These were the very first words I ever read by Sara Griffith Stanley—that a racist teacher was, through his racism, “laboring for the advancement of the kingdom of Satan” and that he needed to go back and “learn the ABCs of Christianity.” With those two phrases, she captured my heart.
In Sara, I see whispers of myself: born to privilege, given every educational advantage her parents could afford her, raised with a rigorous religious education, raised in the church, working as a teacher, living at home until her mid-twenties. . . . I’m likely the descendant of a slaveowner, with a lighter-skinned family tree that barely looks related to my unambiguous brown skin.
There is just enough in Sara’s story to strike a familiar chord in me.
And just enough in Sara’s story to inspire awe about the dynamo that this woman truly was. She traded a privileged northern existence to walk into the minefield of the reconstructed South. She stood toe-to-toe with racists in the midst of teachers who were supposedly there to help the newly freed Black people they taught. In a time when some teachers wrote more favorably about lighter-skinned students than darker-skinned ones, when some teachers refused to board with their Black co-laborers, Sara spoke up.
Not only did she speak up—she spoke up as a Black woman. In spite of the fact that she could have passed for a white woman—no doubt garnering more safety, more freedom, less suspicion, less judgment—she chose to fully acknowledge the heritage God had given her. And not only did Sara acknowledge it, she was proud of it.
I stood in my living room crying with her letters in my hands because Sara Griffith Stanley offered me at thirty what I wish I had had at ten, twelve, or fourteen, growing up in my predominately white surroundings: the gumption to be vocally Christian, vocally Black, and vocally proud of the identity that the Lord had chosen for me. The ability not to be afraid of being the most intelligent woman in the room—the most outspoken woman in the room—the only Black woman in the room.
The hue of my skin and the hue of Sara Stanley’s skin could not be more different, but the similarity of our heritage was something she never denied.
Let that sink in. Sara was born in the 1830s. Slavery was still rampant across the American South, but her family lived as freedmen in North Carolina. Rather than blend into New Bern white society, her father founded a school specifically for the education of Black children. Her mother associated with Black women who were far from ethnically ambiguous. Sara herself attended one of the few colleges of the time that admitted Black women and owned her heritage proudly. Not only that, but she fought on behalf of those less privileged than she.
And not only that, but she went to the South in the wake of the Civil War and dared hold her head high as a woman of color in racism’s midst.
How could one not be in love with the story of this dynamic woman? How could one not stop to meditate on how much her decisions cost her?
How have we forgotten her name?
The Beginning of Our Story
The ending of Sara Griffith Stanley’s story is still at the beginning of ours. This woman’s voice roared out of the silence of the historical account, and I heard her, loud and clear. And now, you get to hear her—to learn from her.
You get to learn that shining example of educated Black womanhood, and you get to teach her story to as many others as you choose. You get to carry on her legacy with rigorous education, undaunted Christian conviction, and the unapologetic defense and protection of the marginalized.
Sara was not perfect. There are places in her letters that still hold some of the prejudice of the day. There is an unspecified incident that resulted in her being disciplined by the AMA and repenting of wrongdoing. The reports of her haughty attitude may not have been driven merely by jealousy or misunderstandings. The woman was flawed in ways that we might be able to read between the lines—and in ways that we never will.
And yet, those flaws do not keep hers from being a story I am so grateful that I get to tell. If I could bottle up the feeling of finally reading her letters after months of digging, searching, and praying, I would have a scratch-and-sniff sticker on this page! But hopefully my words have conveyed just a hint of the privilege it is to know her story.
She died in obscurity. But she did not die without a legacy. Even my telling of her story on these pages is part of that legacy—your reading her story is part of that legacy. The lives of all of the educated Black women who came after her are part of her legacy.
When I was a young girl, I remember telling my mom that I just wanted to be remembered. The William Shakespeare, not the Billy Spears who wrote really excellent community theater plays and died in obscurity. The older I’ve gotten, though, the more I’ve realized that fame is not the only measure of our impact.
The average person on the street has no idea who Sara G. Stanley was. And yet, her impact changed the lives of the students she came in contact with. Hundreds of years later, it changed my life. Her faithfulness, so broadly unseen, resonates with this girl who used to want all the credit. Her impact was not broad—but it was deep. And that’s the kind of impact I want.
The Instagram followers, Twitter count, Facebook likes . . . those are not nearly as important as the lives I’m touching day-to-day: for me, my children. For Sara, her students. That’s the true test of faithfulness.
Cover image by Jess Moe.
Excerpt from Carved in Ebony by Jasmine Holmes provided by Bethany House, a division ofBaker Publishing Group. Copyright 2021. Used by permission.