Interview with Stephanie Bryant. August 1, 2003.
Citation Information: A Conversation with Stephanie Bryant, descendant of Harriet Tubman. August 1, 2003
Stephanie Bryant is a direct descendant of Harriet Tubman through Tubman’s brother, James. Stephanie’s father, William Henry Stewart, was the son of Tubman’s nephew, Elijah Stewart.
The Stewart family heritage is African American and Irish American. In her conversation with the interviewer, Stephanie spoke about her illustrious heritage and the reality of growing up as a child of shared African American and Irish American heritage.
Tubman Family History
Harriet Tubman, so often called the Moses of Her People, lived for over 50 years in Auburn, New York after the Civil War ended. She lived out her life in relative obscurity, caring for elderly and indigent African Americans in the community. A visitor to Auburn, New York can walk through one of the homes that Tubman purchased that is now part of a Tubman historical site, maintained by the AME Zion Church. Tubman brought her parents to Auburn from Canada and others of her family moved to the Auburn area as well. The house is a small, frame structure, typical of farmhouses of the period. Tubman was able to purchase land and her homes with the assistance of William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State and a lawyer who supported first the abolitionist movement and later the rights of freed slaves. A few blocks further into Auburn, the far grander home of William Seward is also open to the public.
Tubman had eight brothers and sisters, Linah, Mariah Ritty, Soph, Robert, Ben, Rachel, Henry and Moses whom she led out of slavery. One brother, called Ben in slavery and later James Stewart in freedom, settled first in Canada and then lived much of his free life in Auburn as well.
Years later, one of Ben’s sons moved away from Auburn and settled his family in Boston, Massachusetts.
Ben, (James), ran away from slavery at Christmas, 1854, with two brothers, Henry and Robert. Harriet Tubman helped them escape as she did all members of her family. Ben left behind two free boys whose mother was probably dead. When he ran, Jane, his fiance also ran from slavery. They married and lived at first in Chatham, Ontario. As a free woman, Jane changed her name to Catherine Kane and then to Catherine Stewart after her marriage. Their son Elijah was born in April, 1856, in Chatham, Ontario while h is parents were living with the Bowley family. Catherine ,wife of James (Ben) moved to Auburn NY with 3 children, Elijah, Hester (Esther) and the baby, Adam. Adam died in 1863. Hester’s birth and death dates are not known. Catherine herself died in the 1870’s.
Elijah Stewart married twice, first to Georgia in the 1880’s in Auburn, NY, and had two children, Ben and Hester. In 1888, Elijah and Georgia moved to Boston and Georgia died there in the 1890s. Elijah later married Mary Bothwaite, an Irish Protestant from Dublin who came to the United States as an indentured servant at 18. Mary worked as a maid, and was still in bondage to the family when Elijah wanted to marry her. Elijah cleared her debt. Mary Bothwaite became an American citizen in a period when few immigrant women sought it out because there were few rights a woman gained as a citizen. Elijah and Mary had 8 children, Hilda. Viola. Reginald. William. Robert. Alfred. Bessie. Howard. Stephanie Bryant is the youngest child of the youngest Stewart child. Her one sibling is deceased.
As a child, Stephanie knew little about the Tubman/Stewart family who lived in Auburn or, indeed, anywhere but in Boston. She grew up knowing that there had been a separation between her grandfather Elijah and his siblings but the separation was never explained, nor even discussed in any grandchild’s presence. She knew that Harriet Tubman visited her brother Elijah off and on throughout her life and lived with him for a time but other siblings did not visit. Stephanie knew the names of a few of Harriet’s brothers – nothing more In recent years, Bryant learned that other Tubman family members didn’t know much about Elijah and his family. Whatever the separation, Bryant believes that it had a lot to do with other members of the family and didn’t involve Elijah’s children or grandchildren.
Stephanie remembers her grandfather, Elijah Stewart, as a strong presence who still feels alive to her. She says that Elijah raised his children as an insular family and protected them from danger whenever he could. When Elijah moved his family to Dorchester, an outlying area of Boston, he patrolled his home every night with a shotgun until the neighbors left them alone. The Stewarts interacted with the community when necessary but lived within the family. Elijah taught his children that they were all special, a kind of aristocrat, to encourage them to succeed. He accepted no limits and told his children, “You know who you are. There are enemies in the world but you know who you are.” Elijah never accepted the idea of restriction because of his color and never admitted his disappointments. He was a heavy equipment operator, fully qualified, and the only black operator hired to work in Boston at the time, including work on the Christian Science Building. He was also an accomplished musician and played in several Philharmonic orchestras in New York and Canada.
