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FSU’s most exemplary alum: Irene Moore Davis discusses Mary Miles Bibb’s social justice

Courtesy of Jennifer Dowling

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

To the students of FSU, “Miles Bibb” most frequently refers to the residence hall with the most expensive rooms on campus, or maybe a place to stop for flatbreads before class when the Dining Commons just doesn’t appeal.

But the building takes its name from FSU alum Mary Miles Bibb, a Black abolitionist and activist in the 19th century.

In line with this year’s Arts & Ideas theme of “Courage + Resilience,” the committee hosted Irene Moore Davis, an activist and historian, to speak about Mary Miles Bibb’s history and involvement with the Underground Railroad Sept. 28.

She began her discussion by explaining how important Mary Miles Bibb is to the culture and history where she grew up and went to college in the area of Windsor, Ontario. She explained Mary Miles Bibb lived there for much of her life.

Davis’s slideshow began with a close-up shot of a monument called “Tower of Freedom” in Windsor. The monument accompanies a sister statue in Detroit called “Gateway to Freedom,” and together the two statues represent a significant part of the Underground Railroad, she said.

She added what now is Windsor - and what would have been Sandwich when Mary Miles Bibb lived there - was a hotbed of abolitionist work when Mary Miles Bibb chose to settle there, because Canadian law allowed escaped enslaved Black Americans to remain free once they crossed the border.

With that context, Davis began to explain a little bit about Mary Miles Bibb herself. She said not much was known about Mary Miles Bibb in her youth, but historians do know she was born to free parents of African descent in Rhode Island.

Davis added Mary Miles Bibb was educated at the Prudence Crandall School when she was young with a teacher who continued teaching for “racialized communities” despite public backlash.

She added this was a theme in Mary Miles Bibb’s life, as a similar problem came up when she enrolled in Massachusetts State Normal School in Lexington, what eventually came to be known as Framingham State University.

Samuel J. May, the principal of the Normal School in 1842, threatened to quit his position before the board allowed her to attend the school, Davis added.

After graduating, Mary Miles Bibb became one of the first Black female teachers in the United States, and she taught in schools in Boston, Albany, New York City, and Cincinnati, Davis said.

She interrupted the discussion of Mary Miles Bibb’s past to speak a bit about Henry Bibb, Mary Miles Bibb’s husband.

She said Henry Bibb was born into slavery and spent most of his life up to early adulthood attempting to free himself, including one attempt to free his wife and child.

Eventually he was able to make it to Detroit without his wife or child, Davis said, and added he was “kind of a broken man” at this point - happy to be out of slavery, but sad without his family.

She said he was “invigorated” by meeting Mary Miles Bibb in the American Anti-Slavery Society, and they corresponded for some time via letter before eventually marrying and moving to Detroit together.

Davis said when Henry Bibb met Mary Miles Bibb, he was incredibly taken by her and viewed her very much as his equal.

“For many of us who have grown up around southern Ontario, we really think of them as our community’s very first Black power couple,” she said.

Though Henry Bibb grew up illiterate, he eventually learned to write, and in fact became a very talented writer, Davis said. While living in Detroit, Henry Bibb wrote articles for a paper called the Signal of Liberty. Eventually, he also published an autobiography.

They moved together to Sandwich and began embedding themselves in the cultural and political scenes, Davis said, and eventually, the Bibbs founded the Voice of the Fugitive, the “first successful sustained Black newspaper in Canada.”

She said, “Mary and Henry found the Voice of the Fugitive, and the title really gives you a sense of what that is supposed to be. This is a newspaper that carries forward the voice and the views of those people.”

Davis added it took very little time for them to found the newspaper - the Bibbs moved to Canada in August 1850, and the Voice of the Fugitive first published in January 1851, and added this was largely due to the amount of work Mary Miles Bibb put into advertising it.

Henry Bibb was the official editor of the newspaper, Davis said, and because options for female writers were already limited at the time - nevermind Black female writers - Mary Miles Bibb was never able to write her own articles.

She added though Mary Miles Bibb never earned credit for her writing, she was likely an incredibly good writer in her own right, both in contributing to the Voice of the Fugitive and Henry Bibb’s biography.

“It has been remarked upon by many scholars that there’s quite a difference between the style of Henry’s writing,” she said, “and the elevated tone and language of [his] autobiography as well as his later newspaper writings, where there’s a suggestion that Mary’s fingerprints may have been on some of his later writings.”

Davis added that Mary Ann Shadd Cary is often credited as the first Black female publisher in Canada, but despite being a descendant of Shadd Cary, she believes it’s important to credit Mary Miles Bibb with that honor.

While Henry Bibb was working at the publisher, Mary Miles Bibb opened up a school for Black children in her home, and within a month of opening the class, Mary Miles Bibb was teaching 46 students, Davis said.

“I ask you again to think about what Mary Elizabeth Miles Bibb could have been doing with her incredible education and all of those skills. But this was the work that she chose to do. This is truly heroic and courageous,” Davis said.

“When writing about her experiences as a teacher, Mary is always, always, always insistent on not only discussing her own struggles and what she’s going through, but discussing the heroism, courage, and resilience of her students,” she added. “She wanted to promote the idea that gaining literacy and pursuing education were revolutionary acts.”

After Henry Bibb died in 1854, Mary Miles Bibb continued to live an interesting life, Davis said. Though the Voice of the Fugitive shut down after his death, she continued on and eventually opened a business as a dressmaker.

Eventually, Mary Miles Bibb remarried to Isaac Cary and moved back to the United States, Davis said, and added there’s interesting research going on because historians are uncovering proof that the obituary was formerly thought to be about Mary Miles Bibb may have in fact been about another woman with the same name.

“But however and whenever and wherever her life ended, the legacy of Mary Miles Bibb Cary is not in question. So how exciting it is that the north hall at Framingham State University has been renamed Miles Bibb Hall,” Davis said.

“I’m confident in my claim that Mary Elizabeth Miles Bibb is among your most exemplary alumni, deserving of all these recognitions and far more. And I hope her story will continue to be told and honored so that every generation of FSU scholars will comprehend the extraordinary company they are keeping,” she added.


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