Bringing Women’s Lives Out of the Shadows of History

  • Out of the Shadows Class Field Trip

Students listen as Charlotte Lyons, Historian of the South Church in Andover, speaks about the cemetery

In a unique class called Out of the Shadows, students are learning about the lives of enslaved women in New England and the South. Many of their stories have remained hidden in the background of history and their lives have not been studied until now. Under the guidance of faculty member Dr. Linda Meditz, the students are learning about several “hidden” women in Massachusetts. They started the course by exploring the life of Phillis, an enslaved woman who served in the home of Rev. Stephen Williams of Longmeadow, Massachusetts for over fifty years. In the process of learning about her, Caroline B. ‘19 mentioned that she and her family had some contacts in Andover who were aware of a woman with a similar history and who had been buried in an unmarked grave. The students and Dr. Meditz sprang into action and submitted a proposal to design and install a headstone honoring the woman, whose name was Lucy Foster. The project has been approved by the Board of the South Church at Andover and is now moving forward.

Part of the process of choosing an appropriate headstone for Lucy is to learn about her life. To do that, Dr. Meditz has brought in several guest speakers, including Charlotte Lyons, the Historian of the South Church in Andover, and Elaine Clements, the Executive Director of the Andover Center for History & Culture, to visit the class and provide more details about Lucy’s fascinating history. Born in Boston in 1767, Lucy was given to Hannah Foster as a wedding gift when she was just four years old. Thus began an ongoing connection with Mrs. Foster that extended beyond Massachusetts Emancipation in 1783. When Mrs. Foster aged, Lucy returned to care for her. Upon her death, Mrs. Foster bequeathed about an acre of land to Lucy who was able to have a house built and host community gatherings there. She died when she was seventy eight years old.

Studying the lives of Phillis and Lucy is helping students learn how to interpret material culture and cultivate other skills related to working with primary sources and archival materials. Much of what is known about Lucy was the result of items found during a 1945 excavation of the site where her home once stood. While there are no known artifacts connected to Phillis, she is referenced at times in Rev. Williams’ journal. Being able to piece together people’s lives through these different clues has been a meaningful experience for the girls.

Out of the Shadows students

Out of the Shadows students

The students and Dr. Meditz recently traveled to the Andover graveyard to see the site where the headstone will go. They have started a campaign to raise funds to support this case, with the goal of being able to have the headstone installed in May. Anyone interested in learning more about this project or supporting it can contact Dean Tsouvalas, Director of Advancement and Communication at 978-468-6200 or by email at dtsouvalas@penguinhall.org.

Creating a gravestone for Lucy Foster is a powerful way for the girls to have an impact that extends well beyond this class. The hope is that through this project, many more people will gain an awareness of women like her, who have long been in the shadows of history. For example, it took more than twenty five years of ongoing debates and campaigns to finally have an exhibit at Monticello dedicated to Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by founding father Thomas Jefferson. These women’s stories greatly enrich our understanding of history and they deserve to be heard and recognized. Students are making sure that the lives and stories of women like Lucy Foster are finally brought into the light.