Eliza Wright West (1839-1933) Uncovering a Remarkable Life 

Jenny Thompson, Director of Education, Evanston History Center

In 1925, as Charles Dawes took office as U.S. Vice President, the American press’ longstanding interest in all the details of his life continued, often resulting in stories that unearthed fascinating connections between the Dawes family and the larger American narrative. On March 8, 1925, the New York Times published one such an article headlined: “Mr. Dawes Fond of Strawberries.”

eliza west from a photo in Lincoln Sunday Star 1924

Eliza West from a photo in the Lincoln Sunday Star, 1924

The article profiled an 86-year old “little-grey-haired” woman with “a personality radiating kindness,” named Eliza Wright West, a resident of Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln, of course, had been the stomping ground of a young Charles Dawes from 1887-1894. It was to Lincoln that Charles’ young bride Caro Blymyer Dawes came following her 1889 wedding to Charles in Cincinnati. And it was in Lincoln that their children, Rufus and Carolyn, were born.

For roughly five years, from 1889 until 1894, West worked for Charles and Caro Dawes. West not only helped run their household in their little “four-room cottage” (which they rented for $18 dollars a month) at 1400 D street, but she was on hand to help care for the Dawes’ children when they were born. Later, when the Dawes moved into more spacious quarters at 1301 H Street, West was there too. She did not live with them, but came daily to cook, clean, and take care of the children.

The New York Times article was based on a more in-depth profile of West, written by Marjorie Wyman, that appeared in the Lincoln Sunday Star on September 14, 1924, titled, “Mrs. West Recalls Cooking for General Dawes’ Bride When She Came to Lincoln.”

14th and D Lincoln Dawes home from Lincoln Sunday Star

The Dawes’s first home in Lincoln, 1400 D Street, from the Lincoln Sunday Star, 1924. The house still stands today.

“She was that sweet,” said West of Mrs. Dawes, whom she called a “queen.” But she “couldn’t even stir a batch of biscuit,”she recalled, stating that Caro was “just a young girl when I went to work for her, and she had never done any housework, or cooking, or sewing.” West helped Caro with the basics of running her new home, and she also cooked meals for the Dawes. In particular, she made strawberry shortcake for Charles Dawes, saying that she “never knew anybody who liked strawberry shortcake better than Mr. Dawes. I believe he would have eaten it every day.”

 

caro nebraska

Caro Dawes in her Wedding Dress

 

When the Dawes planned their move east to Evanston, Illinois, West was to go along with them. She “helped pack everything in readiness for the trip.” But she fell ill with the “grippe,” as West remembered, and was unable to go. The family that had been “so kind to her” moved away, and West recalled her sorrow in seeing them go.

But West’s experiences with the Dawes family were just one part of her “kaleidoscopic life,” as Wyman wrote. “Her reminiscences are breath-taking in their range of territory.”

Indeed.

When the Dawes packed up and moved from Lincoln in 1894, they left a young city that had witnessed incredible growth in recent years. Years earlier, in 1887, a 22 year old Charles Dawes moved to the small, but burgeoning city of Lincoln, choosing to make his own fortune by going “west.”

Eliza West had done the same thing. Although under vastly different circumstances.

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A Thriving Western City, O Street, Lincoln, Nebraska, c. 1901, Library of Congress.

Eliza West was born in Mississippi in March 1839.[1] From birth, she was enslaved on a plantation. She did not live with her family, but managed to see her mother and other family members “once in a while.” Despite the ordeal of slavery, she would later learn to read and write (the ultimate act of defiance against the system of slavery, and an act punishable by death in some cases) and to marry (although legal marriage between enslaved people was outlawed under the system of slavery).

West met her future husband, Mr. Wright, on another plantation, run by the Wells family, where she was taken with her mother and siblings some time prior to the American Civil War. Wright was an enslaved man on the plantation. The couple had children, including two sons (John, born in 1859, and Jasper, born in 1863). (The 1910 U.S. Census records Eliza West as having had 5 children, two of whom were living).

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, West was still living on that plantation in Mississippi, and she well remembered “the noise of the big guns” and “feeding the soldiers as they passed along the way.” One of her sons, John, was still a toddler when Jasper was born in 1863. At some point, she entrusted a female friend to take care of her baby; her husband, Mr. Wright, was now a soldier in the war. (Wyman’s article states that Wright “went with the Confederate soldiers to the war.”[2]) Later, she received a message from her husband that he was going to arrange to come and get her and the children and take them away. But another message with his “explicit instructions” for their meeting was intercepted. West would never see him again.

