Julia Dent Grant and her father, Frederick F. Dent
I’ve said in previous posts that the Mary Robinson interview which was published in the St. Louis Republican in 1885 is the only account of life at White Haven from the perspective of an enslaved person. A while back, however, I became aware of a published interview with Mary Henry, childhood companion of Julia Grant and nurse to the Dent family, which appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and was re-printed in the Kansas City Star on April 22, 1900. I have not seen the original newspapers, and cannot access them online, however, I do have the text of the article from the Kansas City Star. In my post on the Mary Robinson interview I noted that I believe the Robinson interview as published needs to be read with caution. As anyone who has done research in historic newspapers knows, they are frequently unreliable. When it comes to interviews with former slaves, additional analysis is required. In the book The Slave’s Narrative edited by Charles Twitchell Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., there is a chapter titled, “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems” by John W. Blassingame. Here are a few examples of the many challenges in interpreting slave interviews Blassingame pointed out. (These are comments regarding the WPA slave narratives of the 1930s, however the same challenges apply to the Robinson and Henry newspaper interviews.)
Every recorded interview had two authors, the person who asked the questions and the one who answered them. Often the white interviewer-author’s actions and demeanor led to distortions and limitations of what the black informant-author told him. Many of the blacks played it safe; they claimed that they remembered very little about slavery and gave one- or two-page interviews. Even the informants who gave the longest, most candid interviews refused to talk about certain things…
A second weakness of the WPA interviews is that many of them are not verbatim accounts. The informants stories were often edited or revised before they were typed…
A third factor that led to distortion of the WPA interviews was the average age of the informants; two-thirds were at least eighty years old when they were interviewed…
Mary Robinson, according to the 1885 published interview, was 58 years old, and was remembering back more than twenty years. Mary Henry was somewhere between 75 and 80 years old, and in fact was near death when her interview was published in April, 1900. Just yesterday, I discovered an article published in the St. Louis Republic on June 3, 1900 reporting that Mary Henry had died. (see here)
Both the Robinson and the Henry interviews pose challenges to our understanding of the relationship of the enslaved people of White Haven to the Grants and the Dents. Because I cannot find the Mary Henry article online without paying a subscription fee, I present the text I have in full here, with a few comments inserted:
SHE WAS MRS. GRANT’S “MAMMY”
The Faithful Old Slave Who’s to Be Buried in the Same Lot with ‘Old Boss and Miss.
From the St. Louis Globe-Democrat
Mary Henry, the life-long companion and the faithful nurse of Mrs. Julia Dent Grant, wife of General U. S. Grant, is slowly dying at her home in this city. With her is passing away one of the truest types of the old “mammies” who used to be such picturesque figures in the life of the South.
Mrs. Grant’s affection for the dying old woman has always manifested itself. Whether in Washington, or Egypt, or India, or in China, she never forgot her faithful and life-long companion, and the nurse of her children, and in the poor and humble home are tattered and ragged shawls sent her by Mrs. Grant when she was with the general on his tour of the world. Ragged and tattered as they now are they are held beyond price by the old colored woman, to whom they are treasures because “Miss Julia” gave them to her.
Only Friday Mary Henry received a letter from Mrs. Grant. In it was a sum of money. Mrs. Grant wrote “Mammy” that when she died she wanted her to find a last resting place in the Dent lot in Bellefontaine cemetery. Mrs. Grant did not know that her letter would reach her faithful old servant on her deathbed. She is calmly awaiting the end, buoyed and consoled by the religion “Old Boss” and Mrs. Dent gave her, for, like them, she is a Methodist. She wants to die, as she says, to join “Old Boss and Miss,” and to be buried in the same lot and in the same soil in the cemetery where rest their bones.
Mary Henry does not know how old she is, but she says she is a year or two older than “Miss Julia” as she fondly calls Mrs. Grant, and thinks, therefore, she must be more than 75 years of age. As were her father and mother so was she, born a slave into the Dent family and on the Dent farm, on the Gravois road, a few miles out in the country. [Julia’s father, Frederick F. Dent, purchased White Haven in 1820; Julia was born in 1826. Mary Henry may have been born at White Haven, but her parents could not have been born there.]
When Julia Dent, afterward the wife of the great soldier who was twice President of the United States, became 4 or 5 years of age, the slave child, Mary Henry, was sold off as her playmate, and to look after her as much as a child only a year or two her senior could do. [The word ‘sold’ here may have been transcribed inaccurately. The June, 1900 article in the St. Louis Republic reporting Mary Henry’s passing repeats this, but reads “told off” in quotation marks.] The planter’s daughter and the colored slave child played together and in these early years began the attachment, something more than friendship, that has for so many years existed between the great lady and the humble former slave.
Several times Mrs. Grant has shown how much she thinks of the old nurse. Upon her visits to St. Louis in the last few years Mrs. Grant stayed either at the Southern hotel or at the residence of the O’Fallon family. At the Southern hotel at first the clerks did not know who the two old colored women were who wanted to see Mrs. Grant, and would not allow them to see her. But the clerks thought differently a few minutes after the bell boy had been sent up into Mrs. Grant’s parlor with the message of the women. Mrs. Grant herself came down to the elevator entrance, called the women, and, with her arm around the old nurse’s neck, led them into the elevator and to her own room, pausing long enough as she passed the parlor door to ask the women of wealth and fashion gathered there to pay their respects to her to excuse her for a few moments until she could speak with her old “mammy.” For fifteen minutes Mrs. Grant left her callers while she talked with her old nurse. After that Mary Henry was permitted by the clerks to go to Mrs. Grant’s rooms at her pleasure and unannounced.
