Mary Allen West: An Abolitionist Educator

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Portrait of Mary Allen West

Most of the time when we think about abolition in Galesburg it is men we are thinking of, but this simply is not the whole story. One of the women involved in particular is Mary Allen West. Though now she is most known for her work in the temperance movement she did quite a lot of abolitionist work throughout her life. This part of her life is glaringly left out of almost everything that is written about her. Ethics of care reminds us to think about what the subject of archival work would want. I believe that Mary Allen West would not have wanted such a large and incredible part of her life to go unremembered. This seemingly forgotten part of her life proves that the abolitionists of Galesburg were not just men, they were women too, and lets us discuss what the subject of archives would want.

Ethics of care is a theoretical model that focuses on care and empathy to address social justice issues that are not commonly discussed with other theoretical models. Most ethics of care discussions center minoritized subjects that have historically not been treated as people, at least not to the extent that white subjects have been.[1] While my discussion will be focusing on a rather privileged person in her time, compared to many others, for example Black people, both freed and enslaved, I think her story provides a valuable narrative of discussing ethics of care in archives. Although she has most definitely been treated as a person in what has been written about her thus far, so much of her work has been glossed over and not treated with the respect it deserves. Mary Allen West was an abolitionist educator, an educator who used her abilities to teach Black people, something very important to the abolitionist movement, which is not properly discussed in the literature about her up until now.

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A Newspaper Article describing Mary Allen West's work on the Underground Railroad as a child, February 1924

Mary Allen West was born in Log City, the precursor to Galesburg, in 1837. Not much is known about her childhood, but we have a recollection that was published in a newspaper article describing how she worked with the underground railroad as a young girl. Along with the rest of her studies, West was learning how to play the organ. The organ was conveniently located in a church that happened to be a stop on the underground railroad. As she was a young girl, she would have been rather invisible on her way to the church, even in broad daylight. She used this invisibility to her advantage and was able to take food to those escaping slavery.[2] She also taught some of them how to read, this being her first “job” as an educator that would be followed by many more.[3] This information is truly remarkable. It is amazing that a young girl did this much work on the underground railroad. But what is troubling to me as an historian is that this work is not mentioned anywhere else.

Mary Allen West would later become a teacher after graduating from the Knox Female Seminary in 1855 at 17 years old.[4] She would teach at many different schools during her career. Education was a rather hot topic in the country at the time. Many schools were in their early stages, having just been founded and organized. But not only this, the ideals of much of the country included not teaching those who were enslaved to read or write, as many thought they would become too dangerous as they would then be able to organize rebellions much more easily if they were literate.[5] This meant that there was not only a distinct lack of education for these people, but sentiments that it should stay that way.[6] But West taught them nonetheless. She would be the first person to teach any Black people in Galesburg beginning in 1863.[7] It was said that her students were “anxious to learn to read and Miss West offered to teach the colored school and did so for a year and a half sinking under great difficulties”.[8] This was most likely a difficult job, not only because she was teaching a great many students at once, in some cases 100 at a time, but that some in the surrounding communities may have held the same belief about not educating Black people that was present in other areas of the country.[9] Though the sentiments of the surrounding area are unknown, as Knoxville, the town just next to Galesburg, was known to have jailed escaping enslaved people and thus had a mindset opposite to the general anti-slavery ideals of Galesburg, it is highly possible that they would have found it unacceptable to provide any Black people with an education.[10] These acts of education were not merely that, they were acts of resistance and acts of abolition.

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A pamphlet written by Mary Allen West, dicussing her ideas about the public school system

 Educating Black people was a way for them to eventually become American citizens, something Mary Allen West discusses in her pamphlet titled The Mission of the Public School, but also something that many people throughout the country were discussing at the time. Within the abolitionist community throughout the country, sentiments about abolition and then how to turn Black people into American citizens with education was an old story. Even in 1805 these sentiments were strong, with the New York Manumission Society reporting at the the American Convention of Abolition Societies these same ideas, of education with the goal of “the integration of freed slaves into civil society”.[11] Within her pamphlet West discusses how “the mission of the American public school system is to train for American citizenship”.[12] Her educational opinions seem to center around ideas of citizenship, just as was the thought of so many abolitionists during her time.[13] It is no coincidence that West was discussing these things, while having taught Black people for part of her life, while these sentiments were growing throughout the country.

Part of why I was so drawn to Mary Allen West and her contributions to the abolitionist movement is simply because they are not discussed. I believe that Mary Allen West was an abolitionist educator. There is nothing about this in anything that is written about her. The theory of ethics of care reminds us to make sure to discuss the subjects of material found in an archive as they would have wanted to be discussed, to empathize with them and try our hardest to tell their stories how they would have wanted them to be told. I don’t believe that Mary Allen West would have liked her story how it has been written up to this point, with such amazing work simply left out of the narrative.

Mary Allen West is a Galesburg legend, but she is mostly known for her work with temperance and her work as an educator. While her work as an educator can be described as either temperance work or abolitionist work, nothing mentions the latter connection. It is clear to me that West was an abolitionist educator, with her work teaching escaped enslaved people on the underground railroad as a child and then again more officially as a teacher in the public school system.

Mary Allen West: An Abolitionist Educator