After the war, and emancipation, West lived with her older son John and took a job for $50 a year, working for a daughter of the owner of the Wells plantation. (The Lincoln Sunday Star article inserts the name “Wells” into Eliza’s name.) As one can imagine, “things were not so pleasant there,” and she was “anxious to leave,” she reported.

But she soon fell ill and was made “helpless for some time.” Once she recovered it was “many years” before she could save enough money to travel to Vicksburg, MS, to look for her younger son who had, during the chaos of war, been entrusted to one of her friends.

Once in Vicksburg, West would be reunited with that son, Jasper. It was then she learned of her husband’s death. Along with her two sons, she would remain “for some time” in Mississippi, probably in Vicksburg. The 1870 U.S. Census records an Eliza Wright, age 25, living with two sons “J” and “L,” ages 7 and 10. This Eliza was working as a laundress.

1870 census detail, listing eliza and sons

Detail, 1870 U.S. Census, Vicksburg, MS, “Wright, Eliza” is listed on line 30. The “M” stands for “mulatto,” a category widely used at the time.

At some point prior to 1889, West moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Her two sons preceded her there. Both sons were recorded on the 1880 U.S. Census as working as laborers in Vicksburg, MS, but by 1883, the name of her elder son, John L. Wright, appears in the Lincoln City Directory. John was working at the First National Bank as a porter, and Jasper was working as a Pullman porter. When she arrived in Lincoln, West lived with her son Jasper and his wife Naomi at 1235 B Street.

Sometime in 1889, West went to work for the Dawes. By 1891, she was listed in the Lincoln City Directory as a “col’d domestic,” working at 1440 D Street, the Dawes home.

After the Dawes moved away, (according to the New York Times article), Caro would pay a visit to West whenever she came back to Lincoln.

Four years after the Dawes left Lincoln, West married again.

ALexander West, USCT enlistment record 1863

Alexander West, U.S.C.T. [Colored Troops] enlistment record, October 1863.

In 1898, she married Alexander West (1838-1912). Alexander West was born in Virginia, and came to Lincoln some time around 1886. Alexander was a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in the 10th U.S. Colored Infantry, Company B, from 1863-1866.[3]

In the Lincoln Daily News, he was described as a “well-to-do colored man” with a “snug bank account reposing at the First National Bank.[4] Alexander owned a farm and other land,[5] and after their wedding, the couple moved to Salina, Kansas, about 200 miles south of Lincoln. There they lived for many years until Alexander’s death on April 6, 1912.

West then moved back to Lincoln. The 1920 U.S. Census lists her as living with her son John in a house she owned at 824 Plum Street.

On Plum Street, West and her son were living in the heart of a small, but thriving African-American community in Lincoln.

In 1870, only 789 African Americans were recorded as living in Nebraska, and by 1890, the number had risen to 8,900.[6] By the 1920s, West and her sons were living in an area marked by the emergence of what has been called a National “New Negro Movement” or “Renaissance” in the early 20th century.[7]

b-w 824 plum st lincoln neb built 1909

824 Plum Street, Eliza West’s former home in Lincoln. The home was built in 1909 and stands today. Photograph from Zillow.com, accessed February 16, 2016.

Although most African-Americans were forced into working menial and domestic labor occupations, and racism and discrimination were widespread, there was, still, the sense of a new era. In communities around the country, many people now owned their own homes and were raising families, their children removed at least a generation from slavery. A sense of accomplishment and of a thriving culture emerged in forms of self-expression, such as the incredible photographs of Lincoln’s African American community made by photographer John Johnson (1879-1953)[8] from 1910 to 1925.

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Summer Porch Scene: 1821 South 16th Street, Lincoln, Nebraska, Julius and Tillie Miller. Photograph by John Johnson. Used by permission from Douglas Keister.

Johnson’s images capture a community presenting itself with confidence and beauty. The past, and the community’s direct roots in slavery (John Johnson’s own father had been enslaved), are not denied, but in the building of a new place for themselves, the Lincoln residents suggest that the American narrative can be written anew. Johnson’s images are beautiful and inspiring. His photographs include portraits, scenes of daily life, and landscapes, including a house on Plum Street, one block from West’s own home. (See Douglas Keister’s collection of Johnson’s photographs here: http://keisterphoto.photoshelter.com/gallery/Glass-Negatives/G0000BTrQZyKvdl8)

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The Shelby House, 924 Plum Street. Eliza West was a neighbor. Photograph by John Johnson. Used by permission from Douglas Keister.