Elijah was a very paternal, traditional man who believed that women were second class citizens in his home. The girls did household chores; the boys didn’t. He told his daughters that it wasn’t their fault that women were inferior and did not limit their professional goals. But when two of his children demonstrated great skill playing the violin, and Elijah could afford to pay for lessons for only one, he chose his son ( Stephanie’s father), although his daughter, Hilda, may have been the greater talent. Stephanie thinks that Elijah’s view of women’s status was in direct conflict with those of his aunt, Harriet Tubman, who remained militantly committed to women’s rights for all of her life. When the federal government tried to refuse Harriet her pension for her work during the Civil War– the refusal was not because she was black but because she was a woman, she fought for many years to receive what she believed was rightly hers. Elijah argued that because slavery was ended, blacks no longer needed to fight for their rights and thought he could compete as an equal to white men. Stephanie’s family said that their different views were a source of many arguments between Tubman and her nephew. Harriet Tubman lived with Elijah off and on until he was 50 years old and neither changed the other’s view point.
Elijah sent all of his children to symphony performances while they were growing up, and his determination to enrich them created conflicts with his wife, Mary, on paydays when Elijah would buy concert tickets before he brought his paycheck home. Mary said they needed the money to feed the children but Elijah believed that they needed to feed their children’s souls as much as their bodies. He encouraged his children to play musical instruments, as he had, and one son, Stephanie’s father, William, was presented by his teacher to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a position. Stephanie relates that the BSO did not know that William was black. (His teacher, who arranged the interview, was a Russian Jew.) When the interviewers realized he was black, they were no longer interested in his playing. “He was hired; then fired because he was black.” She believes that incident was one that Elijah couldn’t gloss over. He knew the refusal was about Boston and the racial prejudice of the BSO since he had played in other places. The refusal changed Elijah’s son, Stephanie’s father forever. Had he been white, or even “another kind of black,” he might have been able to survive it better.
Stephanie believes that Elijah’s ambition for his children to achieve fostered a kind of arrogance in them, an aloofness that helped them all to achieve professional positions in a difficult racial environment. Two of Elijah’s daughters became nurses. One was the first nurse in the country to put in an IV line. (A doctor in surgery handed the line first to the first nurse, a white; she fainted and he passed it on to Elijah’s daughter.) Two Stewarts graduated from Wentworth. There were no manual laborers. All were raised to honor the Stewart name and they did.
Elijah’s son and his family
Elijah’s son, James, married Beatrice Mack, herself the daughter of a black woman and an Irish father. Stephanie has little information about her maternal grandfather, George Mack, whose name may actually have been McGurk. She knows that he was a traveling salesman who fathered several children and then went away one day and never came back. As far as Stephanie was told, her grandmother never heard from George again. What she does know is that George drank and that her Grandmother Mack always told her that she must never drink. Stephanie’s Irish heritage made no difference to her when she was growing up. There was always the one drop rule for blackness and having Irish relatives made no difference. Stephanie thought she had no right to her Irish heritage. As an adult, Stephanie has thought more about her Irish side and says that her daughter, Rachel, taught her to acknowledge her whiteness and her Irish heritage.
Stephanie is a light skinned African American, as our many of her family members. She was listed as white on her birth certificate which she guesses was a mistake made by a nurse who saw her alone, not with other family members. Years earlier, Elijah and his family were listed as white on the 1920 census, perhaps because the census taker met Mary and assumed the other family members were white. Stephanie grew up in Roxbury, a predominantly black area of Boston, and later West Roxbury, an area that was predominantly white. She and her family left Roxbury during the 1960’s when blackness dominated the identity of African Americans. In the 1960’s, she was stoned/attacked in Roxbury when she walked through because other African Americans assumed she was white. In what Stephanie calls �Old Boston�, she says that most African Americans were light skinned. Many �Old Boston� African Americans were light skinned, and many were blue-eyed. Their color ranged from Stephanie–nearly white to medium brown. When she was growing up, Roxbury was structured by color, profession and economics. Professional blacks were light skinned. Darkest were poorest. The Franklin Park area of Roxbury was where the light skinned lived and the economic path went down all the way to Dudley and Northampton Streets where the poorest, darkest lived. Then in the 50’s and 60’s, an influx brought “very dark” African Americans to Boston, to Roxbury. Light skinned were no longer welcome. Stephanie thinks that it never occurred to newer black residents that people so light skinned were also black.
