Editor's Note: PBS has partnered with Mercy Street's historical consultants to bring fans the Mercy Street Revealed blog. Audrey P. Davis is Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.
In this blog post, Davis dives deeper into women’s roles and sisterhood, as seen especially in Episodes 3 and 4, where women are seen supporting each other through difficult times.
Spoiler Alert: This post discusses events in Episode 4: The Belle Alliance.
"Help one another, is part of the religion of sisterhood."
— Louisa May Alcott
Episodes 3 and 4 of Mercy Street make powerful statements about women’s roles and sisterhood. The viewer sees several examples of women supporting each other through difficult times. The Green sisters, Emma and Alice, work together to support Frank’s scheme and bring Tom comfort. Matron Brannan helps Nurse Phinney navigate the interpersonal relationships at Mansion House Hospital. Finally, through Aurelia and Belinda, the viewer sees how sisterhood helps overcome the additional challenges of being an African American woman.
Belinda and Aurelia came to their free status by different means, but their journeys were no less challenging. The Civil War created a perceived hierarchy in the African American community. Freeborn people had higher status than manumitted slaves and those freed by Union occupation. This left contrabands at the lowest strata of their society. When Belinda and Aurelia first meet in the courtyard of the Mansion House Hospital, Belinda’s contempt is evident. Belinda tells Aurelia she is just one of the many contrabands, “... Coming up north, living in filth and dying in the street….” This is not freedom to Belinda. To Aurelia, Belinda has no right to be proud of her herself, saying, “… You live in the same place. Do the same work. And get paid not one copper penny. How you free?”
Belinda furthers their animosity when she taunts Aurelia about her liaison with Bullen, wrongly assuming that it is consensual.
"You think you special. I see you. I know what you up to. You and that man. Think that’s freedom? Giving yourself to some white man for what? Pennies on the dollar."
In fact, Aurelia is the victim of repeated rape by Bullen—too proud to admit she is being abused. Belinda discovers Aurelia’s pregnancy, and it softens her demeanor. She remembers her aunt’s herbal “remedy” for women in this situation, and she provides it to Aurelia. This shared confidence creates a bond between the two women. They both understand what it means to be a woman alone in the world.
Pregnancies resulting from rape were a reality for many enslaved and newly freed African American women. These women had little legal recourse. Mixed race children were the visible legacy of the predatory liaisons between white men and black women. In one historical account, Mrs. Virginia Hayes Shepherd, a light-skinned former slave from Norfolk, Virginia, recounted the story of her birth. She was the product of a union between her mother, a slave, and a white man.
I was born in Churchland, Virginia, December 21, 1856. My mother was a slave, and my father—well, the fact is so evident you can’ dodge it. It’s their stamp an’ not ours; therefore I don’t blush when I tell you this part of the story….I was born a white baby wid a slave mother.
— Mrs. Virginia Hayes Shepherd
African Americans had limited access to doctors, and they often turned to folk remedies with varied results. When Belinda’s pennyroyal does not lead to a miscarriage, Aurelia takes matters into her own hands with disastrous results. Sam, Nurse Phinney, and Dr. Foster work together to save her life using a novel medical technique. Ordinarily, contraband women did not have access to medical care of this caliber. Natural and folk remedies continued to play a role for those with few resources, decreasing as access to doctors improved. Their use is an important part of African American material culture and history.
Belinda and Aurelia’s interaction is one of several examples of sisterhood in Mercy Street, and it highlights the struggles African American women faced with their new freedom. Belinda acts a sister would, helping when there is trouble, but asking nothing in return. The strong women of Mercy Street will continue to support each other as the story progresses.
— Audrey P. Davis
Audrey P. Davis is Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. Davis has worked in museums and historic sites including the Smithsonian Institution, Mount Vernon and Monticello. She is one of the founders and an Advisory Council member of Virginia Africana: The Network of Museum, History and Preservation Professionals. Read Bio | Read All Posts