Johnson’s images show us the place Eliza West called home following her flight from the South and all that she had witnessed and endured.

A few months before Marjorie Wyman’s profile of West was published, West’s son John L. Wright passed away on February 21, 1924.[9] In Wyman’s piece, she notes that West’s brown eyes “grow misty” as she recalled the 1912 death of the Dawes’ son, Rufus. But it is highly likely that she was thinking of her own lost son, too–The precious baby born into slavery, and who later led his mother north, and to a better life.

signature of eliza west

Eliza West’s Signature

In 1933, West passed away at the Negro Women’s Christian Home in Omaha, Nebraska. She was buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln. Her husband, Alexander West, and both her sons, John L. Wright and Jasper Wright, are buried in the same cemetery.

The historical record bears the mark of the system of slavery in the failure of people to have recorded the details of the lives of so many enslaved and formerly enslaved people. The fact that even part of Eliza West’s story was recorded owing only to her connection with the famous Dawes family is an ironic twist of fate.

In the press’ eagerness to report on the seemingly smallest detail of a great man, the life of an equally great woman was unearthed. The small glimpse into the history of an American Vice President thus proved to offer a window into one of Lincoln’s residents, Eliza Wright West, whose remarkable life experiences were indeed “breath-taking in their range of territory.”

slave schedule detail 1860_edited-1

Detail, 1860 Mississippi “Slave Schedule.” Enslaved people were enumerated separately in the 1860 US census, as seen in the above image, although most of the schedules do not provide personal names. Most enslaved people were only numbered and recorded in terms of age, gender and color. They were listed beneath the name of the slave “owner.”

This article is part of EHC’s ongoing efforts to work from Evanston outward, researching and connecting the historical dots beyond the Dawes House, expanding our knowledge of the American Scene and adding to our understanding of the human narrative.

Author’s Note: The research into Eliza West’s biography continues. This page will be updated as new information is uncovered.

Notes:

[1] Biographical information about Eliza West and her family has been drawn from US Census records from 1870-1930, Lincoln City Directories, will and probate files, and death records accessed through Ancestry.com. The year of Eliza West’s birth varies from 1839 to 1844 on various documents.

[2] The Confederate Army did not enlist black soldiers until March 1865, just about one month prior to the war’s end. A large number of African Americans fought for the Union Army, with the state of Mississippi providing one of the largest number of recruits (roughly 18,000). Earnest McBride, “Black Mississippi troops in the Civil War,” 2006, http://www.bjmjr.net/mcbride/black_mississippi.htm

[3] Alexander West enlisted on October 30, 1863 and was discharged in May 1866. “Fight Good Fight,” Salina Evening Journal, May 27, 1912.

[4] “Handy with a Pen,” Lincoln Daily News, July 18, 1893.

[5] Alexander West, Probate Case File, 1912, in Probate Case Files, 1867-1934; Index to Probate Case Files, 1867-1934; Author: Kansas. Probate Court (Saline County); Probate Place: Saline, Kansas. Accessed on Ancestry.com.

[6] In 1854, there were only a recorded 13 African Americans (presumed enslaved) living in the “Nebraska Territory,” which had a total population of just 2,732. Slavery was banned in the territory in 1861 and the black population would start to rise.  See: “African American Settlers,” Nebraska Studies, http://www.nebraskastudies.org.

[7] For more see, Jennifer Hildebrand, “The New Negro Movement in Lincoln, Nebraska,” Nebraska History 91 (2010): 166-189, and The Harlem Renaissance in the American West: The New Negro’s Western Experience, Edited by Cary D. Wintz and Bruce A. Glasrud. New York: Routledge, 2012.

[8] Johnson’s work was only fairly recently rediscovered and is now recognized as a remarkable visual document of American history. Another Lincoln photographer, a contemporary of Johnson’s, Earl McWilliams may also be the source of some of the images. See Douglas Keister and Edward F. Zimmer, Lincoln in Black and White, 1910-1925. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2008. The Johnson images used here are used by permission of Douglas Keister, with many thanks for his generosity. For more on Johnson’s images, see: https://mona.unk.edu/mona/john-johnson-1879-1953/ and http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/lost-and-found-again-photos-of-african-americans-on-the-plains-4344450/?no-ist.

[9] West’s other son, Jasper Wright, would live until June 20, 1954.