Who was Lucy Lee Shirley?
According to the scant information passed along to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, she was an African American woman who was born in Leesburg, Va., in 1854, died in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1929, and once wore a little flowered skirt.
The museum substantiated the basics of Shirley’s life when it decided to feature her skirt in its “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit. As I worked on a story about the skirt, I became intrigued by her and turned up more details — as well as living descendants who didn’t know that one of their family heirlooms would be featured in the Smithsonian’s newest museum.
“We are so honored that our family’s history will forever be a part of America’s history,” said Shirley’s great-great-granddaughter, Lori Anne Douglass of New York, who recalls seeing the skirt as a teenager and being told that her grandmother’s grandmother had been born a slave. Neither she nor other relatives, however, knew any details about Shirley’s childhood, and though there are Loudoun County records from the 1850s that list several enslaved children named Lucy (there were probably more, because not all slave holders registered births), it is difficult to connect them to Lucy Lee Shirley because there are no last names and the dates do not match exactly.
But Lucy Lee Shirley shows up in the pages of history as an adult, and these appearances tell a story as moving as the one conveyed by the skirt she once wore. What follows is an abbreviated account pieced together by an amateur genealogist.
The first possible record of Lucy Lee Shirley I could find, and the only one in Virginia, is an 1882 Loudoun County marriage certificate for a John N. Shirley and a widow listed as “Lucy Claggett (Lucy A. Lee)” — though again the age is a bit off. The couple were married by the Rev. William Robey, a free African American who had been ordained as a minister and who taught black children in Leesburg before and after the war.
When or why Shirley left for Harrisburg is unclear, but such a move is not surprising. A onetime stop on the Underground Railroad in a state that was early to emancipation, Harrisburg already had a sizable free black population at the end of the war and offered employment and educational opportunities.
The family must have been living there before 1893, because in June of that year one of the Harrisburg newspapers described the funeral of 9-year-old Robert Shirley, whose death was a “severe shock.” The article, which listed Robert’s parents as the Rev. John and Mrs. Lucy Shirley, said he was the brightest pupil in his class, and that his fellow students sang his favorite hymns “in a feeling manner” in a church “filled to the utmost capacity.”
There was a March 21, 1899, item noting that “John Shirley, who says he is a preacher of the gospel,” had been charged with assault and battery on his wife, who testified that she was “treated shamefully and chased out of the house in the dead of night in her night clothes.” The next day, he was acquitted and “the costs were placed on the prosecutrix.”
In 1900, there was an obituary for another child, 11-year-old Naomi, also bright and popular and taken suddenly. This obituary made clear that John was no longer residing at the home and mentioned Naomi’s sister and Lucy’s daughter, Lulu Shirley, who was living in Long Branch, N.J.
Throughout the years, there were frequent references to Lucy’s involvement at the Harris AME Zion Church, such as her membership in the Perseverance Club. The papers also occasionally mentioned her other children: Cora, who would marry and move to Maryland, Frances and Lloyd.
When Lucy died after a long illness in 1929, the papers revealed that she froze her husband out of her will, leaving him $1 and her children Frances, Lloyd and Cora, $1,650.
It’s remarkable that a woman born into slavery — described variously as a caterer, housekeeper, servant and dressmaker; who may have been widowed once; who apparently had a violent husband; who was a mother of six and lost at least two young children — seems to have supported several children alone for years, and was able to educate herself and her family, contribute extensively to her church and leave her children more than $23,000 in today’s money.
What could account for Lucy Lee Shirley’s accomplishments, besides her obvious grit? Perhaps it was her acquaintance with the Rev. Robey. Or perhaps it was living in Harrisburg. “There are stories of people who are that successful because of determination, because they were living in the right place and the right time, and because they made certain alliances, certain connections, that enabled them” to succeed, says Edna Greene Medford, a professor of history at Howard University.
That certainly seems to be the case for Lucy Shirley. And success didn’t stop with her.
Lucy Shirley’s daughter Cora Handy would become a teacher.
One of Cora Handy’s daughters, Cornelia Douglass, would work as an administrator in the New York state unemployment insurance office.
Cornelia Douglass’s son, Lewis Douglass, would become a New York Supreme Court Justice.
And both of Lewis’s children, Lori Anne Douglass and David Douglass, would become partners at law firms.
When he was given some details about Lucy Shirley’s life, David Douglass said it reminded him of his grandmother Cornelia, “who was this extraordinary, strong woman who did these amazing things.” Cornelia was also the descendant who had the foresight to share the skirt with posterity, first in 1974’s “The Black Book,” a historical scrapbook of African American life, and then with the Black Fashion Museum, which later donated it to the Smithsonian.
And now, in 2016, the skirt and some of Shirley’s descendants have come almost full circle: David Douglass, a K Street lawyer, is raising a son and daughter in Silver Spring, Md. — just a few miles from the museum where their great-great-great-grandmother’s skirt will go on display as a tender relic of love and persistence. ■
Elizabeth Chang is an editor for the magazine.