Women’s History Month: The Legacy of Hannah Richards

(The following guest post was written by Beverly W. Brannan, curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division.)

Tintype of Hannah Richards from the

Tintype of Hannah Richards from the William Henry Richards Collection

The Library purchased the collection of William Henry Richards (1856–1941), a law professor at Howard University, in 2013. The collection includes manuscript and visual materials, including a tintype of Hannah Richards, William’s grandmother, who was born in captivity but later freed. Research into her life—a story of determination and resilience—suggests she may have motivated William’s successful career. Besides being a law professor, he was a civil rights activist and a supporter of temperance and women’s right to vote and own property in the District of Columbia.

The library edition of Ancestry.com shows that Hannah Richards was born in Virginia, probably near Danville, around 1800. She belonged to Gabriel Richards (1739–1826), who moved to Roane County, Tennessee, in about 1805. He later relocated to McMinn County, Tennessee, where he died in 1826, freeing Hannah in his will. But there is more to the story.

Freed slaves were always at risk of being re-enslaved after being kidnapped or jailed for trivial offenses. Hannah almost lost her freedom for keeping company with a man. She was arrested in 1828, according to databases, and charged with harboring “a certain Negro slave Sandy without either written or verbal authority from . . . the said boy’s master” for two years. Papers filed in McMinn County court stated that Sandy had been “with her at her place of living on Sunday nights.” Hannah was fined $2.20 for “harboring and entertaining” Sandy, $2.00 for her jail fee and $0.75 for the justice of the peace. She was warned that if she did not pay all the costs as well as an additional $2.00, she could be sold into slavery for nonpayment of debt.

Hannah’s appeal went to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which returned the case to the McMinn County court. Fires at the courthouse destroyed any documentation of what happened next, although Hannah’s troubles certainly did not end there. In about 1855, she was abducted and taken to a plantation in Alabama. She escaped and returned to McMinn County.

At some point, Hannah may have married, and she must have had at least one child who remained free: the 1860 census indicates that her grandson, William, whom she raised, was the son of free parents.

Some time in 1860, when William was four, he was abducted. Hannah appealed to friendly white neighbors who found her grandson and returned him to her. Then, with William in tow, she did housework in homes around Athens, Tennessee. Young William learned the alphabet from children in the houses where she worked. Like much of East Tennessee, McMinn County was deeply divided on the issue of slavery. It provided 12 regiments for the Union Army and 8 for the Confederates during the course of the war.

William attended Quaker school until he was 17 and then taught in Quaker schools for five years. In 1878, at age 22, he enrolled in Howard University’s Law School, helped by a loan from a mentor. In 1881, he graduated first in his class and worked at the U.S. Treasury Department for four years to repay the loan. Then he returned to Athens, presumably to be near his grandmother. He practiced law and served as alderman and mayor. Later, he moved to Washington, D.C., to teach law at Howard University.

Records suggest that Hannah died in 1889, having accomplished much. Not only did she maintain her own freedom, but she also shielded her grandson from slavery, educated him and helped him rise to the middle class. She may also have anticipated the social justice issues he would champion and his movement into the emerging black intelligentsia in the nation’s capital, sometimes known, in the parlance of W.E.B. Du Bois, as “the talented tenth.”

The William Henry Richards collection contains 109 visual materials held in the Prints and Photographs Division. A few of the photographs have been digitized. Unprocessed images can be seen by advance appointment through the Ask a Librarian link on the Library’s website. Richards’s personal papers are in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

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