Althea Maria Brown Edmiston (1874–1937) was an African-American missionary who spent more than 30 years serving a Presbyterian mission in the Belgian Congo in Africa in the early part of the twentieth century. Born in Alabama and raised in Mississippi, Brown returned to America several times to give lectures on her work. Despite having no formal linguistic training, she compiled the first grammar and dictionary for the Bakuba tribe, an immense project that took more than a decade to complete.
Althea Maria Brown Edmiston was born near the end of the Civil War, on December 17, 1874, in Russelville, Dekalb County, Alabama. She was the fifth child and second daughter of Robert and Mary "Molly" Suggs Brown. In all, her parents had ten children.
When she was two years old, Brown moved with her family to a fertile farming area in the Mississippi delta region. At first the uprooted family lived in a small cabin with three generations of other Brown family members. Later, Robert Brown, who worked as a sharecropper, purchased more than a hundred acres near Rolling Fork, in Mississippi. He and his sons built a cabin, constructing the family home with logs cut from trees growing on the property.
The Browns turned their substantial acreage into a highly productive farm, growing vegetables, fruits and nuts. To further help support his family, Robert Brown became a trader, traveling to surrounding areas to exchange farm products and animals for salt, sugar, coffee, and other kitchen staples. He was also a community figure of sorts: He helped build a church and a school, and he also taught his neighbors how to preserve their own farm products.
Though Brown's early life was spent in hard surroundings and rough circumstances, she benefited from the positive influence of her caring parents, who raised their children in a loving home filled with strong values. Robert and Mollie Brown had endured the slave era in America's pre-Civil War south, and they fostered in their children a love of independence. Further, though her parents lacked formal education, Brown learned a great deal from them, including how to read and write. Her father helped develop her literacy by making crude instruction boards that he used to illustrate the alphabet. Indeed, Robert Brown placed such a high value on his children's education that seven of the ten Brown siblings were able to go to college. Also, from working with her father on the family farm, Brown learned many agricultural techniques that she would later use as a missionary in Africa.
While growing up, Brown expressed a strong desire to become a teacher, but in her first jobs she worked as a nurse, positions she took when she was still quite young. When she was 10 years old, she became a nurse to the child of a white family. The child's mother recognized Althea's potential and helped her increase her reading and spelling skills. She also helped refine her manner of speech. Brown lived with the family for two years. Later she became a home nurse for a teacher at Oakland College, a black school in Alcorn, Mississippi.
In 1889, when she was 15 years old, Brown began her formal education, along with her siblings, taking a daily one-mile trek to a school for blacks located at Indian Bayou. Later, she completed grammar school in Rolling Fork, walking four miles each day to get to her classroom.
The following year, Brown was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The opportunity meant that she could complete grade school, high school and college at the institution. However, she didn't enter the university until the fall semester of 1892. Brown later recalled that she was frightened at first, and she worried that her unsophisticated, rural appearance would be deemed too unattractive for the campus.
At the university she still harbored ambitions of becoming a teacher. But her motivations were as much self-serving as they were altruistic. By becoming a teacher, she reasoned, she could make a lot of money and live the kind of life she had never before experienced. However, three months after she entered Fisk she became a Christian, a conversion that compelled her to re-evaluate her life purpose. She now felt that she should use her education in service to others.
At the time of her conversion, Brown had only advanced to the seventh grade, and she realized she would need to support herself over the course of her long educational path. As she only received a small allowance from her parents—it was all they could afford—Brown launched several small business ventures. At various times during her nine years at Fisk she made and sold fudge, ran a beauty shop in her dormitory room, and worked as a domestic for faculty members. Later, when she became more educated, she partially realized her earlier dream, working as a substitute teacher in nearby black schools and teaching summer school in rural areas.
Eventually, while she was still attending Fisk, Brown became a teacher for the Lincoln School in Pikeville, Tennessee, where she worked for 19 months. But there were no facilities for black students, so Brown taught in a one-room church, the only teacher for one hundred children of all ages and grade levels.
She graduated with the highest honors from Fisk University in 1901, and earned the distinction as the only female speaker during the commencement ceremony. In a caring and respectful gesture, Brown also delivered her valedictory address to the food services staff that worked in a university cafeteria located in a women's residence hall.
After graduation, and continuing with a renewed sense of purpose, Brown applied to the Executive Committee of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church to be a missionary in Africa's Congo Free State. On May 14, 1901, she was commissioned and, after a year of training at the Chicago Training School for City and Foreign Missions, she left for Africa. When Brown boarded a St. Louis steamship on August 20, 1902, her family truly believed they would never see her again, as they felt she was sailing into danger, even certain death, in a continent filled with savage beasts and cruel inhabitants.
After a stop in Southhampton, England, the missionaries landed in Luebo, Africa, where they studied native languages for seven weeks. When the missionaries finally separated to go to their respective locations, Brown headed to Ibanche, which was located deep in the African continent. At this point in her journey no transportation was available, so Brown was transported on a canvas hammock carried by men.
The place where Brown would work, the Ibanche mission station, included a marketplace, park, several buildings, and the Lapsley Memorial Church, a beautiful structure where Dr. William Sheppard, an African American who co-founded the mission, lived with his family. The mission was surrounded by native villages, and the inhabitants came to the mission each day for instruction.
