Posted on 08/23/2013

Photo taken on June 5, 1863

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African American Woman
Sylvia Conner
New Bern, North Carolina
Former slave
Photographed on June 5, 1863

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Photo replaced on August 26, 2013
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Sylvia Conner

Sylvia Conner
She was a businesswoman who worked as a seamstress in New Bern, North Carolina during the Union occupation and the sister-in-law of Mary Jane Conner.

What little is known about Sylvia Conner comes from Private Clapp from Dorchester, Massachusetts, who was quite taken by both her and her sister-in-law, Sylvia Conner.

Private Clapp was 21 years old when he arrived in New Bern, North Carolina in the Fall of 1862. He was Harvard educated – a graduate and halfway through his law studies at Harvard when he enlisted, joining the 44th Regiment from Massachusetts. They are sent to New Bern after it's already under federal control. Clapp participates in a variety of military missions leading him into different parts of eastern North Carolina. He also is the chief census taker among African Americans in New Bern. Clapp writes home to his family to describe this unusual land of the South and approaches its occupants with the curiosity of a scientist. So below, are excerpts of his letters that describe in greater detail who these women are in the eyes of this young Union soldier.

March 31, 1863
To Mother,

Mary Ann (as she is called, though her name is Mary Jane Conner) is about the most remarkable colored woman I ever saw…She had been a slave for years (all her life) before our troops took Newbern and been hired out as cook at the great Hotel here the Washington House – and which was burnt by the rebs when we came into Newbern. She supports an aged and infirm mother. She told me once or twice in answer to my questions, that if it were not that she felt as if she ought to stay and take care of her mother she would go to New York at once. She could earn a handsome living any where, for she is thoroughly capable.

April 10, 1863
To Willie (brother),

I want you to tell mother about the seamstress whom we employ to mend our clothes. She is a sister in law of our famous boarding-house keeper, Mary Jane, and glories in the classical name of “Sylvia.” She was formerly the slave of one of the richest men in New Berne who owned the house Gen Foster now lives in, and was the family seamstress I should judge. She is about forty, and though very dark of very pleasant appearance. Her address and manners are remarkably agreeable and really of unusual refinement. I’ve seen the wives of millionaires who were much her inferiors in urbanity and polish of manner. She is a superb seamstress, as my dress-coat just rescued from many rents will bear happy witness. She seems also to be a woman of very good sense & well worth listening to. We often wait in the house whilst they are putting the finishing touches on the dinner and spend the time in talking with her and Mary Jane.

May 18th, 1863
To Father,

The pieces of clothing and the presents for Mary, Sylvia, and Eunice were sent with admirable judgment, as Mother’s always is. .. The bundle was opened in the presence of Mary and the elegant Sylvia who had just returned to her home with Mary after quite a severe illness, and it was very interesting to watch the faces of the spectators as I passed them their separate packages with a few appropriate remarks in each case, and information, as to who the giver was. … Sylvia remarked that mother “seemed to have guessed her taste exactly” and Mary reechoed the sentiments.
So now we know a little more. The beautiful dresses Mary Jane and Sylvia wear in the photographs likely were sent by Private Clapp’s mother, as they received the gifts less than three weeks before their pictures were taken. More importantly, we know the sisters-in-law were perceived as highly capable, intelligent businesswomen. Having successful businesses sets the stage for blacks to be able to establish their own schools and churches – which occurs sooner in New Bern than in other parts of North Carolina. African American leaders emerged from New Bern who influenced state politics and became part of the Constitutional Convention of 1868, including James Walker Hood.

Info: 'Letters to the Home Circle: The North Carolina Service of Pvt. Henry A. Clapp' by John R Barden

Photo: Tryon Palace Collection