Today We Learn About: Mr. and Mrs. Prince

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s Mr. and Mrs. Prince gives the reader a deeply personal look at the process of researching individuals that were once thought unsearchable. We are treated with not only the life story of the books namesakes, but also a vivid account of the struggle to research these individuals, complete with the author’s own personal discoveries and emotional reactions. These are the qualities that set Mr. and Mrs. Prince apart, for the book would stand alone splendidly if it merely told the story of the former slaves who work their way into freedom, buying land, and starting a family along the way. Instead the reader is given the treat of sharing in the writer’s own experiences, from learning of her own connection to the Prince family and hours traveling with her husband in search of previously unfound sources, to deciphering Latin abbreviations in medical records in an effort to piece together the family’s health history. The insight we are given, the emotional connection the author feels toward the story, and level of research described within the tale are all impressive, and serve to weave a story that leaves the reader not only with an understanding of the Prince family, but the author herself.

At the outset the reader is told that the story of Mr. and Mrs. Prince is not new to the annals for historical research. It is pointed out that in the past, there have been a few pieces written on the couple, but that these works were largely fabrications that have been passed off as truth. Gerzina has set off to expose the half-truths, and does so beautifully. She calls into question these past works, and even specifically outlines which portions or the previous accounts are not founded in truth. By then explaining the tireless effort she put into researching these aspects, Gerzina shows her commitment to the narrative. While telling the tale of the family, the author raises points that get the reader thinking critically about the subject, a symptom of the author’s extensive research.

Mr. Abijah Prince did not lead the standard life of a slave. He was taught to read, and given the ability to leave the grounds he normally worked, in order to assist other landowners in the area. This suggests that the individuals who supervised Abijah not only trusted him, but believed that education was important, even for a slave. This mindset plays out repeatedly over Mr. Prince’s lifetime, as he is often described as an entrepreneur who kept meticulous records of debts owed, and money received. Remarkable still, is the manner the author discovers many of these facts. Gerzina speaks of toiling over general store ledgers, searching for purchases made by the Prince family, as well as court records, where she finds them active in settling debts, but also in defending their rights as land owners.

As Gerzina describes the circumstances that lead to Abijah Prince eventually buying his own freedom and becoming successful, the reader learns a few ponderous facts. The records show that Abijah Prince, a former slave, used slave labor for his own purposes. This development is quite intriguing, and really a marvelous find for Gerzina who opens up to the reader a world turned upside down, in many respects. How is it that Abijah Prince could reconcile the use of slaves? It is certainly possible that he took pity on the men, and treated them with a kind heart while they did the job with which he needed assistance. Perhaps even still, slave labor was so ingrained in the psyche of freemen at the time that Abijah’s previous position in life did not have any effect on the fact that he needed help, and there were men around that he could use. It is very possible that the normalcy of the institution barred men from asking themselves, “Why?” Gerzina excels in bringing forward information about the daily lives of the couple that are in stark contrast to what we would expect from former slaves who have worked their way towards freedom.

In researching the life of Lucy Prince, Gerzina makes use of an easily overlooked fact. Lucy Prince’s former name was Lucy Terry, a sign that she was at least initially purchased by a well-to-do family. Gerzina states that this aided in her research, and again shows the reader the attention to detail that Gerzina possessed in her quest to reveal the true lives of Mr. and Mrs. Prince. Especially interesting is the way that Gerzina traces the couple’s courtship. There are no first hand accounts in existence and no pictures at all, so Gerzina uses quite a bit of creativity and manages to piece together a picture of the couple’s courtship using purchase records from the town store. As a reader, it feels like we are brought directly into the world of the Prince family and their neighbors. We are told of Lucy gathering materials for a trousseau and a hope chest. Slaves within the town are shown to buy shoe buckles and other such items in the days and weeks leading up to the couple’s nuptials. Gerzina goes far beyond research, and far beyond creative problem solving, finding herself amongst storytellers as she tells us the tale of Mr. and Mrs. Prince.

