by Elizabeth C. Stevens

Unstoppable mother and daughter activists.

Elizabeth Buffum Chace (1806-'99) and Lillie Chace Wyman (1847-1929) were lifelong public activists. Elizabeth Buffum was born and bred a Quaker and grew up in the Quaker enclave of Smithfield, Rhode Island. She was converted to radical antislavery activism in the 1830s after her 1828 marriage to manufacturer Samuel B. Chace of Fall River, himself a Quaker. Her first five children died during childhood, and she gave birth to five more; Elizabeth's youngest child, Mary, was born in 1852 when Elizabeth was forty-five years old.

Elizabeth moved back to Rhode Island in 1839, when her husband took over management of the Valley Falls Mills on the Blackstone River. At first she lived on the Cumberland side of the river, but in 1858, she moved to a spacious home in what is now Central Falls. In her homes Chace created domestic arrangements that incorporated her public antislavery activism. There, she sheltered fugitive slaves, hosted radical antislavery speakers (like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Wendell Phillips), and wrote numerous letters encouraging others, including her own children, to be activists in the cause of abolitionism. For her work, Chace became a social outcast and found a warm welcome only among a small band of radical abolitionists like herself.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, when she was sixty, Elizabeth Buffum Chace turned her formidable energies to securing political rights for women, championing the cause of women prisoners, establishing a model state home and school for destitute children in Rhode Island, protecting prostitutes, providing advocacy for women and children whose labor was exploited in mills throughout the state, supporting the cause of young women who were denied a college education because of their sex, and a plethora of other reforms. In her incisive letters to the editor, her appearances at legislative hearings, her organization of protests and conventions, she was the most prominent woman reformer in nineteenth century Rhode Island. A founder and board member of national women's organizations like the prestigious thinktank, the Association for the Advancement of Woman, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (she served as president of AWSA in the 1880s), Chace was a revered figure in the ever-growing community of reformers. When she died in 1899, Elizabeth Buffum Chace was hailed as "the conscience of Rhode Island."

Lillie Chace Wyman, the eighth of Elizabeth's children, came of age in a household suffused with antislavery orthodoxy. When she was still a child, she acted as her mother's lieutenant in the abolitionist cause. After attending a boarding school in Lexington, Massachusetts, organized by reformers for their children and staffed by abolitionists like Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké, Lillie Chace sought a useful career in post-Civil War reform movements. Plagued by neurasthenia, depression, and ill health, Wyman nonetheless developed her skills as a writer and began to illustrate her mother's reform impulses with realistic fiction published in popular middle-class magazines like The Atlantic Monthly. Her stories depicted the harsh living and working conditions of mill workers and their indomitable spirit; the stories were published in a notable collection, Poverty Grass, in 1886.

Wyman was not the political organizer that her mother was; nevertheless, despite personal griefs and battles with depression, as the century waned, she turned her energies to preserving the history of the abolitionist movement in which she had come of age. She eagerly joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, then the most radical organization advocating for equal rights for persons of all races, and, in the 1920s, she published inspirational stories in W.E.B. DuBois's children's version of The Crisis, illustrating the bonds that had existed between men and women of all races in the antislavery movement. She kept up a correspondence with notable African American leaders Francis and Archibald Grimké, and with poet and playwright, Angelina Grimké. A singular voice for racial tolerance and understanding, Lillie Chace Wyman died in Newtonville, Massachusetts in 1927.

See also Homelessness is not a Crime: Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Creation of the State Home and School for Children, 1875-1885 by Elizabeth C. Stevens

A letter from E.B. Chace

The following is a letter that Elizabeth Buffum Chace wrote to her youngest daughter, Mary Chace Cheney Tolman in May 1884. It illustrates the relentless and tireless nature of Elizabeth Buffum Chace's activism, and the fact that she was involved in so many different campaigns to achieve more equitable lives for all Rhode Islanders. At the time, Elizabeth Buffum Chace was a wealthy widow living in Valley Falls, Rhode Island, and was almost eighty years old.

May 18th, 1884.

Just for the fun of it I am going to tell thee what I did yesterday afternoon, and see if thee will think I can be very feeble.1

I started at half-past one for Providence, Mrs. W. accompanying me.2 We stopped first at the milliner's—up stairs. I got my bonnet. Then we went to the Elizabeth Building to talk with Mr. Stockwell about the State School.3 Up stairs.4 He was not in, but was expected. I couldn't wait, so came down and went to the [Providence] Journal office.5 While I looked over a file of papers, I sent Mrs. W. to do some errands. After I was through standing at the counter fifteen minutes, I sat down and waited fifteen more for the carriage. Then I went back to the Elizabeth Building. Up stairs again. I found Mr. S. [Stockwell] and stayed half an hour talking with him.

