with her oldest children, and less than two months later, the Confederate army instead declared defeat. In this, too, Malinda was one of the lucky ones. Had her children “been left in Georgia until the close of the war, it is very doubtful, humanly speaking, as to whether she would ever have seen them again,” Eliza said. “And for this reason: So long as the slaves were considered property, each owner naturally looked after his own belongings and kept them together. After the slaves were freed, however, no one cared what became of them.”


James, who had been injured soon after enlistment, sent for Malinda. Finally, here was proof her husband was still alive. She and the four children traveled north to join him. “My father said that seeing he was now a free man, he wanted to be married like other free people,” Eliza wrote. “So on the fifth day of June, in 1866, father and mother were married again according to the Christian rites, or according to the white man's law.”


Though they’d survived slavery, life was still brutal for those freed. Eliza recounted that, “Of these four children born in slavery, Ellen is the only one now surviving, Lucinda died with typhoid fever at the age of eight. Calvin took quick consumption from exposure in Michigan, and died at the age of nineteen. Franklin grew to manhood and was married. Three months after his marriage, he was drowned in a lake near Elgin, Illinois.”


James and Malinda Suggs settled in Illinois. James took up work as a blacksmith once again, until he felt called to become a preacher. He and Malinda had four more children, all girls this time: “Sarah Matilda, Katharine Isabel, Lenora Ethridge, and the writer, Eliza Gertrude.”

Eliza was born Dec. 11, 1876. She appeared healthy until about a month after birth. Seeing her baby in pain, Malinda discovered the little girl had a broken bone. No sooner had that bone healed than another would break. Eliza had osteogenesis imperfecta, more widely known as brittle bone disease. “And thus my bones would break, one after another, for six long years. Whenever I was moved, it caused me great suffering ... I knew nothing of the pleasures of childhood. I could not play as other children, but had to sit still in the house and look out at the other children; and part of the time was not even able to sit up.”


Eliza was not expected to survive to adulthood. Today, the life expectancy of individuals with osteogenesis imperfecta is similar to that of the general population; in the 1870s, however, the condition was far less understood. They prepared burial clothes for fragile baby Eliza, but “God saw fit to let me live.” At the time of writing her autobiography, Eliza listed herself as 28 years old, weighing 55 pounds at a height of 33 inches.


As she aged, her bones became less delicate and she enthusiastically took to schooling. “It did not hurt me to sit in school,” she wrote. She first learned at home until 1889 when, at age 13, a friend paid her tuition to attend a seminary school. “So every day I was wheeled to school in my invalid chair ... and was carried up the steps to the school room by mother or [sister] Katie, and placed at my desk, where I sat until lessons were over and they came for me at noon and night.”

The parenthetical commentary of writer Daisy Holder in Eliza Suggs: Early #disabledsnark at its finest intimates that Eliza’s struggles are still frustratingly familiar. “(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 [for her to get a wheelchair].) 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.”

Author Eliza Suggs in 1906. New York Public Library Digital Collection

With her health more stable, Eliza began to attend school regularly and participate in social life. The public did not always respond to her presence with compassion. As Daisy noted, “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.” 


In 1904, Eliza wrote, 


“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.”

Reading this in 2019, Daisy recognized the scenarios described. “[M]any of us know from similar interactions,” she said, “the shock of a stranger who has assumed she would get a smile or a gurgle who actually got a lecture on disability. Goals.”


In addition to these invasive questions, strangers also frequently commented that the family could display Eliza in circuses or traveling shows to make extra money. “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,’” Eliza recalled in her book. “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.’”


Eliza’s answer to these queries was a simple one: “[D]ear reader, God did not create me for this purpose.” 

Christianity was central in Eliza’s life. Her disability, she believed, had brought her closer to God. In a poem titled “Perfect Through Suffering,” she wrote:


“So He sends you the blinding darkness, 

And the furnace of seven-fold heat; 

'Tis the only way, believe me,

To keep you close to His feet, 

For 'tis always so easy to wander 

When our lives are glad and sweet.


 “Some wonder how I can be happy in my condition,” she shared in her narrative. “It is the sunlight of God in my soul that makes me happy. It would be hard to live without the Lord. I get much pleasure from the reading of good books. I enjoy looking at the beautiful things in nature and in art. I love to listen to the singing of the birds and to sweet music.”


“She tried to explain this, at the time, radical idea that it was possible to be both happy and disabled,” Daisy commented, “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.”


Like Mary A. McCurdy before her, Eliza’s faith led her to the temperance movement that agitated for the prohibition of alcohol. Temperance activists, often women without other political power, grasped at alcohol as an ill in their communities that they could remedy. 


“America’s most vocal prohibitionists weren’t privileged white evangelicals, but its most marginalized and disenfranchised communities: women, Native Americans and African Americans. Indeed, temperance and prohibitionism worked hand-in-glove with other freedom movements—abolitionism and suffragism—that fought against the entrenched system of domination and subordination,” wrote political science professor Mark Lawrence in “The Forgotten History of Black Prohibitionism” for Politico. In her temperance work, Eliza was in agreement with the greatest leaders of the age. “[N]early every major Black abolitionist and civil rights leader before World War I—from Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany and Sojourner Truth to F.E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington—endorsed temperance and prohibition.”


In Eliza’s view, the destructive quality of alcohol was akin to that of chattel slavery itself. “The Drink Demon's slave is held with an ever tightening grip in life, and is ruined, body and soul, in death. Shall we see the curse of strong drink wiped out even as we have seen the curse of slavery? Shall we have an Emancipation Proclamation for the defenceless millions over whom drink is now tyranizing?”


Eliza dreamt of proselytizing in Africa, in China and India. When Christian missionary friends would travel, she eagerly exchanged letters with them. Her health never permitted her to travel more widely herself. “I esteem it a great privilege to help hold the ropes in this country, and to pray for and encourage those who go,” she said.


She ends Shadow and Sunshine with a collection of “Incidents of Slavery.” The importance of these accounts, and this book itself, is difficult to overstate. As PBS noted, “[Sl]ave narratives provided the most powerful voices contradicting the slaveholders' favorable claims concerning slavery. By their very existence, the narratives demonstrated that African Americans were people with mastery of language and the ability to write their own history.” This rings doubly true for a disabled Black woman like Eliza.


“Eliza is a very unusual case, as a disabled person at this time who was actively taking control of her own narrative,” Daisy said. Just two years after the publishing of Shadow and Sunshine, Eliza died at age 31 on Jan. 29, 1908, in Orleans, Nebraska.


Like so many disabled women of color before and after her, her story could have been left behind in history. What we know of Eliza Suggs and her parents is entirely because Eliza herself was determined to share it. 




Shadow and Sunshine by Eliza Suggs

Disability History Snapshots: Eliza Suggs: Early #disabledsnark at its finest

Politico: The Forgotten History of Black Prohibitionism

New York Public Library Digital Collections: Photos of Eliza and family

PBS Resource Bank: Slave narratives and Uncle Tom's Cabin

Wikipedia: Eliza Suggs