In the recounting of Lucy’s early life, the author again reveals uncommon characteristics that could have only been brought to light by a truly dedicated researcher. As a youth, and up until her marriage to Abijah Prince, Lucy enjoys a harmonious relationship with those she serves. Harmonious, in an uncommon respect of course. Surely Lucy is still shackled by slavery, but like Abijah she is taught to read, and there is evidence that Lucy lived in a very close proximity to the family she was intended to serve. This close proximity, such as living in the same quarters, was not a common practice in the South during slavery, for example. This arrangement begs the question, are we as readers being shown the differences between northern and southern slavery in this true to life account of Lucy and Abijah Prince? Is it possible that the education and close quarters of slaves were preliminary steps towards an abolitionist mind set in the region? There is further evidence presented that supports this fact.

In her travels to reveal the true and complete story of Mr. and Mrs. Prince, Gerzina spends extensive time looking over court documents. The information garnered from her hours of searching, traveling, and deciphering not only shows that Lucy and Abijah Prince were strong willed individuals who were not afraid to stand up for their rights, but also that the courts in the area were not hesitant to grant them the same rights as all others citizens. This information is, in this readers opinion, one of the more stellar revelations in the book. While even free African-Americans were under frequent and unjust attack, the courts not only allowed the Prince Family to bring charges against white defendants, but they also won on numerous occasions for a variety of crimes against them. By revealing a previously untold narrative of the time, Gerzina clears the way for new research and innovative thinking. She has not only done a service to the reader with her tireless efforts, but also to historians the world over, as she has shown that the depths we dig will not go unrewarded, for we may find a buried treasure or even a tunnel that will lead us to a wholly uncharted space within a narrative.

A very generous portion of Mr. and Mrs. Prince is dedicated to the court battles of the Prince family. While there are important insights to be taken from this portion of the narrative, Gerzina details the events almost to the point of minutia. This could certainly be due to the fact that the courts have kept such detailed records, and the information all seemed pertinent after such a long and tiresome struggle for tidbits of information about the family. Gerzina should have shown greater discretion in selecting the information on these court cases that she shared with the reader. When we add the fact that there is no mention made of the countless other land disputes that very likely occurred during the time period, the reader is left with a lack of context. This is never a good thing, and can be a very bad thing when writing of history.

Although mentioned throughout the book, Abijah’s military service could also have been expanded upon. African-American’s role in domestic defense is an unknown subject to many individuals, and as Gerzina is clearly writing this book for a diverse audience, it stands to reason that some more details about Abijah’s service would have been included in the narrative. It feels as if Gerzina has missed a prime opportunity to educate the reader and change more misconceptions than the book does as written. The reader is left to wonder how military service affected Abijah on a deeper level, instead we are lead to believe that the main effect was on his time. Surely, this is an oversimplification of the narrative, but without additional insight and details the reader is left to wonder. Perhaps if Gerzina paid as much attention to Abijah’s military service as she does to the family’s unending court cases, there would be less left to the imagination.

A final critique that is no fault of the author’s lies in the absence of Lucy Prince’s much heralded written word. Throughout the book, Lucy is described as a “prodigy in conversation,” a wonderful poet, with oratory skills that are nearly unmatched. It truly is a shame that more examples of her skills have not survived. Lucy Prince’s distinction as America’s first black poet notwithstanding, it would be nice to have more of her work beyond the poem, “Bars Fight,” which Gerzina prints in it’s entirety. This poem could be read as a simple account of events, or as a satirical poem and act of resistance. Due to a complete lack of comparative works from Lucy Prince, we may never settle the debate.

It is a shame that we are not able to read Lucy Prince’s works, but perhaps another will come along with the drive, passion, and dedication of Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. Perhaps this as yet unknown historian will spend days, weeks, months, and years scouring for the slightest bit of evidence to shed some light on the written word of Lucy Prince, just as Gerzina has done to illuminate the lives of Abijah and Lucy Prince. If Gerzina has proven anything with Mr. and Mrs. Prince it is that with enough searching, there is little we cannot discover.

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