The story of Mary Mildred Willams, a light-skinned black slave who gained her freedom at a very young age and became the face of the abolitionist movement, is one that shows how far back the concept of light-skinned privilege goes.
Born a slave in 1847, Mary was the daughter of a mixed-race father and a black mother who worked as slaves. Due to laws that, at a point in time, did not allow mulattoes to be free because of the rampant increase in their numbers, her father sought to flee from the south and move to the North.
Hoping to be free, her father, Henry Williams, escaped with his family to Boston via the Underground Railroad. It was in Boston that Henry Williams gained his freedom and that of his children, with the help of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, and famous abolitionists – Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Albion Andrew – who were all members of the Vigilance Committee, which provided legal and financial help for fugitive slaves.
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Mary gained her freedom when she was 7 years old and her light skin tone caught the attraction of several abolitionists who thought she was white. It was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts who took advantage of the situation and for political benefits.
After gaining her freedom, Senator Sumner adopted Mary and kept her very close to him. Seeing that the abolition of slavery was the most talked about issue at the time, he came up with a plan to use Mary as the face of the abolitionist movement.
To the benefit of the senator and other white abolitionists, the plan worked. In 1855, a photograph of Mary was taken, which soon spread through the whole of America, making her the face of the movement. Through the efforts of the abolitionists, together with her photograph, articles were written about her and published in The New York Times, Boston Telegraph and Harpers Weekly.
After gaining mass appeal from the white community, the senator embarked on sold out lectures where Mary would stand by him and give a speech about the importance of ending slavery. Her appearance would then appeal to the white community and gain their full support in abolishing slavery for fear of having one of their own suffer under such conditions.
According to the New York Times, on several occasions, the lectures included Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man whose best-selling memoir “Twelve Years a Slave” recounted his kidnapping and enslavement in the Deep South. But Mary was always the centre of attention due to her white appeal.
Mary’s story inspired many fictional stories about runaway white and black children. Although she was exploited by the white abolitionists, she went on to enjoy the benefits of being light-skinned and passing as white throughout her life. After a good education, she worked as a clerk in the registry of deeds in Boston, and died in New York in 1921.
The story of Mary Mildred Williams is evidence of how far back the white skin privilege has existed in society. To date, blacks with a lighter skin tone are at a better advantage when it comes to working in several industries such as the entertainment industry and the corporate field.
While the love of the black skin is being celebrated to change the stereotype, it cannot be denied that the light-skinned privilege still exists and is the main reason why several black women prefer to look as Western as possible.