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Belle Kearney, 1863-1939
A Slaveholder's Daughter
New York: The Abbey Press, c1900.

Summary

Belle Kearney, a Mississippi temperance reformer, suffragist, teacher, and state legislator, was born on her parents' plantation in Madison County, Mississippi on March 6, 1863. As a wealthy plantation owner, Belle's father, Walter Guston Kearney, briefly studied law and dabbled in state politics prior to the Civil War. After the war, however, his plantation suffered serious financial losses, and, like many members of the old southern aristocracy, he had to curtail his lavish lifestyle as his plantation shrank to 400 acres of unprofitable land. When Belle's father could no longer afford her five-dollar monthly tuition at the Canton Young Ladies' Academy, she educated herself, and eventually opened a private school in a spare bedroom of the plantation house as a means of income. Deeply concerned about the growing need for public education in the South, Belle began teaching in the newly established public school system despite her father's protests. Her keen interest in education and women's roles in the New South led her to accept a position as superintendent in the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1889. Guided by her mentors, Frances Willard and Susan B. Anthony, Kearney became an acclaimed orator and traveled on the national and international circuits advocating temperance and women's suffrage. She was also a white supremacist and used these speaking opportunities to forward her ideas about race relations in the South and the nation. In 1903, she made her most famous speech in support of white supremacy at the National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention. While delivering the keynote address, Kearney claimed that women's suffrage would bring about "immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained." Following in her father's footsteps, Belle entered the southern political arena, becoming the first woman elected to the Mississippi state senate in 1923. She died February 27, 1939 at the age of 75.

In her autobiography, A Slaveholder's Daughter (1900), which went into ten printings, Kearney intertwines her personal history with commentary on the changes the South experienced during the first half of her life. As a member of the southern aristocracy, she offers an insider's perspective on plantation life and recounts its inevitable demise during Reconstruction. No longer limited to the circumscribed existence of a slaveholder's daughter, Kearney has the freedom to take on more progressive roles as educator and women's activist. Her story is ultimately about education, as she writes of its importance not only for her personal growth but also for the South as a whole. Kearney's narrative continues through her roles as suffragist and temperance advocate under the guidance of Francis Willard and Susan B. Anthony. She ends her story before she becomes involved with the Mississippi legislature.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; James, Edward T., ed., Notable American Women, v. 2, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Armistead Lemon
Harris Henderson

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