“Do I remember when Miss Julia was married?” repeated the old woman. Her eyes brightened and she raised herself on her pillows in order to better talk of her benefactor and friend. “Certainly I do, and almost as well as if it had been yesterday. They told me Mr. Grant had been in the Mexican war, but he looked frightened, while Miss Julia was just her own self. I stood as close to her while she was being married as you to my bed, and by taking a few steps I could have touched her. When her children were born, they were handed to me as they came into the world, and it was my hands that first put on them the clothes that my hands had made. For eleven years after Mrs. Dent died I kept house for ‘Old Boss,’ and many a time I have fooled him. [Julia’s mother, Ellen W. Dent, died in January, 1857. Julia’s father moved to Washington D. C. to live with the Grants after the Civil War, although I am not certain exactly when.] After my work was done, and affairs of the house in good shape, he would let me come into town, first asking me when I would be back. I always told him I would spend one day in town and be back the next. I always stayed a week, and he always had the same way of meeting me. As I walked up the lane to the house he always spied me, came out on the porch, called the other servants, and as I got in hearing distance said to them, ‘Tell me who is this runaway ni**er?’ That was all the scolding I ever got.
“I called Miss Julia’s husband ‘Mr. Grant’ until he got to be general, and then I called him ‘general,’ when he was President. He had a great teasing about him and always liked to plague me. He was the oldest, but always claimed I was older that he was. About the last time he was in St. Louis I went down to the Southern hotel to see him. He was in a big room with about fifty gentlemen who had called on him. As soon as he saw me he shook hands with me, introduced me to some of the gentlemen, and then the old plaguing spirit got him. “Mammy,” says he, “I am an old man, but you are much older than I. How old are you, anyhow?”
“General,” says I, “don’t you know it is very impolite to ask a lady her age in the presence of gentlemen?”
“The general broke out in a laugh, and all the gentlemen joined in so loud it could be heard all over the hotel. They tell me Mr. Fred is a general himself now. Lord, how time passes! I remember him as baby, and as a boy and man. I put the first clothes on him, Jesse and Nellie. He was a mischievous boy, just about the age of my son John. When the Grants moved down on Seventh Street Fred was about 12 years old. I went to see the family one day and took John along. Just back of the house was a big pond, full of frogs. I always believed that killing frogs made rain come and young Fred knew it. As soon as he saw us he ran into the house, got his little rifle and cartridges and shouted to my boy, ‘come on, John. Let’s go and shoot frogs so it will rain and mammy will have to stay in town.’ They shot frogs, a rain storm came up, and I had to stay in [sic] town that night.
“The saddest time of my life was when ‘Old Boss’ left the farm and came in to St. Louis. He shook hands with all the servants and told them good-by. I was hanging back to be the last. When he shook hands with me two big tears ran down his cheeks. I tried to cheer him up. ‘Old Boss,’ said I, ‘you’ll be back again. ‘No Mary,’ he said, ‘when I come back to the old farm they will carry me back.’ That was the truth, for the next time he was on the place they carried him back dead.”
The last paragraph is particularly challenging. First, Julia’s father died in the White House in December, 1873, and when his remains were returned to St. Louis, they were not taken to White Haven, but to the residence of his oldest son, Julia’s brother, John Dent, then buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery. (see here) Aside from that, is the remembrance of Julia Grant of her return to White Haven in the summer of 1864, recorded in her Personal Memoirs. To wit:
I was happy to be at home again, busied myself putting my house in order, and hoped soon to have the pleasure of a visit from my husband. Our colored people had all left, but their places were readily filled with German and French men and women, who were most excellent substitutes. How lovely our little villa was, with its cool new India matting and muslin curtains, and how happy we all were on our rose-covered piazza, dear papa so entertained by all I had to tell him.
Julia’s account seems to directly contradict Mary Henry’s account. Who left White Haven first, Julia’s father or his enslaved people? Is there any scenario that would reconcile the two accounts? Note also, that Henry’s claim to have been at White Haven for 11 years after Ellen Dent’s passing conflicts with Julia’s remembrance. This is very important because we have interpreted the fact that the enslaved people left White Haven sometime before 1864, as Julia recalled (before legal emancipation in Missouri), as proof that the enslaved people did not want to be at White Haven.
So, what can we learn, if anything, from these articles about the relationships between the Dents, the Grants, and the enslaved of White Haven? What, if anything, do the Robinson and Henry articles have in common? Is one more reliable than the other? Can we draw from one and dismiss the other?
The article concerning Mary Henry’s passing drew on the above article, but it did include some additional information. It stated that Mary Henry had purchased a burial plot at Bellefontaine Cemetery and would be buried there. However, a search of Bellefontaine’s website does not indicate that she is there today. The article also stated that Mary Henry married a servant in the Dent household the same year that Julia and Ulysses married, 1848, and that she had a number of descendants living in St. Louis. Her daughter, Phyliss Pitts was employed as nurse in the family of F. P. Kaiser at the time. It seems quite possible that descendants of Mary Henry could still be living in St. Louis today. If you are a descendant of Mary Henry, I’d love to hear from you.