How much do we actually know about Black History?
During Black History Month we can expect to hear about the most recognizable figures within our community. Year after year we are reminded of their sacrifices and courage to take a stand and become a catalyst to movements that still have impact today. In some cases, it is easy to understand why their names continue to reverberate over the decades and centuries that pass. These head figures made societal change on such a large scale, and risked their lives for a profoundly just cause that it is hard for their contributions to go unnoticed. As much as I love to be reminded of these pillars of society, it is always refreshing to learn about some of the less recognizable heros; men and women who were just as courageous but hardly discussed, like Mary Fields (better known as “Stagecoach Mary”).
Mary Fields was born in the early 1830’s. Her date and location of birth are left to speculation like most slaves. At the time slaves were considered to be no more than property so in most cases they were documented by numbers instead of names in log books. From records that have been discovered it is most likely that Fields was born in Hickman County, Tennessee.
At the end of the Civil War Mary fled the South for better living conditions and prosperity in the North. She found herself traveling up the Mississippi river doing handiwork on riverboats and laundry for passengers, as well as being a servant. Mary’s life changed when she ended up in Ohio at a convent called: The Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart. Some accounts claim that she accompanied a daughter of the Warner family, while others say she accompanied a family friend who was a nun, and never left.
As one can imagine life around the convent and within the community of Toledo Ohio, was quite conservative. Undoubtedly, Mary’s blunt nature ruffled many feathers due to her unabashed swearing and violent temper. It was said that when asked about her journey she told a nun that she was ready for a “good cigar and a drink” which understandably came as a shock to the docile women of the Ursuline convent.
Although Mary’s approach was generally unwelcomed, when she accepted the job as groundskeeper at the convent she took her role very seriously and was one of the best. Many nuns complained about her difficult nature but never about her execution of duties. At a time when women in general were expected to take their respective roles, Mary challenged her employers for better wages; something that even a white woman at the time would never dream of doing!
As you can imagine, many nuns stayed out of Mary’s way. However, she did befriend a nun by the name of Mother Amadeus Dunnes. She was the convent’s Mother Superior who was lovingly known to be charismatic and fearless. The two bonded over their kindred spirits and this relationship was monumental in Field’s life.
When Mother Amadeus was called to missionary at a new convent in Montanna she left Mary behind. It wasn't until Mary caught wind of her dear friends fleeting health that she left Ohio and headed to Montana to be with her friend. Mary nursed Dunnes back to health and once Mother Amadeus was in better physical condition Mary realized that she was better suited for life out west. She chose to stay at the convent as a groundskeeper again, but her aggressive behavior eventually got the best of her. On top of her drinking, smoking, and wearing men’s clothing it appeared that she also was known to shoot guns. This type of behavior was not acceptable on the grounds of the convent and Mary was asked to leave after it was discovered that she and the male janitor got into a heated argument leading to a draw of weapons.
Kicked out of the convent, Fields was left to her own devices. She continued to lead a very unconventional lifestyle for that of the 19th century, but it served her well. She became an independent woman, taking up odd jobs to make a living and eventually owning her own bar/restaurant. She was known to be very charitable, allowing customers who couldn't afford to pay to still dine at her establishment. Sadly, her understanding of business did not match her kindness and she eventually found herself out of business and looking for work yet again.
Mary’s reputation was often the cause of many disagreements and even physical fights (with men) but, eventually she found a job that was best suited for her toughness. In 1895 she was offered a position byt the U.S. postal service to become a “star route carrier”. Her independent contractor role required her to collect and deliver mail across the United States. Mary used the donated stagecoach of her dear friend Mother Amadeus to start this new venture and would trek across rough terrain and through the snow to complete her missions. She was the second woman (and first African American woman) to ever take on this role and she attained her position by proving she was the best person for the job, beating out all of the white male applicants half her age.
Mary was dutiful and diligent. When challenged by potential thieves she always persiveried and delivered in a timely fashion. Though she had an intimidating demeanor she was beloved by locals and known for her kindness and generosity towards children. She was lovingly nicknamed “Stagecoach Mary” and many myths circulated about her wild adventures. Legend has it that she fought off a pack of wolves singlehanded, and as embellished as that story maybe it was clear that Mary feared nothing and no one.
For 8 years Mary took on this role until age caught up with her. She eventually retired and spent the rest of her life entrenched in the community that welcomed her. She was given free meals at all the local restaurants and would spend her time striking up conversations with locals at the saloon until it became illegal for women to attend bars (due to a town ordinance).
On December 5th 1914, Mary passed away. Her funeral was one of the biggest the town had ever seen. Her larger than life personality lead to many tales of “Stagecoach Mary” and her adventures in the wild west. She was never forgotten and continued to live on in spirit as a beloved rebel of her time.
Mary’s nature is one that should be celebrated more openly. Her defiance to conform and her willingness to take risks even when faced with death, is something we can all learn from. Her self assured attitude made her fearless and even when going against the grain she was loved! It was because of her authenticity that she realized her purpose and was respected for it. These are the types of lessons we should integrate into our lives to reach our true potential… just like Stagecoach Mary.