The Stewart family then moved to West Roxbury, moving in near “lace curtain” Irish. Only her very light mother could house hunt. In West Roxbury, the lace curtain Irish moved out as blacks moved in. Stephanie doesn’t think the Irish hated blacks; she thinks they hated their association and proximity to a hated group. The Irish did not attack her family, but she always knew she was not one of them. The Irish were replaced by other immigrants, Mid eastern and Greeks. Her daughter was called “nigger” by a Greek immigrant woman who could not yet speak English. When Stephanie went to the woman, she asked, �How can you know only this one word, when you can’t even speak the language?�
Stephanie feels that she never had a sense of home, or a neighborhood where she felt safe, welcomed, belonging. She thinks the one exception to this sense of no home may have been when she was very young and living in Roxbury, at a time when there were many Jews still living there. The Jews� sense of community spilled over to welcome backs. Jews were welcoming. (If you walked on the same sidewalks, then you were part of their community. The only place a Jew wouldn’t welcome you was in their temples/ synagogues. Jews who lived in Roxbury were camp survivors, refugees, and their experiences bonded them together. She thinks there is a vast cultural difference between Jews and Irish; that the Irish (are not a healthy people. Their poverty didn’t make them bond or form a community, even among themselves in West Roxbury.� In South Boston, she thinks the Irish do have a sense of community but in her experience they had no welcome for others. No blacks were welcome in South Boston. Her daughter Rachel, now 20 years old and away at college, has a much better view of South Boston. She dated an Irish boy and was accepted in his South Boston home and among his friends. She thinks some of this was the boy’s status which protected Rachel and made her welcome. Rachel had bad experiences with other blacks in Boston. “Blacks are notoriously intolerant of each other.”
She thinks Irish are tolerant of themselves and other Irish because they have a cultural pride and a history of political power. Rachel loves Irish culture, music, “all the things she doesn’t have as a black person.”
She believes that blacks tried to tell themselves they were black and proud but always had internal insecurity and doubt. Stephanie believes that African American slavery was unique from other racial bigotry because blacks were separated by language and dehumanized. This did not produce a healthy race. She sees black history as the same as the history of abused children; the handicaps are still there and blacks then reinforce the negative images among themselves. “The slave story is a story of coercion and you hate that part of yourself. Every time you look in the mirror, you see the hated color.” She says that hair and skin color are reasons for backs to be intolerant of each other. Her daughter, Rachel, had “good hair” and many kids thought she was Puerto Rican. Stephanie too had good hair. “Not white, straight, but good.� And their hair made each of them objects of anger from other blacks. Stephanie says that if “we, (the Tubman /Stewarts) couldn’t escape the self hate in our family where every day we were reminded that we were special, that no one was better than us, then no black can escape it.”
Everybody in Roxbury when she was growing up was mixed. Blacks had mix with most other nationalities but the dominant were Irish and Native American. The mixed race marriages she grew up around were freely chosen relationships. People who lived in proximity married each other. She thinks the Irish resented their proximity to blacks. They weren’t black and didn’t want to be. Her grandmother, Mary Bothwaite Stewart, was an Irish Protestant and very prejudiced against Irish Catholics. Elijah and Stephanie’s father knew that the Irish side couldn’t help. They both knew about the �No Irish Need Apply� signs and knew that knew the Irish were also unwelcome in many parts of Boston. At the same time, Mary Bothwaite’s living with a black man excluded her from Irish. Mary’s two brothers had left Ireland, (Dublin) and gone to England for work. Both had become members of the Police force. Mary was very proud of them but had no further contact. She didn’t want her brothers to know anything about her life.
In earlier times in the South End of Boston, where her mother and aunt grew up, blacks and Irish lived peacefully together. Stephanie believes that there is a kind of tolerance learned by those who are forced to live among each other because they cannot afford to go anywhere else.
Stephanie now lives in Hyde Park, a little development cut off by conservation areas. The homes were originally Jewish single family homes. As they moved out and up, Irish, then blacks, then more blacks moving in. White families held meeting to figure out how they could move.
Stephanie could hear their voices from her own house as they talked about getting out.
She says that the same pattern of flight happened in Dorchester and Mattapan. A panic to get out, those who could move did. Those who remain in Hyde Park, where she now lives, and other places are living there because it is as far as they can go. Other places, even a street over from her home, are hundreds of thousands more expensive, so those who can’t afford the price stay. �Then those who have to stay, have to get along, have to learn to tolerate; as long as the crime level remains stable, then it’s perfectly alright that we’re all living there. (The all is a diverse group.) “One to one relationships with other races are completely okay. No problem.” Stephanie would be willing to live in an all black neighborhood, if she knew she would be accepted.
