Mary Mildred Williams (née Botts, born 1847), was an American mixed-race child born into slavery who became a symbol used by abolitionists before the Civil War to advance the cause of ending slavery in the U.S.
At age seven in 1855 she became free through the efforts of her father, an escaped slave, and influential men in Massachusetts. Her photograph was published, and she accompanied Senator Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist, on a publicity tour. The photo and tour made her famous, and she was considered a real-life Ida May, the child hero of a popular novel about a girl kidnapped into slavery. Mary's appearance was that of a white child, and abolitionists emphasized that fact to enlist sympathy, as well as to frighten Northerners that any child, regardless of appearance, might be snatched away and made a slave.
The Abolitionist Movement and white propaganda
An analysis of the WPA Slave Narrative Collection, collected in the 1930s, shows that, when women discussed parentage at all, about one-third of these women ex-slaves said they had given birth to a child with a white father, or were themselves the child of a white father. The plight of these mixed-race slaves, especially as children, was often publicized as a way to further the abolitionist cause.
The character of Eliza in the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was described as a quadroon slave (¼ black ancestry) whose child also appeared to be "all-but-white". Carol Goodman states that these literary "white slaves" existed visually only in the imagination of the readers. But later photographs documented the existence of mixed-race, predominantly white slaves, whose appearance shocked and titillated many Northerners.
Nonfiction accounts written by escaped mixed-race slaves who used their European appearance to "pass for white" and gain freedom include those of Ellen Craft: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (coauthored with her husband William), and Harriet Ann Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. With majority-white ancestry, these women often also appeared as speakers on the abolitionist lecture circuit.
The Crafts and other abolitionists also publicized the life of Salomé Müller, a German immigrant orphaned as an infant soon after arrival in New Orleans. Though Muller (later known as Sally Miller) was completely of European descent, she became enslaved as an infant, treated as a mixed-race slave. The threat of white girls being seized and thrown into slavery prompted Parker Pillsbury to write to William Lloyd Garrison: "A white skin is no security whatsoever. I should no more dare to send white children out to play alone, especially at night... than I should dare send them into a forest of tigers and hyenas."
Another popular abolitionist novel of the time was Mary Hayden Pike's Ida May: a Story of Things Actual and Possible (1854), a story about a "white" slave. The book served as the backdrop for the Harpers Weekly story, as it was published a year before.
A woodcut, based on a photograph of former slaves, appeared in Harper's Weekly in January 1864 with the caption "EMANCIPATED SLAVES, WHITE AND COLORED." Four of the children shown were predominantly white in appearance, although born into slavery.
Mary Mildred Botts was the granddaughter of Prudence Nelson Bell, a slave belonging to John Cornwell of Virginia. Her father was an escaped slave Seth Botts, whom fled via the Underground Railroad to Boston when she was 4 years old in the company of Henry David Thoreau. Settling in the West End of Boston with Nathaniel Booth, he eventually bought free his entire family, son Oscar, daughters Mary and Rebecca, Elizabeth, mother-in-law Prudence and four of Prudence's siblings. She was still a young slave due to John Cornwell's mixed heritage and the condition of his property when he died, there was a lawsuit to determine the disposition of his property. She gained her freedom with the help of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who adopted her. She was considered the embodiment of Ida May. Articles were published about her in the Boston Telegraph and the New York Times, and copies of her photograph were widely publicized. Botts appeared on stage during speeches by Sumner and other abolitionists. On May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner spoke in the Senate comparing Southern political positions to the sexual exploitation of slaves then taking place in the South. Two days later Sumner was beaten almost to death on the floor of the Senate in the Capitol by Representative Preston Brooks from South Carolina, known as a hothead.
Abolitionists Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and John Albion Andrew were instrumental in gaining freedom for Mary and her mother following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and her fame grew as more in the north were captured by her clean-cut looks as depicted on postcards and woodcuts. Her path to adulthood paralleled that of the antislavery narrative from abolitionist cause to Lincoln's proclamation declaring all slaves in the southern states to be freed men. Her path north followed the underground railroad and the lecture tour exposed the racial underbelly of the politics and sexual moiré's of antebellum life in the south, to which there was significant push back from the dominant white patriarchal society which sought to discredit her story.
Mary was exploited by the abolitionists whom put her forward to proclaim that she was the proof that slavery was not defined by race, the titillated audiences saw justification in overwrought fears that their own daughters might also be ‘stolen’ and placed in bondage, leading to sold-out performances of the lecture series. In fact, Mary was one of many multiracial children of the south that due to the One-Drop Rule and light fair features were able to pass as white. Her story, and that of the fictional ‘Ida May’ enraptured audiences and she became the poster child for the movement.
The fictionalized version exploited a real concern, that under Fugitive slave laws newly freed blacks and white children could be kidnapped by traffickers and sold into bondage, much like the story of Solomon Northup, the subject of the novel Twelve Years a Slave . At the time there was no concern of such a thing happening, Sumner used the image of demure Mary to confound his audiences, and by placing her with contrasting darker African American children at lectures, that also confounded the expectations of racial inequality, this as political theater to threaten the continuation of slavery. Mary continued to tour with Solomon Northrup pushing the narrative of “White Slavery” and ‘sexual slaves’.
By the turn of the century Mary was passing as white and working as a civil service clerk and living with a partner, Mary Maynard. The legacy of her 1855 image was that it was passed around to instill in children the fear that one of their own siblings may suffer her ‘fate’, social activists bought copies of the image as if she were related to their own families, even their own daughter. One such family even sought to adopt little Mary as long lost.