Then I went to the Friends' School to get Augustine Jones to sign that petition, which he did.6 Talked with him a while, when he invited me to go to the Hall and see the bust of John Bright.7 So I got Mrs. W. and took her along. We went through the girls' school-room, which always brings back a flood of old memories, and makes me want to be a school girl again.8 Then to the Hall where we saw the beautiful piece of sculpture, presented by James [Chace].9 It has a corner railed off and is surrounded by drapery, and made as conspicuous as the Belvedere.

Augustine showed us the Library and a cabinet full of ancient books, and a hail-storm came on which we had to wait through. So we strolled about, visiting the boys' great school room.

When the shower was over, we left, and went to the Kenyons', for Susan to sign the petition,10 and we encountered another hail-storm on the way; I, looking over, as I always do into 'That silent, solemn, sacred spot' where I seldom feel inclined to enter.11

We came home to supper, I, really, not feeling much fatigued. Lillie [Chace Wyman] came to see that we were back all right, and wondered that I could do so much. I rather wonder myself. Before I went, I had seen to a good deal of gardening, and had a long call from a friend, and had engaged Elizabeth Fitts, who came to see me, to teach the children next Fall; by a kindergarten in the forenoon, and a primary school in the afternoon. It is to be at the expense of the District, only I engage to furnish the material; and if there is room for any children under five years, I am to pay the District for them.12

Reprinted from: Lillie Chace Wyman and Arthur Crawford Wyman, Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Her Environment, vol. 2: 181-183 (Boston, 1914).

Elizabeth C. Stevens has spent twenty years researching, writing, and speaking about mother and daughter activists Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Lillie Chace Wyman. Stevens is currently associate editor of the Papers of Nathanael Greene publication project at the Rhode Island Historical Society. Her new book, Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Lillie Chace Wyman: A Century of Abolitionist, Suffragist, and Workers' Rights Activism was published in March 2004 by McFarland and Co. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina.

Footnotes

  1. Elizabeth Buffum Chace was born into a family of devout Quakers. She was a fervent believer, yet she left the Quakers in 1844 because she felt the Society of Friends was inhospitable to antislavery activism. Although she no longer attended Quaker meeting, Chace continued to use the Quaker forms of speech, "thee," "thou," etc. with her loved ones.
  2. The identity of "Mrs. W." has not been determined. It is not known if she was a friend, neighbor, companion, or servant.
  3. The Elizabeth Building was located on North Main Street near the First Baptist Meeting House. Elizabeth Buffum Chace had been lobbying for some ten years for the establishment of a model state home and school for children who were wards of the state. She fervently argued that such an institution should not be built on the grounds of the state reform school or prison in Cranston, where children attending the school would be stigmatized. Her dream was realized in 1885 when the Rhode Island legislature voted to establish the school on the grounds of what is now Rhode Island College in Providence.
  4. Chace emphasized that these visits were up stairs because she was proud of being physically active although she was almost eighty years old.
  5. Chace was a frequent contributor to the Providence Journal and other newspapers for which she wrote articles and letters to the editor.
  6. Augustine Jones was the principal of the Friends Yearly Meeting Boarding School (now Moses Brown School). It is not known what petition Chace wanted Jones to sign, but it may very well have been a petition about woman suffrage.
  7. John Bright was a revered English abolitionist.
  8. Chace attended the school for one year as a teenager in the 1820s. There she met Asenath Chace who introduced Elizabeth Buffum to her brother, Samuel B. Chace.
  9. James Chace was a son of Harvey Chace, Samuel B. Chace's brother.
  10. Susan Kenyon, a suffrage colleague of Elizabeth Buffum Chace, lived in Pawtucket.
  11. Chace's husband and seven of her children were buried in Swan Point Cemetery, located on Blackstone Boulevard. Five of her children died in childhood. Two more, Samuel Chace and Edward (Ned) Chace, died in early adulthood.
  12. Elizabeth Buffum Chace founded the first kindergarten in Rhode Island in 1878 in Valley Falls. It was attended by children of textile workers in her family's mill and by her own grandchildren.

This article last edited November 14, 2015

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