MRS. MARY E. WEBB was born in New Bedford, State of Massachusetts, in the year 1828, and is now consequently twenty-seven years old. Although there is no law of the Free States, or of the United States, by which she might be enslaved, she being born in a Free State, yet, according to the laws of Virginia, the Slave-holding commonwealth from which her mother escaped, she is still a slave, and could be retained as such within its limits, could a claim to her person be legally established.
Her mother, a woman of full African blood, was a person of unconquerable energy and perseverance. She made three attempts to escape from slavery, and succeeded after the endurance of almost incredible hardships, and several narrow escapes from her pursuers, in arriving at New Bedford just three weeks before the subject of this sketch was born. To her heroic efforts is her daughter indebted for the freedom she now enjoys. Her father was a Spanish gentleman of wealth; he had made many efforts to purchase the freedom of her mother, finding which unsuccessful, he was compelled to leave her to resort to flight for the attainment of that object. The mother of Mrs. Webb, on her arrival in New Bedford, had been consigned for protection; and "Little Mary," as her daughter was called, became an established favourite in the house in which her mother had found so agreeable an asylum. She was a child of remarkable beauty; and her finely-cut features and fair complexion contrasted so broadly with the jet-black colour and African contour of her mother's face, as to excite great astonishment when their close relationship was discovered. Up to Mrs. Webb's sixth or seventh year, her father had provided for her wants in the most lavish manner; she had no wish remaining ungratified that wealth could supply. Owing to circumstances highly honourable to the character of her mother that support was withdrawn, and she was left to struggle for her child's support as best she might. But her daughter knew no change, for she laboured unceasingly, with perseverance and assiduity, that her idol might not feel their changed circumstances, and still enjoy all those educational advantages which the influence of friends managed to secure for her, despite the prevailing prejudice against persons of African extraction. At school she made very rapid progress, and was distinguished for her quick appreciation and unremitting attention to study, not less than for a warm and affectionate disposition, which made her a favourite with both scholars and teachers.
She exhibited at an early period a fondness for poetry, and a taste for dramatic literature, quite uncommon in one of her youth—a taste which she cherished until it was developed a genius for dramatic reading, the high character of which has been universally conceded in her native country, notwithstanding the strong prejudice which prevails against the unfortunate race with which she is identified.
At the age of seventeen she was united to Mr. Webb, who engaged in business in Philadelphia, where they enjoyed the regard of a large circle of friends.
Whilst residing there, she was greatly afflicted by the sudden death of her mother, who fell a victim to anxiety produced by the passing of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law, which drove numbers into Canada for refuge at a most unpropitious season, dragged back some victims into bondage, and consigned others to the grave. Mr. Webb's failure in business led Mrs. Web to reflect upon the possibility of turning her marked elocutionary powers to some practical account.
Hitherto, the idea that she could claim the attention or win the favour of the public, had never suggested itself to her; and when it did, in its wake came also a train of appalling difficulties, which she must encounter in her undertaking. She had not only to surmount the barriers which beset the path of every aspirant for public distinction, but above all—and most discouraging was the fact—that she must storm the ramparts of prejudice, and wring from the unwilling lips of the despisers of her race a confession of her merit. The vastness of this undertaking can only be properly estimated by those who know and appreciate the strength of complexional distinctions in the United States.
Having determined upon the attempt, she sought and obtained the assistance of A. A. Apthorp, a professor of elocution in Philadelphia; and for the warm interest he took in her success, and for the care he devoted to the training of her voice during the short period she was under his instruction, she feels particularly grateful.
She determined to make her debut in the city in which she then resided; and on the 19th of April, 1855, made her first appearance in the Assembly Rooms in Philadelphia, before an audience containing a larger number of professional critics than had ever been before assembled in that city. She was repeatedly applauded throughout her performance. In their enthusiasm and delight, the audience lost the mulatto in the artiste; genius had become the conqueror of prejudice. Her reading was pronounced a complete success; the press was unanimous in its encomiums upon her wonderful voice and the marked dramatic ability she had displayed in her renderings of the various pieces selected. She then made a tour of the New England States, throughout which she was warmly received; and in Boston, the Athens of America, she is regarded as an especial favourite. A few months subsequent to her debut, she had the good fortune to procure an introduction to Mrs. H. Beecher Stowe, a woman admired for her genius, and loved for her goodness and philanthropy on both sides of the Atlantic. Aided by her assistance, and influenced and encouraged by her regard, she pursued her dramatic studies during summer succeeding her debut with great ardour; and at the opening of the winter season she reappeared in Boston at the Fremont Temple, and read, for the first time, "The Christian Slave," a dramatisation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which was prepared by Mrs. Stowe expressly for Mrs. Webb's readings. It was produced to an audience of 3500 people, one of the largest ever assembled in the Temple, and with most unbounded applause. She subsequently read it to large audiences in different parts of the Northern States, and always with success. She has also received high encomiums for the able manner in which she has rendered Mr. Longfellow's new poem of "Hiawatha," which she has read whilst arrayed in the picturesque costume of the North American Indians, which added greatly to the effect. The distinguished author of this very original production has been kind enough to make Mrs. Webb many valuable suggestions in reference to it, and to express himself pleased with her conception and rendering of his work.
There was now but one thing needed to place her in the front rank of her profession; and that was, the approving suffrages of the British Public, the value of which is fully appreciated by herself and friends. She was accordingly honoured with introductions to persons of influence in this country, moving in a circle distinguished not less for its high rank than for its benevolence and philanthropy. Among her introductions may be mentioned, letters from Mrs. H. Beecher Stowe to Her Grace the Duchess of Sutherland, Her Grace the Duchess of Argyle, also to the Earl of Shaftesbury, and other persons of distinction. Mrs. Webb's success in this country will not only establish her reputation as a reader beyond cavil, but it will serve a nobler end, will contribute to a higher purpose, in the presence of which mere personal considerations sink into utter insignificance. It will prove that the right which has been claimed for us, by the friends of our race, to stand side by side with our fair-skinned oppressors, that our claim for the right to compete with them in the world of art for the prizes it offers, is not made without strong foundation for its support.
When that time shall come,—and an unswerving faith in the justice of the Almighty will not permit us to doubt its eventual appearance,—when the fetters which shackle the body and cloud the intellect of my devoted people shall be stricken off by the advancing hand of humanity,—then will my oppressed fellow countrymen prove that the sympathy their wrongs have won from the good of all nations is not undeserved, and that the tinge on their brow is not the badge of inferiority. They will then emerge from the gloom in which centuries of oppression have immured them, with an intellectual grandeur and brilliancy, in harmony with the gorgeous beauty of the land of their forefathers, and, in contemplating the dazzling light of their future, mankind will forget the degradation of their past; and then genius will be no longer something considered as the exclusive attribute of one race or another, but a gift distributed with an impartial hand by our beneficent common father.
F. J. W.