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Published Date: March 11, 2015

Published Date: March 11, 2015

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Women’s History Month: Anne and Elizabeth Hart

Anne and Elizabeth Hart, sisters only separated in age by a single year, were Methodist leaders on the Carribean island of Antigua. Born into a slaveholding free black family, they were two of the first female writers and educators of black Antiguans – slave or free. They worked through their church and founded schools in order to improve the plight of black Antiguans. In doing so, they set an example for others throughout the Caribbean, although much of the white community still considered them insignificant.

Their father, Barry Conyers Hart, had his own conflicts in owning slaves. While he needed people to help run his estate, he agonized over punishment and acted humanely towards his slaves. He offered to help his slaves with affairs such as preparing their manumission papers without charge and offered any advice that was asked of him for free. Since Barry Hart was a free slave, giving him higher social class then most, he was able to receive a decent education which ensured schooling for his children as well. As Anne and Elizabeth got older, they acted as teachers for their younger siblings and slaves, because their mother died in 1785. Anne, the oldest child in their family, was only twelve years old at the time. Dr. Thomas Coke, one of the founders of the Methodist foreign mission, visited their community in 1786. It was then, through his teachings, that Anne and Elizabeth got baptized into the Methodist faith – choosing to wear dresses of plain color and more of a modest cut, as well as stepping away from what were considered worldly activities such as playing the piano, even though that was something the Elizabeth truly cared about.

Both sisters married white men and though that should have boosted their social status, they were persecuted because their husbands shared their views against slavery and stood behind their work. Anne’s husband, a preacher in the community named John Gilbert, even commented that if he had seduced and degraded Anne, rather than marrying her, the white “Christians” would have thought that he’d “acted quite properly.” Elizabeth married Charles Thwaites, a schoolteacher who supported her in her writings. At that time, the idea of white men marrying black women worried many white Antiguans because they were antagonistic towards the integration of the two cultures. They wanted to continue to keep divisions in place, even though black people continued to be freed in a variety of ways. Some were able to save up enough money and buy their freedom. Many women were able to gain freedom after having children with white men—children depended upon their mothers as her status determined her children’s in the Antiguan society. There were also many obedient slaves who were given freedom as a reward for their hard work.

Anne and Elizabeth continued to pursue their mission to empower, particularly providing literacy skills for and sharing of the gospel with black women. One of their first major contributions was the text each sister wrote about Antiguan Methodist history. Elizabeth’s writing in particular offers a theological perspective, discussing the tensions between Calvinism and Arminianism (both sisters considered themselves Arminians.) She also offered insight to her own spiritual awakening.

By 1807, the Methodist Church in their Antiguan community consisted of 22 white members and about 3,500 black members. Two years later, the sisters, along with their cousin Elizabeth Lynch, were able to establish a Caribbean Sunday School, which welcomed people of all races and social classes. Then, in 1815, the sisters established the Female Refuge Society to help instruct and educate slave women. This foundation was supported by many evangelical British women who sent money and clothes to support the cause. Anne put most of her energy into preaching abstinence to women. Many of her meetings and teachings were held in the dark so that those women who only had one set of clothes could come and learned without feeling shame. The sisters made special effort to credit the black women who helped with important projects in the community such as making meals for workers or construction in some of the churches. The Harts’ ideas on education, slavery, and social status continue to impact Caribbean society today.