Brown lived in a dwelling built especially for her, which she named "Jubilee Hall," after her residence hall at Fisk University. The modest structure was an adobe-style hut with a thatched roof, with straw matting to cover the dirt floor. To make the structure more homelike, Brown hung pictures on the wall and decorated the hut with draperies and bedspreads that she made herself. Visitors to this humble dwelling would include doctors, judges, agricultural experts, priests and Protestant missionaries.
After she arrived, Brown waited only one day before she set to work. She served as the day school mistress, matron of the Maria Carey Home for Girls, and Sunday school teacher. She also led the women's work and organized the native women into Christian bands.
Working conditions at Ibanche proved hard. The missionary was understaffed and the climate was harsh, with heavy tropical rains. More important, danger lurked outside the mission perimeter, and the possibility of death was quite palpable, particularly on November 2, 1904, when hostile members of a neighboring tribe engaged in an uprising against the Congo government. The rebels' tribal leader, King Lukenga, ordered all dwellings of white inhabitants to be burned. His warriors went on a destructive march, attacking and burning a Christian village, a trading post and a rubber factory. Further, Lukenga demanded that the hearts of traders and heads of missionaries be delivered to him.
At one point during the day, a runner brought a blood-covered branch to the Ibanche mission, reporting that it was the blood of a murdered Christian. By evening, Ibanche was surrounded, and fierce fighting could be heard just beyond the mission. Understandably, Brown thought she would surely be killed during the seemingly endless night. But she survived. Fighting eased up the next day, only to commence again at night.
After a second terror-filled night, some Congolese soldiers escorted Brown and nearly 500 women and children to Luebo. The retreat was difficult: the soldiers feared an attack and ordered the refugees, many of whom were burdened with heavy loads, to walk at a rapid pace. But Brown made it through the ordeal and, a year later she married Alonzo Edmiston, a man who took part in the march from Ibanche to Luebo.
Alonzo Edmiston had come to Ibanche to help the understaffed missionaries. Like Brown, Edmiston was an American. He was born in Petersburg, Tennessee, on July 19, 1879. He attended the Stillman Institute in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and worked his way through school with summer jobs at the Alabama State Hospital. He was skilled in scientific farming, had taken a course in medicine and was schooled in theology. Inspired by the experiences of William Sheppard, he wanted to work as a missionary in Africa. On a business trip to Africa he visited Ibanche, where he met Brown. When asked to remain at the mission, he readily agreed.
Brown and Edmiston worked together for eight months, marrying on July 8, 1905. Brown reportedly made her own wedding garments, as most of her clothes had been burned during the previous year's rebellion. The couple's first son, Sherman Lucius, was born in May of 1906, his delivery accomplished in Luebo by midwives. Alonzo Edmiston later started an industrial school at Ibanche, where young men were taught trades such as carpentry.
One of Althea Edmiston's great accomplishments in Africa, besides her unselfish humanitarian service, was the compilation of a grammar and dictionary of the Bakuba language. The Bakuba people had no written language, and Edmiston began the formidable task of putting their complex and beautiful speech onto paper in 1902. She worked on it intermittently until its completion in 1913. However, the mission didn't have the funds to publish the scholarly work, so Edmiston sought contributions from organizations such as Fisk University and the Women of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The work was finally published 30 years after its completion, as Grammar and Dictionary of the Bushonga or Bakuba Language as Spoken by the Bushonga or Bakuba Tribe Who Dwell in the Upper Kasai District, Belgian Congo, Central Africa (1932). The project was a vast undertaking, but what makes its completion even more noteworthy is the fact that Edmiston never had any formal linguistic training.
While in Africa, Edmiston also translated school books, hymns, parables, lullabies, fairy tales, and folklore for the Bakuba people.
Five years after she arrived in Africa, Althea Edmiston returned to America with her son for a much needed vacation. Her husband joined them a year later, and the family settled in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. During her stay, Althea Edmiston lectured at churches and schools and at the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Board in the East. The Edmistons also raised money for the Ibanche mission.
When the family returned to Africa, they moved to another mission farther into the Bakuba country, at Bulape. In 1912 they moved to a new missionary outpost established in Mutoto, where the Edmistons' second son, Alonzo Leaucourt, was born in 1913, and where they would work for the rest of their lives.
In all, the Edmistons worked among the Bakuba people for 20 years, but they would revisit America several times. In April of 1920 they visited their two sons, who lived in Selma, Alabama. When the couple returned the following year, Althea Edmiston gave a commencement address at her alma mater, Fisk University, appealing to the university to train more missionaries and encouraging students to live their lives in service to others.
Back at Mutoto, Althea Edmiston served as principal of the day school system and administered aid to the sick. In December of 1924, both Althea and Alonzo fell victim to the "sleeping sickness" epidemic. They returned to America in 1925 for treatment at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. After a year and half, specialists determined that the couple was cured, and the Edmistons later returned to Africa.
Althea Edmiston would visit America only once more, in 1935, when she gave an address before the Missionary Conference of Negro Women in Indianapolis. Two years later she became critically ill with sleeping sickness and pernicious malaria. She suffered for a month, never letting on that she was enduring great pain. She died on June 10, 1937, in Mutoto, where she would be buried. More than 2,000 people attended her funeral, including both American and African friends.
In 1939 Althea Edmiston was honored by the Women's Auxiliary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, who inaugurated the Althea Brown Edmiston Memorial Fund. The interest went toward a home for girls. In 1947 a biography, A Life for the Congo: The Story of Althea Brown Edmiston , written by Julia Lake Kellersberger, was published. Kellersberger wrote that when Althea Edmiston died, both Africa and America played "taps for the soldier of the Jubilee."
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