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Eliza Suggs, b. 1876
Shadow and Sunshine
Omaha, Neb.: s. n., 1906.


According to her 1906 narrative, Shadow and Sunshine, Eliza Suggs was born December 11, 1876, in Bureau County, Illinois, near the town of Providence. The 1880 U.S. Census confirms Suggs's date and state of birth, but the rest of what is known about her life comes from her own account. The last of eight children born to former slaves James and Melinda Suggs, Eliza suffered from what she describes as "an extreme case of the rickets" (p. 56). This disease prevented her from walking, made her bones extremely brittle, and stunted her growth. As an adult, her weight was only "about fifty pounds," and her height, "about thirty-three inches" (p. 57). After Emancipation, Suggs's father became a minister in the Free Methodist Church. Eliza professed a deep Christian faith and supported such causes as missionary work in Africa and temperance. In 1886, James Suggs relocated his family to Orleans, Nebraska, so his children could attend school at the Free Methodist Seminary there. The date and circumstances of Eliza Suggs's death are unknown.

Shadow and Sunshine is prefaced by two testimonial letters written by members of Suggs's church community—that stress her strong moral character and Christian faith. Both letter writers find the strength of her faith especially remarkable in light of her physical disabilities. The narrative itself is divided into four major sections, interspersed with several poems, including several written by Suggs herself.

"Sketch of Father" begins with James Suggs's birth in North Carolina on August 15, 1831 (p. 13). At age three, he is sold away from his twin brother Harry. The two never meet again. As he matures, Suggs trains as a blacksmith and, in spite of laws forbidding the education of slaves, goes out of his way to "‘pick up' what education he got, much as a rabbit might be supposed to pick up some tender morsel with the greyhounds hot in pursuit" (p. 15). He marries a fellow slave, Malinda Filbrick (also spelled "Fillbrick") when both are in their teens. Later, when Union soldiers march near the plantation during the Civil War, Suggs realizes that "his time had come to strike for liberty," and he runs away to enlist in the Union Army (p. 20). After the war, he asks his Union captain for permission to travel south and retrieve his family. The captain gives his approval for the trip, and the family is reunited. Suggs then takes up preaching and moves the family to Graham County, Kansas in 1879 in order to evangelize to a "colony of colored people, who had come from the south" (p. 27). He dies in May 1889, after a ministerial career that leaves him "quite widely known" in "Illinois, Iowa . . . Kansas . . . and Nebraska" (p. 32).

"Sketch of Mother" describes the life of Malinda Suggs, who is born in Alabama in 1834 and taken to Mississippi with her parents soon afterwards (p. 37). As a child, she observes slavery's extreme violence first-hand, when her master's son kicks out her mother's eye in a fit of drunken rage. Later, Suggs is sold to a Mr. Fillbrick, whose wife educates her in Christianity and teaches her to read. The Fillbricks later sell Suggs to a Mr. Suggs, who owns the plantation where she meets and marries James Suggs. The couple lives relatively free of "the horrors and heartaches which were the common lot of most slaves," but when James Suggs runs away to fight for the Union, life on the plantation becomes difficult (p. 41). Malinda Suggs's two eldest children are sent to Georgia in order to make it more difficult for them to escape with Union troops. Suggs suffers a crisis of faith but recovers when she asks God "whether she should ever again see her husband and children" and feels she receives an affirmative answer (p. 44). After this renewal of faith, the plantation owner brings Suggs's children back to her, and after Emancipation, the whole family is reunited in the North. Still living at the time Shadow and Sunshine is published, Eliza Suggs reports that "Mother in her declining years has a comfortable home, free from debt, near the church, where she delights to attend" and "gets along nicely" (p. 50).

The autobiographical "Sketch of Eliza" describes how, four weeks after her birth, the author's bones become extremely brittle. When one of her older sisters shakes her hand, she accidentally breaks Suggs's arm (p. 55). No one expects Suggs to live, but she does survive to adulthood, although her body stops growing. Because of her size and extreme fragility, she learns "nothing of the pleasures of childhood" and cannot "play as other children, but had to sit still in the house and look out at the other children" (p. 56). Still, because of the care her older sister Katie provides, Suggs is able to attend school and get an education. The other major focus in "Sketch of Eliza" is Suggs's Christian faith, which she understands as being connected to her physical condition: "If I had been strong and healthy like other children . . . perhaps I should not have known the Lord. I might now have been running after the pleasures of the world" (pp. 58-59). Because of her faith, Suggs routinely rejects suggestions that she earn money by displaying herself as an oddity: "It has never been a temptation to me to want to go with a show or to be in a museum for money making purposes . . . Such places are not for me. God wants me to live for Him, and I could not do it there. I must keep separated from the world" (pp. 65-66).

The narrative's final section, "Scenes from Slavery," consists of a series of anecdotes about the cruelty and hardships of slavery. Included are descriptions of the indignities endured by slaves on the auction block and the pain of forced separation from family that often accompanied a slave's sale to a new master. The most shocking anecdote involves a woman who, after Emancipation, marries a younger man, only to later discover that he is her son who was sold away as a child during slavery. These stories were originally told to Suggs by her mother, and she reprints them as a testament to the horrors that the slave system permitted.

Works Consulted: United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Tenth Census of the United States, Washington: National Archives, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 196-, Series T9, Roll 177, p. 284.

Harry Thomas

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