Ok, so Malinda Paris isn’t exactly famous. She never invented anything, was a “first” at anything, got elected to an important position, or was even related to anyone else famous. Nonetheless, I find her story very interesting, and consider it to be an important part of history. History covers all human events, from great battles to people’s everyday lives. Since most of us live normal (i.e. not famous) lives, it is interesting to read about people in the past and compare their lives our own. In what way are our lives the same as someone’s from 100 years ago? In what ways have society changed? Malinda’s story highlights both similarities and differences between 19th and 21st century America, while also telling a story of a woman with remarkable courage, strength, and patience. Malinda had to overcome many obstacles just to live what we might consider a normal life.
Malinda was born Malinda Robinson on Christmas Eve in Kentucky in 1824. Born to an enslaved father and free mother, her status (as well as that of her nine siblings) as slave or free was contested from birth. Her mother fought to keep her children free through the courts for fourteen years, finally succeeding when Malinda was five. However, her mother’s attempt to buy her husband from his owner failed as she could not acquire the needed cash. Instead, Malinda’s father urged her mother to take the children north, even though it would mean they would never see him again. According to Malinda’s obituary, the father snuck out at night and traveled with them for 9 miles, at which point “they then knelt together and prayed and sang a parting hymn, and the slave father turned back alone to end his life a slave, while the faithful mother hurriedly bore her children onward to a place of safety.”
The family settled in Terre Haute, Indiana, where her mother worked as a seamstress and where Malinda grew up. It was in Terre Haute she met and married William Paris. Although William was born free, he had been repeatedly captured into slavery. He escaped each time, but when a former master came after him soon after his marriage to Malinda, they decided that Indiana was not safe enough and left, traveling via the Underground Railroad to Canada. After a period in Canada, where their first child was born, they moved to Detroit (I know you were wondering when Michigan would enter the story) and then to St. Clair where William worked as a cook at a hotel.
According to Malinda’s obituary, she and William had seven children, although the 1860 census only records five – it is unclear if the obituary is wrong or if two of the children had died young. The census records Jane as the oldest and born in Canada, next being William Henry, Hannah, Sarah and Frank. William Sr. died that same year, leaving Malinda a widow at only 36 years old. We don’t know much about most of her children, but her eldest son enlisted in the army during the Civil War and served for three years. Although he survived the war, he contracted an illness while in the army, likely tuberculosis, and died in 1870.
The obituary notes that Malinda was a hard worker her entire life, which would have been necessary to raise seven children, especially after William’s death. After a long delay, she did receive a pension from the army due to her son’s death, but she only was able to use it for three years before her own death in 1892. She was remembered fondly by the people of St. Clair, who called her “Aunt Malinda” and said that she had hoped to live longer, not for herself but to help others bear their burdens.
Although never a slave herself, Malinda’s story is inexorably tied to the story of slavery in America as she lost her father to it, nearly lost her husband to it, and lost her eldest son due to the war to end it. Yet despite this one glaring difference, her life followed the same pattern that many people’s lives follow today. She grew up with a single mother who worked hard to provide for her family. She fell in love and got married, and moved away from home. She put down roots in her new community, raised her own family, and worked hard to give them a better life. Although her life story is marked by unimaginable loss and many struggles, we can see our own lives in hers, and realize that the past is not so far away as we might think.
Malinda Paris Obituary, St. Clair Republican, October 27, 1892 http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mhc_mhm_parisobit_44378_7.pdf
“Malinda Paris: A Memorial – Background Reading” Michigan DNR website http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-54463_18670_18793-52903–,00.html
(The DNR website also has a great lesson plan for teachers interested in doing a lesson on Malinda Paris and the Underground Railroad!)