Preacher, teacher, and postmistress, Charlotte Levy Riley was born into slavery but became a popular evangelist after emancipation
Reverend Mrs. Charlotte S. Riley
Edited with an introduction by Crystal J. Lucky; Foreword by Joycelyn K. Moody
University of Wisconsin Press January 2016
Crystal Lucky lived up to her name when she found a forgotten autobiography of a former slave in the library archives at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Lucky, an associate professor of English and the director of the Africana Studies Program at Villanova University in Philadelphia, is also an ordained elder, church official, and pastor’s wife. So, she was thrilled and astonished to discover the unknown memoir of an African American woman who was a licensed minister and popular preacher in the Carolinas after emancipation from slavery.
Reverend Mrs. Charlotte Levy Riley had called her book, “A Mysterious Life and Calling.” As Lucky began to read it, she knew that she had found something—and someone—extraordinary. Lucky has now published Riley’s memoir with the University of Wisconsin Press, providing an introduction and notes on events, society, and religious practice in the periods before, during, and after the Civil War and Reconstruction, and placing Riley’s story in the context of other spiritual autobiographies and slave narratives.
“[Crystal] Lucky has truly uncovered a gem with this autobiography of Charlotte S. Riley, a former slave who became a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal church after emancipation. . . . An important, informative achievement.”—Publishers Weekly
Born into slavery in 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina, young Charlotte Levy was taught to read, write, and sew despite laws forbidding black literacy. Raised a Presbyterian, she wrote of her conversion at age fourteen to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, embracing its ecstatic worship and led by her own spiritual visions.
Riley’s memoir is a revelation on many counts, including life in urban Charleston before and after emancipation, her work as a preacher at multiracial revivals, the rise of African American civil servants in the Reconstruction era, and her education and development as the only woman preacher in South Carolina. She was a licensed female minister in a patriarchal church, a feat rarely achieved at that time by women anywhere in the country, whether black or white. She also became a teacher of newly emancipated black people and their children, and postmistress of Lincolnville, an all-black incorporated town outside of Charleston where she owned a home and spent most of her adult life.
“An astounding find! Riley’s autobiography shifts and revises what we thought we knew about black autobiography, antebellum autobiography, memoirs of spiritual awakening, narratives of slavery, and the history of South Carolina.” —Joycelyn Moody, University of Texas at San Antonio
Riley published her memoir privately in the early twentieth century, but as of yet Lucky has not discovered the year of its publication. “What is clear,” Lucky says, “is that the events span the nineteenth century and the earliest years of the twentieth. Charlotte was born to enslaved parents, John and Sarah Levy, in Charleston on August 26, 1839.”
“As an enslaved girl in one of the busiest cities in the antebellum South, young Charlotte was spared some of the physical hardships of chattel slavery. She even received a modest education at a school run by a local widow, where she learned to read, write, sew, and do basic math. Her mother died when she was very young, so an uncle and a grandmother helped to raise her. Eventually, she began to live with and serve her grandmother’s white mistress, which closely aligned her with affluent, white Charlestonians. At the close of the Civil War, Charlotte married a free black architect, was shortly thereafter abandoned by her husband, began to worship and work with the A.M.E. Church, taught in a church-sponsored school, and received her local preacher’s license in 1871, just one year after African American men obtained the right to vote. She really is quite remarkable.”—Crystal Lucky
As the Reverend Charlotte S. Riley, the newly freed woman worked tirelessly to position African American men, women, and children to benefit economically, educationally, and spiritually from the vast changes that were happening throughout the United States as a result of Emancipation. She taught basic literacy skills and Bible classes to children and adults and traveled hundreds of miles to preach, despite debilitating health problems. In her travels, she also began to assist African American communities and mentor leaders in resisting the backlash of racial violence and the rise of Jim Crow laws. She took a role in organizing sharecroppers, assisting the newly formed Colored National Labor Union, and aiding the Honorable Robert Brown Elliott, the first African American commanding general of the South Carolina National Guard.
Although a memoir like Riley’s is quite rare, Lucky points out, “The power of narrative was important for women, whose physical presence was consistently scrutinized. Riley was aware of her tenuous public position; she repeatedly refers to herself in her autobiography as a ‘woman preacher’ rather than as a preacher or minister.” For some, her existence posed problems. “She faced skepticism from whites and blacks about whether a ‘real woman’ could be a preacher and, in turn, whether a preacher could really be a woman.”
A few accounts by nineteenth-century black preaching women in the northern states are known, but this is the first discovery of such a memoir written in the American South. Herman Beaver, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, notes, “This edition will be in people’s hands for a very long time. A Mysterious Life and Calling is a valuable primary source that can be referenced and studied in so many literary and cultural contexts.”