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Sun, 10.26.1828

Mary E. Webb, Orator, and Actress born

Mary E. Webb

*The birth of Mary E. Webb is celebrated on this date in 1828. She was a Black actress and orator known for her dramatic poetry and literature readings.

Mary Espartero Webb was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, three weeks after her mother escaped slavery in Virginia. Her father, described as "a Spanish gentleman of wealth [who] had made many efforts to purchase her mother's freedom," provided financial support for Mary until age 6 or 7. Through her mother's efforts, Mary was admitted to a school where her education included poetry and dramatic literature, and developed a talent for performance.

In 1845, at 17, she married Frank J. Webb. In Philadelphia, Mary Webb undertook voice training with a professor of elocution. She made her public debut on April 19, 1855, in the Assembly Rooms in Philadelphia, "before an audience containing a larger number of professional critics than had ever been assembled in that city," receiving unanimously favorable reviews.

She soon gained renown for her dramatic readings of works by Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Philip Sheridan. In late 1855 and 1856, Webb toured New England, where she attracted the attention of Harriet Beecher Stowe and other prominent literary abolitionists. Stowe was so impressed by the readings that she acted as her patron, adapting scenes from her bestselling novel Uncle Tom's Cabin expressly for Mary Webb's performance. One of her performances of Uncle Tom was attended by Longfellow, who wrote, "A striking scene, this Cleopatra with a white wreath in her dark hair, and a sweet, musical voice, reading to a great, unimpassioned, immovable Boston audience."  

Stowe then helped to arrange a transatlantic tour for the Webbs and provided a letter of introduction. The couple received a warm welcome from many British nobles. In the wake of their visit to England, the London firm of G. Routledge and Company published her husband’s first and only novel. The international tour had taken a severe toll on Mary Webb's health. On the advice of physicians who recommended a warmer climate, the Webbs relocated in 1858 to Kingston, Jamaica.   Mary Webb died of tuberculosis in Jamaica on June 17, 1859.

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