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Little Known Black History Fact: Elizabeth Suggs, Early 20th Century Author with Brittle Bones Disorder

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For Black History Month 2016, I will be featuring disabled Black authors who have written trailblazing and powerful pieces of literature about their plights that resonates with those of us who understand their stories and experiences.  An author that came on my radar last month was Elizabeth “Eliza” Gertrude Suggs; Eliza’s life fascinated me on many levels, especially when I realized that she had the same disability as myself.  Her story is one that I believe is worth spotlighting since the lives of disabled Black women from the late 19th, early 20th centuries are hardly covered in our history books.  

The Life of Eliza Suggs (1876 – 1908):  Born to Former Slaves and Born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI)

From what little is known about her, Eliza was the youngest of her siblings, and was born to former slaves who lived in Bureau County, Illinois near the town of Providence.  It was discovered that she had brittle bones four months after her birth, when she experienced her first series of fractures.  Eliza seemed to have had a more severe form of OI, and her bones would break from the slightest movements.  

Due to the severe type of OI she had, Eliza was not able to walk, and she grew only to be 33 inches tall and weighed about 50 pounds as an adult.  Having OI created an obstacle for her to play with her peers, but one thing Eliza was able to accomplish was going to school and receiving an education.  From one report of Eliza’s life, what made accessing an education possible for her was when Eliza received a chair donated by family friends; this chair allowed her to have a more appropriate mode of transportation than the baby carriage she was placed in (which was most likely used due to her small stature).  The new chair, plus her mother and older sister Kate carrying her up the stairs to the classroom each day so that she could learn with her peers, played tremendous roles in her accessing a “luxury” like an education.  For those who may not be familiar, for a disabled Black child with a physical disability like Eliza to receive an education was uncommon during that time.  My Grandmother would tell me on many occasions that children who looked like me did not go to school – they stayed home.  Receiving an education as a disabled Black woman in post-Civil War America was an incredible feat for her to bear.  

Accessing this education afforded Eliza the opportunity to write a book about her family and her life.  Her book, Shadows and Sunshine, was published in 1906, two years before her death.  It is in her book that she shares about her family history, upbringing, and living with Osteogenesis Imperfecta.  

Why Eliza’s Story Matters to Me as a Disabled Black Woman with OI & An Aspiring Author

Being someone who has studied African American history in college, it is rare to find historical figures who are disabled, much less share the same disability.  Though there is not much else known about Eliza that I was able to discover during my research, what I had learned of her is amazing.  To read about a woman born during a time when Blacks were slowly getting used to the hard fought taste of freedom, and to see her overcome barriers, both race and disability related, inspired me.  It inspires me because we have so much in common though we were born over a century apart – educated Black women, steadfast in our Christian faith (in her adult years, she would attend events where she would share her devotion to Jesus Christ), relentless desire to share our unique voice with those who will listen, and a love for writing.  

A strength I read about Eliza that impacted me was her refusal to be displayed as an “oddity” attraction for circuses.  Many disabled Blacks during that time were sought after to be exploited for money in this manner.  For Eliza, she believed that God had a purpose for her life, and was determined to live out those purposes.  When I read this about her, it reminded me so much of how I view my own life – I know my purpose in life, and am working towards it.  Not many people understand why they are alive or what they are suppose to be achieving.  To know the “whys” and “whats” at a young age is a heavy blessing; you must fulfill your charge no matter the challenges and obstacles put before you.  Eliza, in my opinion, fulfilled her destiny by gifting us with a book that will carry her story for generations for disabled Americans to read, particularly disabled Black girls and women with OI.  

Final Thoughts

Discovering Eliza is one of the reasons why I am ardent in my focus on disabled people of color, especially the stories and lives of disabled girls and women of color.  When our plights and struggles are absent from history books, it disadvantages all of us and leaves disabled minorities without their own trailblazers and heroes to look up to.  Eliza has been added to my “Shero” list, and I hope she becomes an important figure to other disabled girls and women of color, too.  

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Black Then / Elizabeth Suggs.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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