I just read a fascinating book this week. The Garies and Their Friends was written by Frank J. Webb, a Mixed-race man from Philadelphia. His book was published in 1857 in London, when he accompanied his wife, Mary Webb, on a speaking tour.
The book is a family drama, set a little before Frank J. Webb’s own time. Clarence Garie (a White slave owner) and his true love, Emily (his Mixed slave and mother of his two children) decide to move to Philadelphia on the advice of Emily’s cousin, Winston (a freed Black man passing as White), and are welcomed by the Ellises, a free Black family. The goal? To get freedom for Emily and the children.
The other major character in the book is Charles Ellis, the talented young son who was born a free Black, who must fight White prejudice to get a place in the world. He wins a prize at school, and a wealthy white woman offers to take him to the country for the summer. After much discussion, his family accepts.
The Garies soon run afoul of prejudice – particularly from their neighbors, the Stevens. “Slippery George” Stevens is a White power-hungry lawyer who wants to incite riots in order to buy up Philadelphia real estate – and if those riots should happen to spill over on his neighbors, the Garies, so much the better. The riots also wreak havoc on the Ellis family, and if I explain much more, I’ll be getting into spoiler territory.
In the foreword, Lord Brougham says Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote him that “(t)he style is simple and unambitious.” That’s good news for us 21st century readers – the style is indeed clear and lacks a lot of frills and digressions that make 19th century literature a pain. The plot, though, is anything but simple. It’s complex and multi-layered, but always clear. There are mobs, betrayals, violence, love, love thwarted by prejudice, love that overcomes prejudice, and love that will make you smile. It’s true that Webb slides into a little sentimentality towards the end, but perhaps by that time, he deserved a little indulgence.
I won’t spoil the ending, but justice is meted, some lovers marry, and overall it’s a happy ending.
What’s extremely interesting is viewing this own-voices story from a 21st century filter. Folks, this was written more than 160 years ago, and Black people are still fighting a lot of the same damn things!! Interviews that go wonky when the employer realizes the applicant is a person of color, disdain of mixed marriages, the silly “one-drop-of-Negro-blood-makes-you-a-Negro” thing, people advising other people to erase their culture and heritage and “pass”, and just the general idea that Black people are something Other. Why is White privilege not Everyone’s privilege yet?
As a liberal white woman, I read the book and nodded along with the author’s subtext; I loved it when the smart people of color put it over on the White evil-doers. (And I did appreciate seeing White do-gooders, too, who are represented in a spectrum from White people who actually do some good, to White people who say they are going to do some good, but it’s just not financially feasible right now. It seemed very realistic.)
The book had very little audience in the US when it was published, according to Wikipedia. But maybe its time is now. Its analysis of the different ways to be Black, and how those can combine with White society to varying results can be a real eye-opener.
And when your eye-opener is a thrilling page-turner as well? Well, all the better. You can read The Garies and Their Friends on Gutenberg here, or buy it, and maybe get more modern analysis.
Here are some other sources you might like to check into after reading the book. Frank J. Webb seems to have been quite circumspect in his life; there’s only one photograph that I could find that said something to the effect, “The man on the right might be Frank J. Webb.” But his international life crossed the oceans, and he left his words behind.
Katherine Henry, “Garies (The) and Their Friends,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (website), (Copyright 2015, Rutgers University)
Eric Gardner, “’A Gentleman of Superior Cultivation and Refinement’: Recovering the Biography of Frank J. Webb,” The Free Library (website), (Copyright 2001, African American Review/Gale Group)
Mary Maillard, “’Faithfully Drawn from Real Life’: Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends,” (PDF) (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. CXXXVII no. 3, July 2013)
(Downloaded immediately for me, with no warning.)