Partner Addie Brown
20 Wadsworth St, Hartford, CT 06106
Rebecca Primus (1836 – February 21, 1932) and Addie Brown were two free Black women during the Civil War era who exchanged many letters.
Rebecca Primus was born in 1836, the daughter of a prominent Black Connecticut family who was sent south by the Hartford Freedmen’s Aid Society to teach newly freed slaves during Reconstruction. The Primus household, which would have been considered middle class by today’s standards, consisted of Rebecca, her father, Holdridge, who was a grocery store clerk, and her mother, Mehitable, a self-employed dressmaker.
Brown was born free at a time when slavery was legal in 13 states and territories. Little is known about her early life, except that she was orphaned and denied a formal education. Brown was a domestic worker who lived and worked in Hartford, Farmington, and Waterbury in Connecticut, as well as in New York City.
Brown may have done work in the Primus household, but how she met Rebecca remains a mystery. Both resided at one time in Hartford, Connecticut; from there, Brown was on the move, taking low-paying jobs as a domestic or horse driver wherever she could find them. In contrast, Primus was a determined, spirited, and intelligent Christian woman who became a schoolteacher. She risked her life by leaving Hartford for the South after the Civil War to establish a school for newly freed slaves in Royal Oak, Maryland.
Brown and Primus were best friends and romantic companions who wrote letters back and forth to one another over a span of sixteen years beginning in 1854, and ending in 1870 with Addie Brown’s death. These included Primus’s letters to her family, and Brown’s letters to Primus, but no correspondence from Primus to Brown has been discovered.
Dr. Karen V. Hansen, an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University, suggested that Brown and Primus were more than friends. Their relationship, she believed, was erotic and romantic. Since discovering the letters housed in the Primus collection at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Hansen became captivated by the personalities of the women, and convinced of the romantic and erotic nature of their relationship.
In a letter written in 1860, Brown expressed her longing for Primus: “O my Dear Dear Rebecca when you press me to your dear bosom O how happy I was. Last night I gave anything if I could only layed my poor aching head on your bosom. O Dear how soon will it be I can be able to do so?”
The letters were compiled into the 1999 book “Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends” by Farah Jasmine Griffin.
On one occasion, Brown wrote, “I am no advocate for white churches they have seats expressly for colored people.” On another, Primus once wrote to her parents, “I trust something like justice will be given to the black man one of these days, for some are persecuted almost as badly now as in the days of slavery.” In another letter excerpt, Primus wrote, “I hope there will be justice, impartial justice given to the colored people one of these days. I was reading the Civil Rights Bill for colored and all people in the ‘Communicator’…as it has passed both houses of Congress with amendments i’m very anxious to know whether president Johnson has signed it or not.”
In one of her letters, Brown wrote of her employer: “I don’t like her. You know how I am with any one I don’t like.” In another correspondence, Brown made this pronouncement: “Rebecca I had been working for nothing comparatively speaking. Now I have come to a decided stand that people shall pay me for my work.”
On October 20, 1867, Brown, a domestic at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, wrote Primus about a female coworker: “sometime just one of them wants to sleep with me. Perhaps I will give my consent some of these nights. I am not very fond of White I can assure you.” Brown’s flirtation with her female coworker evidently caused Primus to express some concern. On November 17, Brown responded, “If you think that is my bosom that captivated the girl that made her want to sleep with me she got sorely disappointed enjoying [it] for I had my back towards her all night and my night dress was button up so she could not get to my bosom. I shall try to keep you favorite one always for you. Should in my excitement forget you will pardon me I know.”
In April 1868, in her late twenties, Addie Brown married Joseph Tines, seemingly for economic security. Brown’s letters suggest that Rebecca Primus remained the love of her life. Sometime between 1872 and 1874, when she was in her thirties, Primus married Charles Thomas.
On the back of an envelope of a letter to Brown, Primus wrote, “Addie died at home, January 11, 1870.” Brown was 28 years old. Primus died in 1932 at age 95.
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