- Published: 01 January 2016 01 January 2016
A rare discovery, A Mysterious Life and Calling is the autobiography of Charlotte Levy Riley, who was born into slavery but after emancipation achieved a fulfilling career as a preacher in the South Carolina Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, schoolteacher, and civil servant. Although several nineteenth-century accounts by black preaching women in the northern states are known, this is the first memoir by a black woman preaching in the South, both before and after the Civil War, to be discovered.
Born in 1839, Charlotte Riley recounts her unusual experiences growing up as a young slave girl in Charleston under the protection of her parents and the dominion of her wealthy owners. She was taught to read, write, and sew, despite laws forbidding black literacy, and while still a slave married a free black architect. Raised a Presbyterian, she writes in her memoir of her conversion at age fourteen to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, embracing its ecstatic worship and led by her own spiritual visions. After the war, she separated permanently from her husband, who objected to her call to preach, and despite poor health pursued a career into the early twentieth century as a licensed minister of the AME church, a powerful preacher at multiracial revivals, and a school teacher and principal. She contributed to the civic development of South Carolina in the post-Reconstruction era and early twentieth century, including appointment in 1885 as postmistress of Lincolnville, an all-black incorporated town in South Carolina. She published her autobiography around 1902.
Crystal J. Lucky discovered Riley’s forgotten book in the archives of the Stokes Library at the historically black Wilberforce University in Ohio. She provides an introduction and notes to the narrative, explaining Riley’s references to contemporaries, events, society, and religious practice throughout her childhood and the turbulent years of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Lucky also places A Mysterious Life and Calling in the context of other spiritual autobiographies and slave narratives.