Mary E. Webb

The most influential version of Mary E. Webb’s story was written by her husband, the novelist, journalist and educator Frank J. Webb, in his 1856 ‘Biographical Sketch’ .

Mary was born in Massachusetts in 1828; her mother had escaped from slavery, and her father was reputedly a Spanish nobleman. Her mother’s determination secured Mary a good education, and she distinguished herself at school. In Frank’s words, “she exhibited at an early period a fondness for poetry”, and also a talent for performance. In 1845, at the age of 17, she married Frank, who at that time ran a cloth and clothing design business in Philadelphia. When the business failed in 1854, the Webbs turned their energies to the arts, and Mary began her dramatic readings. She knew, however, that a life in public would expose her to virulent racial prejudice. Frank describes this with deeply affecting candour in his sketch: 

“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.”

Mary studied elocution, and made her debut in Philadelphia on 19 April 1855, to immediate acclaim. Her husband noted revealingly of that first performance: “genius had become the conqueror of prejudice”. Important introductions to literary figures followed – most significantly, to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had become a publishing sensation on its appearance in 1852, and played a considerable role in advancing the abolitionist cause in America in the years leading up to the Civil War. Deeply impressed by Mary, Stowe adapted Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the stage expressly for her, and extracts from this play, The Christian Slave, became fixtures in Mary’s repertoire.

In 1856, the Webbs travelled to England for a reading tour, advancing the cause of abolition in America through meetings with politically sympathetic campaigners. Reviewers, though often expressing themselves through the language and prejudices of the time, praised Mary’s extraordinary skill in portraying a variety of characters and her ease at moving between these different roles. They were also moved by the control and truth of her performances. Mary gave readings at the Royal Institute in Liverpool from 20 to 23 July 1857. But her health was declining – she was suffering from tuberculosis – and by September that year, the Webbs had left England. Mary died in Jamaica in 1859.