February 19, 2011

Tillman: To will, to do, to work, to strive

Born in Mound City, Illinois on February 19, 1870, Katherine Davis Chapman (later, Tillman) began her writing career by purposely aiming, as she said, for "the young women of my race." She grew up in part in South Dakota then went to college in Kentucky. At age 18, she was a published poet when the Christian Recorder printed her poem "Memory." She continued publishing poetry, plays, essays, and short stories specifically "to the young women of [her] race," as she wrote.

Many of these writings were published in The A. M. E. Church Review and other publications associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Church Review serialized her two novellas, Beryl Weston's Ambition: The Story of An Afro-American Girl's Life (1893) and Clancy Street (1898). In her works, she emphasized that black women could serve useful roles in society — not only as wives and mothers, but also as professionals and community leaders. As she wrote in her essay "Afro-American Women and Their Work":

We have been charged with mental inferiority; now if we can prove that with cultivated hearts and brains, we can accomplish the same that is accomplished by our fairer sisters of the Caucasian race, why then, we have refuted the falsehood... We owe it to God and to the Negro race, to be as perfect specimens of Christian womanhood as we are capable of being... All men are created free and equal and women ditto.

Few details exist about Chapman after 1902, though she apparently married a reverend named G. M. Tillman. So far as I know, no images of her have been identified and the date of her death is unknown. Her poem "The Highest Life":

To will, to do, to work, to strive
    To be supremely strong,
To highest things to be alive
    And turn unscathed from wrong;
To love the good that God has made
    In earth and air and sky,
To do while here our little part,
    And after that to die.

Such death as comes to Mother Earth
    By Winter's frost and snow,
And then in Heaven's eternal Spring
    More beautiful to grow;
Such air to breath, such days to live,
    Are for all souls most meet.
This, then, were highest life to live,
    And life most full and sweet.

*Recommended reading: The Works of Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman (Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers) (1991), edited by Claudia Tate, the only major scholar of Chapman Tillman that I found.

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