Author: Peggy Brooks-Bertram, Dr.P.H., Ph.D. – Co-Founder, Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women, Inc.
On September 17, 1901, the New York Times reported a story carried in the Buffalo Courier. The title of the article was “Negro Authors: Three Hundred Books by Theme on Exhibition in Buffalo.” Five paragraphs later, the writer reported that, “As may be supposed the collection is rich in what may be called literary curios. One of them, Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley, formerly a slave, but more recently modiste and friend to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, had considerable vogue in its day (1869) because of its singular revelations.”
The singular revelation that the author hinted at was no doubt the fact that Ms. Keckley had been a former slave who dared to write her story of slavery, sexual abuses during her enslavement and brutal beatings at the hands of her owners and their friends. Most remarkable is the story of her long-standing friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln wherein she became a confidante of the first family and also revealed the intricacies of this relationship in her book. The book created quite a stir in “polite” society not so much because of her story of slavery but because of the details she shared from behind the scenes in the Lincoln White House where she was also dressmaker and loyal confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. At least one of Keckley’s dresses is in the Smithsonian. Almost immediately after publication of the book, it was attacked by elite whites—and some blacks—and publication ceased immediately. In fact, it was reported that the Keckley book was “the latest in a series of scandalous exposes.” The editor of the New York Citizen pronounced it “grossly and shamelessly indecent.” The book was quickly withdrawn from shelves, no royalties were paid and Keckley lost most of her wealth.
Nearly seven decades later a little known minster, Reverend James Henry Stansil and his roomer, Erastus Lee republished the extraordinary book. Who was Reverend James Henry Stansil? Stansil was born in Spottsville County, Fredericksburg,Virginia in 1868. He was the son of Elijah Stansil and Emma Mitchell and both had been enslaved in Virginia. He was married to Flora Francis in June 19, 1901 in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts. In the 1930 US Census, Stansil is recorded as living in Buffalo with his wife Flora two children, possibly a grandchild and a boarder, Rev. Erastus Lee a former slave.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ, the congregation in which Stansil was a Pastor, still thrives and is described by members as the “oldest African American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism.” It was founded by the self-proclaimed prophet William Crowdy who had a vision for the church in 1892 in Guthrie, Oklahoma. In 1896, the Church of God and Saints of Christ was organized and incorporated on November 8th, and Prophet Crowdy established the first Tabernacles in Emporia, Lawrence, and Topeka, Kansas. It is not clear when Stansil met Prophet Crowdy but a Rabbi Lewis of the Church in Dayton, Ohio recently reported that Rev. Stansil not only knew the Prophet but was also good friends with him. It is known that Rev. Stansil attended an Assembly meeting on May 18, 1911, at the Feast of Passover in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, Stansil was sent to Buffalo, New York to establish another Tabernacle. It was a very small congregation and a number of his great aunts were members of his church. Stansil’s granddaughter reported that her grandfather was a “fire and brimstone” type of preacher, and like other leaders of the church believed in “extreme Baptism”, e.g., baptizing in the icy waters of a river.
In Buffalo, Stansil operated the Church sometimes from his home in Buffalo on Clinton Street and later from the basement of an old bank building on Buffalo’s East side. The 13th Census of the United States, 1910, reported that at 42, Stansil was the head of a household in Buffalo, had young children living with him and that he had some education. In 1926 there were eight members in his residence, most of them family with the exception of Erastus Lee, an Associate Minister of the congregation as well as a boarder. Stansil also operated a school in his home where he taught about Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglas, two men whom he idolized. In the 1940’s Stansil was active not only in his church but in the broader African American community as well. As late as 1947, one year before he died, Stansil’s church was providing Annual Thanksgiving Day Dinner for the poor at 225 Clinton Street.
The questions not yet resolved are: How and when did Stansil come across Keckley’s book? What was his reason for wanting to republish it? It is believed that Stansil could have heard about the book from a vast network of friends and associates including Frederick Douglas who was a colleague of Elizabeth Keckley. He could also have learned of the book during the Pan American Exposition of 1901 of Buffalo where the Phyllis Wheatley Club petitioned to have the Negro Exhibit on display in Buffalo. Keckley’s book was in that display. It is likely that Stansil acquired the book shortly after the Pan American Exposition which he may have attended. Or, he might have acquired it in 1893 at the Columbia World’s Fair where Keckley gave presentations discussing her book. However he acquired the book, he held onto it for twenty-seven years before publication. It was this singular act by Stansil and Lee that preserved Keckley’s book making it available for research by scholars in various areas including the White House Historical Society and scholars of the African American women’s literary tradition. Because of Stansil’s actions, the book has subsequently been republished at least three times, with new introductions and numerous journal articles have been written examining the manuscript as well as Keckley.
On December 7, 1948, Rev. Stansil died at the old A.J. Meyer Hospital in Buffalo. He was funeralized at the Sherman L. Walker Funeral home and was buried in Rochester at Mt. Hope Cemetery on December 13, 1948. He is survived by grandchildren including Joseph Johnson and Naomi Johnson of New York City. Rev. J.H. Stansil is celebrated as an Uncrowned King for rescuing the work of Elizabeth Keckley from continued literary obscurity.
The Friends of the Buffalo Story is involved in a yearlong project whose mission is to uncover and reveal the heritage-based stories of people who live along the Ferry Street Corridor. As part of this effort “The Friends” is working very closely with community-groups, who have been doing this work for many years. None has done this more effectively and diligently than the uncrowned queens institute for research & education on women, inc.
We are proud to be collaborating with them to bring you this ongoing feature during the month of February, which focuses on some of the “uncrowned community builders” who have done so much to strengthen the African-American community of Buffalo’s East Side as well as the region.
Additional “uncrowned community builders” are as follows: