Portsmouth Women: Sarah Eddy, Loyal Backer of the Portsmouth Free Public Library

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This year the Portsmouth Free Public Library is celebrating one hundred and twenty-five years of service to the Portsmouth community. Portsmouth women have been vital to the success of the library. In a history of the library, Ernest Denomme remarks that Sarah Eddy of Bristol Ferry Road was “one of the best educated and well traveled women in Portsmouth….she made her presence felt throughout the community.” She contributed to the success of the Portsmouth Free Public library from the beginning of the organization, but you won’t find her name among the board of directors. She was a private person who worked effectively behind the scenes. Many of the original library organizers were in her circle of friends. One of her best friends, Emeline Eldrege, served on the library board for years.

Sarah was a world class artist, writer, and sculptor. The Bristol Ferry area where she lived became a center for artists such as Oscar Miller. She is famous for her portrait of Frederick Douglass and she brought Susan B. Anthony to Portsmouth to sit for her portrait. That portrait is in the Smithsonian in Washington today. She made a number of donations of artwork to the library, some of which are on view now. Sarah never sold her work, she always gave it away.

By the 1920s the original library needed to be expanded. The West Wing was constructed chiefly through Sarah’s funding to be used as an Art Room. It was common for libraries in that period to also serve as places to display art and bring culture to the community. In 1921 a Newport Mercury article shows Sarah as part of the Art Committee of the library. As she grew older her interest in the library waned, but the traces of her influence remain. In the 1950s the Art Room was re-purposed into a Children’s Room. It serves as the book shop today.

Celebrating Black History in Portsmouth: Fannie Scott, Sarah Eddy and the Home for Aged Colored People

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A few years ago the Portsmouth Historical Society received the generous gift of a portrait painted by one of Portsmouth’s artists, Sarah Eddy. That portrait led us to the story of Fannie Scott, one of the former slaves that Joseph Macomber brought to Portsmouth in 1870.

Who was Fannie Scott and what was her connection to Sarah Eddy? As we researched Fannie we found her obituary in 1928. Fannie came to Portsmouth as a ten year old and lived with her sister, Matilda Ayler (the wife of Morgan Ayler) and her family. At the time she was Fannie Edna Brent. Later she would marry another one of Macomber’s group of former slaves, Robert Scott. Fannie was an active member of the Friends Church and she served on committees for the foreign missions and helped organize social gatherings for the church.. After her husband died she returned to the Ayler household.

From the markings on the portrait frame and canvas, we know that the painting was done in Portsmouth in 1920. Fannie would have been about seventy at the time. She went on to live eight more years and those last years were spent in the Home for Aged Colored People in Providence. Sarah Eddy had a long tradition of inviting the residents of that home to come to her home in Portsmouth for a summer outing. Newspaper clippings from 1913 through 1942 record the yearly visits of a group from the Aged Colored People’s Home. As an example, I will share information from a 1928 outing. Sarah Eddy was a vegetarian, so the typical refreshments were quahaug chowder, rolls, cakes and ice cream. After lunch there was a social with speakers, music (spirituals and old time songs of the south), and a bible reading (read by someone dressed in a “Mammy” costume). Fannie’s niece, Alice Morris, was one of those who assisted with the singing, so it is not unlikely that in her younger days Fannie might have helped at the outings.

Sarah Eddy’s Bristol Ferry neighbors helped with the events and her next door neighbors, the Ballous, were active in supporting the home.

In 1890 Christina Bannister (artist Edward Bannister’s wife) helped establish the Home for Aged Colored People as a nursing home for African American women – especially those who had been servants and had no family to care for them. She raised funds for the home and was a member of the staff. Near the end of her life, Mrs. Bannister was poor and she actually became a resident of the home after her husband died in 1901. Sarah Eddy was part of the artistic community in Providence and must have known the Bannisters. Today “Bannister House’ in Providence traces its roots to the Home for Aged Colored People.

Bristol Ferry Artists

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This image is from a glass plate negative.  Captured in 1910, this was titled “Sunset at Bristol Ferry”.  I don’t know that this image is by Sarah Eddy, but she was a marvelous photographer working around the Bristol Ferry area at that time.  The Bristol Ferry area attracted many artists and photographers.  The quality of the light there was special.  Artists and photographers especially came during the summer season, but many had permanent studios in the area.  I found this small glass plate on Ebay, but I know that other glass plates may be found in Portsmouth attics.  Hopefully we can uncover more about the Bristol Ferry artist colony.