Woman of the Week: Eliza Suggs
“Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.” Psalm 32:7
*This Psalm was chosen by Suggs to be the epitaph for her book Shadow and Sunshine.
Eliza Suggs was born on December 11, 1876 in Bureau County Illinois to James and Malinda. She was the youngest of four daughters, and at the time of her birth she seemed to be perfectly healthy. Her parents had both been born into slavery, James in North Carolina and Malinda in Alabama, and had met on a plantation in Mississippi. When fighting broke out in the American Civil War, James enlisted and served in Company I, of the 55th United States Colored Troops. During his service he was wounded, but after his recovery he reenlisted and fought for the duration of the war.
After the end of the war James returned home and the family began to move around. They lived in three different states: Mississippi, Illinois, and Kansas, before finally settling down in Harlan County, Nebraska. While the family was moving James Suggs had a number of odd jobs, but once settled in 1873 he became a preacher for the Free Methodist Church.
Although when she was born Eliza Suggs appeared perfectly normal, it was soon discovered that she was anything but. At the age of four her mother reported that Eliza would incessantly cry. It took a entire day before Eliza’s mother realized that her daughter had a broken limb, and by the time that the bone had healed, Eliza had broken her arm. Even the slightest movement could cause the child injury, which caused her parents to believe that their daughter would not live much longer. When Eliza was about five years old her parents had her burial clothes made, convinced that they would have to use them in the coming years. It may seem cruel to some, but Eliza’s parents were almost praying for the death to come soon and relieve their daughter of her suffering. To the surprise of her parents, Eliza would not require the funeral dress her parents had ordered her at such a young age. In fact, Eliza would live far past expectations and survived into adulthood.
The childhood of Eliza Suggs was drastically different from those of her peers. For six years Eliza watched other children go to school and play with their friends from a window in her home. Unable to move, Eliza would sit in her baby carriage and watch the world, and the people of her town, carry on without her. A classroom for Eliza was eventually created but it was in the upstairs of her house, a place she could not reach without assistance and great difficulty. As long as Eliza was being pushed around in a baby carriage, the hope of going to a school house with other children was impossible. However, the impossible became possible one day when a family friend gifted Eliza with a special chair that allowed her family to push her around with greater ease. This chair made it possible for Eliza to attend a local school, as her mother or sisters were able to wheel her to and from school without much difficulty. The kindness of one person allowed for Eliza to dare to do what the world previously thought impossible, she became an educated woman.
While at the beginning of her life Eliza Suggs did not know what her affliction was, as medicine began to advance the doctors were able to diagnose her. At the time her particular disease was called Rickets, but we now know it as Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI). Current research shows that there are over seven different types of OI, and that these types can show a number of different symptoms depending on the person. The most common occurrence in victims of OI is fragile bones that seemingly break without reason. The body almost seems to be betraying you because its purpose to remain strong and protect you, but instead it is crumbling. The mental and emotional turmoil that a betrayal like that can cause is astounding, and not something I imagine is easy to cope with.
Yet, Eliza Suggs managed her managed her diagnosis, and did not give in to grief or depression. Instead, she decided to take after her father and become involved in the temperance movement in the Methodist church. After her father died in 1889, Eliza and her sister Kate decided to leave Nebraska and strike out on their own. Together they would attend conferences, services, and camp meetings in an attempt to spread the word about Eliza’s story and her devotion to Christ. Suggs spoke of her suffering and how Christ had offered her a spiritual remedy. Although, she was physically ill she was comforted by the knowledge that once she left her body on earth she would be given a new body in heaven.
Eliza Suggs activism and passion was not solely reserved for the church, as she put pen to paper and wrote the novel Shadow and Sunshine, which was published in 1906. The book describes anecdotes from her mother about the cruel nature of slavery and the hardships individuals underwent during that time. One of the stories describes an older woman who married a younger man after emancipation. Both were struck with utter horror when the two found out that the man was actually the woman’s son, whom had been sold away at auction many years prior. The anecdotes emotionally trying, and go into detail about the atrocities that occurred during this ugly period of time. Eliza Suggs does not leave room for the imagination, because she wanted the readers to be informed of every detail her mother had shared. Leaving anything out would not spare people, it would only allow themselves to continue in their blind outlook on reality. In only 96 pages, Eliza Suggs was able to capture and preserve the dark under belly of American history.
Two year later, on January 29th, 1908, Eliza Suggs died in Orleans, Nebraska. She is currently buried in her family’s plot in the Orleans Cemetery. Eliza Suggs is not a woman that many people remember, but she should be. The Suggs family had expected for the Lord to take her before she turned 10 year old, yet she lived until the age of 32. People believed that she would remain by her household window in that old baby carriage until she died, but she got an education and became a published author and public figure. Eliza’s life was filled with the word no, but instead of listening to that word she held out hope that one day she would hear a yes. Her hopes needed only be answered once, it was that one yes that changed her reality. The gift of a chair somehow became a gift of life.