Stephanie now wants to acknowledge her Irish heritage. She says she has dropped the “delusional belief that one can ignore one half of your heritage.” She believes her denying her heritage was wrong and reactive, yet there is still a part of her that feels she has no right to Irish heritage. Her daughter one night listed her mother’s heritages and Stephanie acknowledges that is more non-black than black. Her father was 1/( black, 1/( white (Irish). (Stewart)
Her mother was half Russian Jew, half Native American, and her father, half black and half Irish Stephanie’s mother was called a Black Jew and was light enough to have passed as white. She chose not to, unlike her mother’s sister who decided to pass and walked out one day and never returned to the family. �The worst betrayal for African Americans was to pass. It meant denying your heritage, your family. It also meant being afraid of what skin color your babies might carry.�
She believes that young blacks today don’t know what it was like to grow up black a generation ago. They know little about slavery and have not been stoned, or limited in the way blacks of her day were. The young blacks carry the same anger and hurt and they don’t even understand why they feel that way. They are another generation carrying the behavior of abused children. She thinks that perhaps Irish kids in South Boston feel some of the same intolerance but because they are not black, they always have a choice to go somewhere else where things will be better. They don’t take black skin with them, She admires and envies the Irish because their numbers gave them power. The Irish are “different, unique, and special. A race unto themselves.” She thinks the Irish were always eager to be away from blacks. “They were competing for jobs. The lowest jobs. And there were so many Irish. They had to hate the blacks.”
For Stephanie skin color and blackness are the difference that cannot be denied. As a young child, she watched a television documentary that “proved” that blacks were different from whites, that they were animals. The program included a diagram of a heel and a skull, showing that the formation of each was different from whites. She went to her mother saying, “there’s a scientist saying that we’re not human.” (Her mother turned the set off.) That kind of ‘information’ was common in the eugenics movement during her lifetime. “When the white world says ‘you are less than’, it is difficult not to believe it.” Elijah, her grandfather, tried to say that he was free. He tried to take his place in white society and believed that assimilation was possible. Stephanie did not share that view. For her, there was wondering and doubt. She felt never good enough and saw her blackness first. She thinks that how much doubt influences a black person depends on their level of anger, poverty, but the self-hatred is a “black thing.” We blacks have a lot to counteract among ourselves. All black people know that the idea of them is a lie but behaving above the lie is difficult.” She does trust that the change will hold although the good things that have happened for blacks are so recent and she sees that her daughter, Rachel’s experience of prejudice is different. Rachel was 9 years old before she came home and asked Stephanie what the term prejudice meant; she knew the meaning of the word but had no personal experience to give it meaning. That was a sign of real change; so much so that my mother, her grandmother cried. Stephanie believes that more change is coming through intermarriage and the browning of skin color in America. “I have to believe it.” She sees that the young who intermarry do not deny any of their racial makeup. They say, and their children say, “I’m mixed.” That’s very hopeful.
Stephanie is an office manager who completed three years of college and left school when both her parents became ill. She attended Roxbury public schools before anyone was saying how bad those schools were. “I went to school in a ghetto, a bad education.” Her parents encouraged her to read, and learn outside of school, trips to the library weekly, etc. “Everything my parents did they did for their kids.” Even alcoholism didn’t interfere with them; they stood up and did their work. She doesn�t think of her parents as social activists but said they did what they could. Her father went to the Washington March for Civil Rights, and challenged the Post Office system in Boston for discrimination, where he’d never been promoted, despite having high scores. At the time, the Boston Post Office published the scores and still didn’t promote blacks with high scores. Her father’s challenge forced them to change. He was promoted to a postal superintendent position. Stephanie’s aunt, Hilda Stewart Proctor, was Martin Luther King’s assistant for many years.
Stephanie believes that much of her own and her family’s experience was shaped by, and peculiar to Boston. “Maybe things would have been different if we’d lived somewhere else, Atlanta, New York, Chicago.” All of her aunts and uncles stayed in Boston until later in their lives. Two aunts then left with their husbands, when they were 50/60. (Hilda and Bessie). Why did they stay? “Because we were all about family.” Stephanie has not visited Africa and said that African Americans who do are rejected for their whiteness. They live in a double rejection. And they are really Americans who lived and labored in America.
With thanks to Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., author of Bound For The Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,( December 2003), for her assistance in facilitating the opportunity to speak with Stephanie Bryant.
For further information visit: