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Is This Mary Bowser?: The Use and Misuse of Photographs to Reconstruct History

Lois Leveen occupies an unusual role as both historian and novelist.  Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser,which is based on the true story of a black woman who became a Union spy in the Confederate White House during the Civil War.  Very few details about the historic Mary Bowser can be proven, and many ostensibly nonfiction, scholarly accounts of her life make claims that are either untrue or at least undocumented.  Although The Secrets of Mary Bowseris a work of fiction, Leveen has also done substantial research on the "real" Mary Bowser, including debunking many of the claims about her.  In this article, originally published on TheAtlantic.com under the title"The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me," Leveen explains how "a story of a mistaken identity reveals a lot about the history of black women in America, the challenges of understanding the past, and who we are today."  Leveen and BlackPast.orgthank the editors of The Atlantic for allowing us to share this piece here.  Readers interested in learning more about the real Mary Bowser should consult the Encyclopedia Virginia entry about her, also written by Leveen.  Students and scholars interested in doing their own original research on Bowser can begin by exploring what Leveen describes as the most promising areas for further research. This is a wonderful opportunity to practice real research techniques and to increase our collective understanding of the how black women havecontributed to the history of the United States. 

It"s a blurry image. But in some ways that makes it the perfect portrait of Mary Bowser, an African American woman who became a Union spy during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. What better representation of a spy who hid in plain sight than a photograph whose subject stares straight at the viewer yet whose features remain largely indecipherable? Small wonder the photograph has been circulated by NPR, Wikipedia, libraries, history projects, and in my book,

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