Mary Church Terrell

Remarks Made at the Dedication of the New Mott School - 17 May 1909

Mary Church Terrell
May 17, 1909
Print friendly

Life An Appreciation of Lucretia Mott:

If you had happened to visit Nantucket (and the children who have studied Geography know that Nan tucket is an island fifteen miles long and three and a half miles wide, lying far out into the sea on the coast of Massachusetts) - If you had visited this island 116 years ago, I say, and had knocked at the door of a house in which a family by the name of Coffin resided, a little girl then six years old might have responded to your call and let you in. The name of this little girl, who by the way, was born in 1793, just 116 years ago, was Lucretia Coffin. After she married this Lucretia Coffin becake Lucretia Mott and the name of Lucretia Mott has been written in the history of this country which records the deeds of those who have spent their lives trying to lift their fellow men to a higher plane and relieve the suffering of the world in letters which can never fade.

I shall refer briefly to Lucretia’s ancestors, not because the fact that they were worth and distinguished people will add anything to that great and good woman’s fame, but because it will interest you a little, I hope. Some of Lucretia Motts grand-parents were among the number that purchased the island of Nantucket from the Indians. Remember that Lucreti Mott’s ancestors did not steal the island from them, as some of the settlers did, unfortunately in those early days, Having dealt honestly with the Indians Lucretia’s ancestors and the red men dwelt together in perfect harmony and peace.

On her mother’s side Lucretia was descended from that family to which Benjamin Franklin belonged and it is said that the resemblance between Lucretia’s head and that of Benjamin Franklin, the philosopher and statesman was apparent to the most casual observer. On her father’s side Lucretia came from a family of honest, strong, God-fearing Quakers. When I said Lucretia might have opened the door for you, if you have visited her mother 116 years ago. I was only guessing, of course, for Lucretia was by no means an only child. She had seven brothers and sisters in all. But Lucretia’s father was the captain of a vessel and was often absent from home for months at a time searching for seals and whales. It was necessary, therefore, for the children to assist their mother, who not only had to take care of them and attend to her household affairs, but who kept a store besides. When Lucretia Coffin grew to be a woman, she said two things which justify me in believing that she would have been as likely to open the door for you as any of her brothers and sisters, if you had called upon her mother 116 years ago. “I was often actively useful to my mother in those early days”, she said and again she declared “I always loved the good in childhood and desired to do the right.”

When Lucretia was 11 years old, her parents moved to Boston, where she attended the public schools. The children of families such as the one to which Lucretia Coffin belonged did not attend the public schools, as a rule. In the first plcace, there were not many public schools, when Lucretia Coffin was a little girl and it is doubtful whether those that had been established were very good. In the second place, the best families considered it beneath their dignity to send their children to the public schools. What a vast difference there is in this particular between conditions which obtained when Lucretia Coffin was a little girl and those which obtain to day. Now the very best people in this country even presidents of the United States send their children to the public schools. But if Lucretia Coffin and her mother had been told that in 116 years there would be such a magnificent structure as this- so beautiful to look upon, near perfection in its appointments, built at public expense for the education of all the children of a community - the poor as well as the rich - that there would be such an excellent corps of teachers, so well trained to do their important work as those stationed here at Mott, provided for the children without any expense whatever to their parentd, that books, paper and other necessary material would be furnished the pupil [illegible] woman. I dare say they would have been very much amused and would have considered an individual who made such a preposterous prophesy a fit subject for a lunatic asylum- if there were any lunatic asylums on the island of Nantucket in those days. Lucretia’s parents did not send her to a selecy school, because they feared this would minister to a feeling of class pride which they thought was sinful to cultivate in their children. At the age of 13, however, Lucretia was sent to a private school in New York. Just two years after this, when she was only 15 years old, Lucretia had advanced so rapidly in her studies, had behaved herself so reliable and trustworthy in everything she undertook she was appointed by the authorities a teacher in this same school. This position was gladly accepted by Lucretia, for in addition to the salary she received, she was allowed to send a sister two years younger than herself to this school free of charge. When Lucretia was 18 years old, she married James Mott, who had taught in the same school with herself. Soon after their marriage, the young couple resigned their position as teachers and went to Philadelphia to live, where James Vltt engaged in business. The young couple had been married scarcely a year, when the war of 1812 broke out which seriously injured business all over the United States. In the mean time Lucretia’s father had died and left her mother with five children to support. In order to help her husband whose business had been greatly injured by conditions incident to the war of 1812 and to help her mother, Lucretia began to teach school again. When she was 25 years old Mrs Mott entered upon the ministry in the Society of Friends, and people used to come for miles to see and hear the dainty little Quaker preacher with her wonderfully magnetic presence and her sweet, silvery voice. But Lucretia Mott shines more brillianyly in the galaxy of the good and great because of her work as an abolitionist and her efforts to improve the condition of woman than because of anything else she did in her long and useful career. Together with William Lloyd Garrison, Benjamin Lundy, John Greenleaf Whitter and others James and Lucretia Mott formed the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. In reading and discussing the Declaration of Sentiments which were written by Wm. Lloyd Garrison to express the horror the members of the new society felt for the barbariries practiced in slavery and to urge the public to assist in emancipating the slaves, Lucretia Mott made many valuable suggestions concerning both the sentiments expressed and the language in which they were couched. When she suggested that a certain group of words should be transposed in order to improve the phraseology of a certain sentence, one of the young present came near having attack of something fatal because he was so shocked to hear a woman use such a hard word as transpose. Lucretia Mott traveled to hear a woman use such a hard word as transpose. Lucretia Mott traveled thousands of miles, when travelling was much more difficult and far less pleasant than it is to day, holding meetings all through New England and even venturing in some of the slave States to arouse the conscience and touch the hearts of the people concerning the woes and wrongs heaped upon 4,000,000 slaves. She was often debarred from the use of public halls and suffered persecution of every conceivable nature even at the hands of those who called themselves Christians- yes even from her own religious sect, the Quakers, because of her activity in behalf of the slave. Once but wonder at the cool, calm courage of the small, fragile, gentle Lucretia Mott who never at any time of her life weighed more than 90 pounds, and much of the time did not weigh even that, as she faced the violence of hostile mobs. More than once her long, gray Quaker cloak was singed with vitriol thrown at her thru windows by howling, hooting mobs during the meetings which she addressed. Nothing illustrates the courage and the tact the little woman more than an experience she had, when she, the other speakers and the audience were driven from an abolition meeting in Philadelphia by an angry mob. She placed a friend who was with her under the care of a gentleman. “But what will you do”, inquired the lady “This man”, replied Mrs. Mott touching the arm of a many among the hooting ruffians who had broken up the meeting, “will see me thru safely, I think.” The man was so impressed with the sweetness of her manner and the angelic expression of her countenance that he instantly responded to her appeal, protected her from further insult as they passed thru the hostile crowd.

