[Note: Spelling follows the original in all direct quotations from the correspondence.]
It’s rare to have access to the internal emotional lives of women in history. Personal correspondence can give us a glimpse of the complex and often contradictory thoughts of women whose lives diverged from expected paths. But it’s not uncommon for such correspondence to be lost after their deaths. Letters may simply be discarded as trash. Or family members may destroy them in order to protect the reputations of the dead. In American history, there is a similar difficulty in finding the self-told stories of the African-American community in its early years. So the correspondence of Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus is doubly valuable for the story it tells.
Addie and Rebecca were black women, both born in the mid 19th century as free women in Connecticut. Their correspondence comes from a time shortly after the end of the Civil War when Rebecca often spent time away. It was Rebecca’s family who preserved the letters, so the collection includes Addie’s letters to her and Rebecca’s letters to her family, but the content of what Rebecca wrote back to Addie needs to be interpolated.
Rebecca's family was solidly middle class and had lived in Connecticut for several generations. She trained as a schoolteacher. And because of that and her missionary enthusiasm, she traveled to the South after the Civil War was over to help establish a school for ex-slaves. She experienced (and wrote home about) serious racial hostility, both because of her vocation and in response to her personal behavior because she saw no reason to automatically defer to white people if they didn’t respect her back.
Addie was an orphan without Rebecca's extensive network of family ties and support. Her correspondence is less literate but full of enthusiasm, passion, and sensuality. She was an avid reader, had a forceful personality, and tended to be judgmental of others. She, too, lived in Connecticut, which was probably where the two met. She made a living in a number of different jobs: as a seamstress, as a domestic worker, in various factory jobs. Shortly before her early death at age 29, she worked as a teamster driving wagons. She was intolerant of racism and segregation and was unafraid to speak her mind to her white employers. This might possibly have something to do with the number of times she changed jobs during the course of the correspondence.
The romantic relationship between Addie and Rebecca appears in their letters in a number of ways. There were regular protestations of love and devotion, but they also spoke of passionate kisses and caressing each other’s breasts. The letters also give clear indications that their relationship was felt to be in competition with potential heterosexual relationships.
The mid 19th century is typically thought of as a time of “romantic friendships” and Boston Marriages. And much of the language that Addie and Rebecca use is similar in flavor. In fact, they discuss the white literary depiction of romantic friendship in their letters, comparing their devotion to that described in Grace Aguilar’s novel Women’s Friendships. Some historians such as Lillian Faderman take the position that these relationships were romantic but not physically erotic. Women might kiss, they might embrace, they might even share a bed without it being considered sexually improper or incompatible with heterosexuality.
Addie and Rebecca give us a closer look--one that may have been a more silent part of other romantic friendships. After all, if we didn’t have these letters, we wouldn’t know it was a part of theirs. In one letter, when Addie mentions that she shares a bed with another woman, she reassures Rebecca, “If you think that is my bosom that captivated the girl that made her want to sleep with me, she got sadly disapointed injoying it, for I had my back towards all night and my night dress was butten up so she could not get to my bosom." And she continues with a protestation that her bosom is reserved for Rebecca.
Rebecca must have regularly expressed jealousy of women that Addie shared living space with. Addie writes that she has no desire to be kissed by anyone else, saying, "No kisses is like youres." She also says, "I imprint several kisses upon your lips and give you a fond imbrace." And later: "I wish that I was going to sleep in your fond arms to night."
Interestingly, Rebecca’s family and their community appear to have recognized and supported the special nature of their relationship, although sometimes with ambivalence. On one occasion, when Addie visited Rebecca’s family while Rebecca was away in the south, she reports that Rebecca’s mother told another visitor that “if either one of us was a gent, we would marry.” Addie was quite happy to hear that. Addie felt comfortable talking about her physical longing for Rebecca to friends and family and that she wished for her embrace and her return.
Both women were also courted by men, and that provides a chance to see how they thought of the parallels with their own relationship. Addie writes, "O Rebecca, it seems I can see you now, casting those loving eyes at me. If you was a man, what would things come to? They would after come to something very quick." and later "What a pleasure it would be to me to address you My Husband." When Addie mentions a male suitor, she notes that although she loves him, it’s not passionately. On other occasions, when she mentions attractions to men, she always compares her feelings to those she has for Rebecca. At times, these mentions seem intended to provoke jealousy. Addie seems to have had fewer occasions to experience jealousy of Rebecca’s other connections, though she once writes, that she dreamed of seeing Rebecca caress another woman, and spoke of how bad it made her feel not to be the object of those caresses.
When Addie wrote more seriously about contemplating marriage to a man, it was in the context of economic security. On one occasion when asking Rebecca how she would feel about marriage for that reasons, she says, "Rebecca, if I could live with you or even be with you some parts of the day, I would never marry." But this was at a time when Rebecca was living elsewhere and the two were unlikely to be able to set up a household together.
Over the course of their correspondence, the language gradually shifted to calling themselves sisters, but even this is ambiguous. Addie sometimes signed her name using Rebecca’s surname. Addie did marry a man eventually, after flip-flopping several times, but died of tuberculoses two years later at the age of 29. At some point after that, Rebecca married. She married one of her co-workers at the school where she was teaching in Maryland. She survived to the age of 95.