I found my way to the work of Jarena Lee by way of research on Maria W. Stewart, a writer, lecturer, journalist and teacher who is reported to be the first US woman to deliver a speech to a mixed audience of men and women, black people and white people. Women who spoke publicly in the early 19th century were often subjected to fierce resistance and opposition. As an African American woman, Stewart faced especially intensive intolerance and retired from public speaking in 1833 after delivering four lectures.
Jarena Lee was a preacher, a traveling minister and an author. Much of what we know about her biography comes from her own literary work, published in 1836 as The Life and Religious Calling of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel and then re-published in 1849 as Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel. This literary work is the first autobiography by an African American woman to be published.
Lee was authorized by Richard Allen to preach in Mother Bethel AME Church in 1819, becoming the first woman to do so. In addition to preaching at Mother Bethel, Lee became a traveling minister, covering thousands of miles and risking her safety and well-being in unwelcoming territories, to preach the gospel. Lee is documented to have spoken at an anti-slavery meeting in Philadelphia and circulated among the city’s community of abolitionists. Lee’s activities and movements after the last printing of her autobiography remain unclear. Recent scholarship by Frederick Knight, uncovers the likely date of her death as February 5, 1864. Knight’s essay, “The Many Names of Jarena Lee,” identifies the particular difficulties in collecting historical research about the lives of Black women in the 19th century. Lee’s efforts to record and publish her own story provide an extremely valuable account of Philadelphia in the early to mid 19th century.
[*Knight, Frederick, “The Many Names of Jarena Lee,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 141, No. 1 (January 2017), pp. 59-68.]