In working for the emancipation of the slave Lucretia Mott left no stone unturned which might help to compass this end. From city to city and town and village she travelled to form the Female Anti-Slavery Societies so that the women of the North might themselves be thoroughly aroused to the awful atorcities perpetrated upon the slaves and might teach their children to hate the wicked institution with all their hearts. I have often thought that the women of the North did not receive the credit that was due them for the overthrow of slavery. How long the emancipation of the slave might have been delayed, had it not been for those Female Anti-Slavery Societies established largely thru the efforts of Lucretia Mott, and other noble women like her, no human being can tell. So far as was possible Mrs. Mott would purchase nothing to eat or to wear which was produced by slave labor. If I were an artist I should certainly paint Lucretia Mott, just as she appeared on one occasion in her life. A slave named Dangerfield had run away from his master who tried to recover possession of him under the Fugitive Slave Law, which provided that run away slaves should be returned to their masters. This trial continued all day long, thru the night till the dawn of the second day, when the court adjourned for a few hours and resumed its setting at ten oclock. During all those long hours Lucretia Mott remained in the court room, sitting by the side of the prisoner, sustaining him under the anguish of suspense as they awaited the decision which would make him either a free man or send him back to his angry master, a slave. Owing to some discrepancy as to dates Dangerfield was acquitted. There was great danger that the run away slave would be handled rough resting on his arm, stood that dear saint, Lucretia Mott, with her little hand resting on his arm, protecting the persecuted and oppressed.

