On the last day of African American History Month, I wanted to highlight a book in our digital collections called Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character. This book, published in 1893, offers biographies of “distinguished” African American women. I tried to think hard about what that word means, since I don’t recall hearing it much today. If you take a look at Google’s Ngram Viewer, which shows you how often a word occurs in books over the last 200 years, the word “distinction” hit its high around 1826, and has been used less in print since then (see screenshot below). The term “distinguished,” as applied to the word “woman,” has also gone down in occurrence.
Around the 1890s, distinction was sometimes defined as “elevation of character or of rank in society” (Century Dictionary, p. 1694). Today, distinction can be defined as the “quality or state of being distinguished or worthy” (Merriam-Webster). At both times, to distinguish also means to set apart because of difference (ironically close to the more negatively charged term “to segregate”). In this book, these worthy women are distinguished because they “endeavored to be faithful to what they understood to be the Principles of Truth and Virtue” and they “assiduously labored, as best they could, to establish an Unimpeachable Character in the Womanhood of the Race” (Dedication of Women of Distinction).
Portrait of Lawson Andrew Scruggs
Women of Distinction has a few North Carolina connections. The author, Lawson Andrew Scruggs, was one of the first three black doctors licensed by the state. Among the women he wrote about, the following either lived in or were born in North Carolina:
Sarah J. W. Early (nee Woodson) was principal of a “colored school” in Hillsborough, North Carolina. “Her labors were very successful, though attended with danger and difficulties” (p. 73).
Mrs. A. J. Cooper’s chapter starts off with this praise:
“If we should be asked to-day to name the greatest female educator the race has produced in North Carolina, we would be most certain to mention that one that marks the beginning of this chapter. She is not only the greatest we know of as a North Carolinian of color, but she is possibly the peer of any the State has produced, of whom we have any account, as a female educator in either race” (p. 207).
Carrie E. Sawyer Cartwright, born in Pasquotank County, was a long-time missionary in Africa who sailed there only hours after being married.
Portrait of Mary Burwell
Mary Burwell was a Virginian who moved to North Carolina at a young age. She attended Shaw University, and taught at the orphanage in Oxford, N.C.
Ada A. Cooper published a story she wrote at age 15 in a North Carolina newspaper and went on to teach, write, and give speeches.
Many of the entries look a bit different from biographical works published today. They contain anecdotal information, and there aren’t citations. But Women of Distinction does provide biographical details for a population greatly underserved by the literary corpus at that time. While we may not use “distinction” as much today, I appreciate the honorific used with the women described in this book.