Frances Harper

Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted

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Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted Summary

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One of the earliest novels ever published by an African-American, Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted (1892) by the American author and abolitionist Frances Harper tells the story of a mixed-race woman who is born free but later kidnapped into slavery. Though her ancestry is majority-white, the protagonist refuses to “pass” as a white woman after slavery is abolished, instead, dedicating herself to honoring her African heritage and uplifting African-Americans.

Using a narrative approach that was quite bold for its era, the novel leaps back and forth in time and between multiple perspectives to tell the story of Iola Leroy. The beginning of the novel takes place at the height of the Civil War, as two slaves, Tom Anderson and Robert Johnson, meet in secret at a North Carolina slave market. After discussing the progress the Union has made against the Confederacy, Robert convinces Tom to escape his master to join up with the Northern Army, along with other slaves Robert has enlisted. Meanwhile, on the Gundover Plantation, Uncle Daniel sneaks off into the woods with some of the other slaves to lead them in prayer. They must do so in secret to avoid violent reprisals from their master.

The story then moves to the perspective of Iola Leroy, a young mixed-race slave with blue eyes. Regularly abused and sexually harassed by her owner, Master Tom, Iola flees the plantation with the help of Tom Anderson, who is now a soldier with the Union Army. With nowhere else to go, Iola, too, joins the army as a nurse. At this point in the novel, Iola still presents herself as white to most of the other soldiers and army physicians, including Dr. Gresham who falls in love with her. One day, Tom is mortally wounded after sacrificing himself to save his fellow soldiers. After seeing Iola lovingly tend to Tom on his deathbed, Dr. Gresham is disturbed by Iola’s obvious affection for a black man. This is when Iola reveals to Dr. Gresham that she is of mixed heritage. Despite his opposition and outright disgust when it comes to miscegenation—or racial mixing—Dr. Gresham proposes to Iola on the condition that she keep her ancestry a secret and pass for white.

In a flashback, the reader learns more about Iola’s parentage. Her father, a wealthy slave owner named Eugene Leroy, falls ill and is largely abandoned by his friends and colleagues. The only person who comes to his aid is a slave named Marie, who is one-quarter black. In return for her care and compassion, Eugene frees Marie and sends her to school in the North. Having fallen hard for Marie, Eugene proposes to her, later fathering her three children: Harry, Iola, and Gracie. All one-eighth black, the children are raised as white. Despite the relative safety and stability of her new life, Marie fears that her whole family will be sold back into slavery when Eugene dies.

Moving ahead a few years, Iola is away at school in the North. Believing herself to be white, Iola expresses trepidation about the arrival of a black student at her school. Meanwhile, Eugene dies of yellow fever, and Marie’s worst nightmare comes true. Alfred Lorraine, a racist and petty former colleague of Eugene’s, manipulates the law in order to nullify Marie’s marriage to Eugene—also nullifying Marie’s status as a freedwoman—and to seize Eugene’s property, which now includes Marie and her children as slaves. Making matters even worse, Gracie dies of yellow fever as well. While Iola finally learns the truth of her ancestry, Harry remains ignorant and is kept safe far away in school in Maine.

Back in the present, Iola rejects Dr. Gresham’s marriage proposal for two reasons: she refuses to marry anyone until she can track down her mother, and she refuses to marry a man who would require that she deny her African-American identity. Meanwhile, these memories cause Iola to reach out to Harry in Maine, finally revealing the truth of their family in a letter. After some initial reluctance, Harry embraces his identity as a black man and enlists in the Union Army to fight for the freedom of people like him.

After the war, the Leroy family reunites, along with Robert who turns out to be Marie’s brother and Iola’s uncle. After attempting to rebuild their lives in Georgia, Iola moves back to the North with Marie and Harry. Post-war life poses different challenges in the North, such as housing and employment discrimination. Undeterred, Iola becomes involved in social activism through her association with various progressive thinkers, including an accomplished physician named Dr. Frank Latimer, who passes for white but later reveals to Iola that he too is mixed-race. After choosing to present himself as black, thereby sacrificing his social standing and potential future income, Dr. Latimer asks to marry Iola, who accepts his proposal. At the end of the novel, Iola and her extended family return to North Carolina where they thrive, both as professionals and as advocates for civil rights.

Until 1982, when more recent scholarship unearthed earlier examples, Iola Leroy was considered the first novel ever published by an African American. While it no longer holds that distinction, it is still a remarkable example of American literature in both form and substance.