Scarcely a day passed from 1833 to 1861 without some active effort on Lucretia Mott’s part to assist in the emancipation of the slave. Many a poor trembling slave was lifted from bondage into freedom by means of the underground railroad which ran thru the home of James and Lucretia Mott. She helped and befriended free colored people and protested in season and out against the cruel exhibition of prejudice against them from which they suffered in the North. In 1840 James and Lucretia Mott were sent as delegate to the great World’s Anti-Slavery Convention which was held in London. But the men who had charge of the meeting refused to seat Mrs. Mott or the other women who came as delegates, simply because they happened to be born girls instead of boys and that too, in spite of the fact that Lucretia Mott had actually been one of the leaders in founding the Anti Slavery Society in the United States. This incident together with ether forms of injustice of which women were then victims caused Lucretia Mott and a few other women to try to do something to improve the condition of their sex. When Lucretia Mott was a little girl, there was not a single college in the whole wide world, where young women could go to get an education. Mrs. Mott was 40 years old before Oberlin College was founded, which was the first institution in the world to open its doors to women on an equal footing with men. In Engladn altho boys and girls attended a certian school which Mrs. Mott visited, she found the boys at the board working examples in arithmetic while the girls were at their seats sewing wrist bands on shirts for men. Why Are the girls not learning to work examples too inwuited Mrs. Mott. “The girls are not taught arithmetic”, replied the teacher, because girls will never have any occasion to sue such knowledge.” The women teachers in this country did just as good work as the men, and some of them did very much better, but Mrs. Mott knew that the women sometimes received only half as much as the men, and never were paid as much. Mrs. mott also knew that in many of the States in this country a husband could take from his wife all the property she owned, could even take from her the very clothes she wore, could rob her of her children and the poor woman could not get any redress in the courts of law. For these and other reasons Lucretia Mott and a few other women as well as men (I am glad to tell you that out own Frederick Douglass was among that noble band.) decided to call a meeting at Seneca Falls to see if something could not be done to improve the condition of women. I am glad to tell you that James Mott so far agreed with his talented, progressive wife that he presided over this meeting, the very first ever held since the creation of the world to urge that women be given all the rights, political as well as others, which as human beings they deserve and should enjoy. In all the work which Lucretia Mott did she was ably assisted by her husband who sympathized fully with her humane and generous impulses. James Mott voluntarily abandoned his cotton business on account of its relation to slave labor, when he was making large sums of money. But he engaged immediately in wool from which he amassed a comfortable fortune. Lucretia Mott owed much to the wise, kindly, devoted affection of her husband, who was tall, handsomely proportioned, and best of all was intellectually and morally her equal. This ideal couple lived together for 57 years and were surrounded during their declining years byt their children and grand children. Many amusing anecdotes are related concerning Mrs. Mott’s disposition to save. It is said that one morning, when a member of the family entered her room, she found her diligently mending a rip in her pillow. Mrs. Mott glanced up and said, “Will thee please open the bureau drawer for me? Right in front in the corner thee will find a feather that I want. The feather was given her. She tucked it [into] the pillow and sewed up the hole. But that very morning, she called several members of her family who were preparing to take a journey and [presented] each a sum sufficient to defray the entire expense of their trip. She was economical, so that she might help those in distress and present [gifts] to those she loved. Not only did Lucretia Mott work ardently for the [emancipation] of the slave, and for the removal of the unjust [illegible] cause of temperance, was for years Vice President of the Peace Society organized to do away with those bloody slaughters of the husbands, brothers and sons of women, sanctioned by law under the name of war. She grieved sorely over the oppression of the working classes and the low wages paid them. “I have held many meetings with them”, she once said, “and I have heard their appeals with compassion.” Thru all her duties as a public woman, however, Lucretia Mott never neglected her home. She had the entire care of her five children, she knitted, sewed, dusted, cooked, made bed quilts and rag carpets and did with her own hands those household duties which many women who have no time to work for their fellow man leave entirely to others. She used her brain and systematized her work, so that she might find time to do good in the world. The time many wives amd mother of her day frittered away in gayety and embroidery she spent in reading and committing to memory choice thoughts in poetry and prose. In 1880 came the angel of death to call Lucretia Mott to her reward. When her coffin was lowered into the earth, there disappeared from view a whom no threat terrified, no task discouraged, nothing deterred in her labor of duty and love. Tho thorny the path and rough the road, forward she pressed to do the work for the persecuted and afflicted which she felt called to perform. And now in conclusion let me urge you to emulate the worth example of that illustrious woman for whom this building is named. When you grow to be men and women, you may not be able to help found a society for the emancipation of an enslaved race, or organize a movement removing unjust restrictions imposed upon a handicapped sex, as did Lucretia Mott. You may not have the opportunity of becoming an officer in an organization for promoting universal peace. It is not given to every human being to occupy such a large and conspicuous place in her day and generation as did that dear little Quaker whose name this magnificent structure bears. But each one of you, eve while you are very small and young can follow the example of Lucretia Mott by throwing your influence on the side of right, by trying to say and to do the right thing and avoid the wrong every day you live. You can not help free a race of slaves, but you can try to free yourselves and the boys and girls with whom you come in contact every day from the faults and defects of character which will chain you and them to masters of vice who will make you helpless slaves. If you can not lead in the organization of a society formed for the purpose of abolishing cruel wars, you can try to promote peace among your school mates, and never use your influence over others wantonly and wilfully to stir up discord and strife. Slavery has been abolished, it is true and many discriminations against women have been removed, since Lucretia Mott and her noble, courageous companions formed the Woman Suffrage Association 61 years ago. But there are many wrongs to be righted and opportunities for unselfish devotion to a good cause just as truly to day as there were, when Lucretia Mott started on her long and useful career. And I could wish no better, brighter future for the boys and the girls who are so fortunate as to attend this beautiful, well-appointed Mott school than that they emulate the courage, the unselfishness, and the zeal in all good work which were such conspicuous and beautiful traits in the character of that saintly woman, for whom this building which we dedicate to day is named.