Iola Leroy

One of the first novels written by an African American woman, Iola Leroy (1892) celebrates the end of slavery and advocates for a future characterized by equality and freedom. Iola Leroy is a complex novel featuring characters that evolve as they become more educated and who ultimately embrace their Black identity instead of renouncing it. Frances Harper (1825-1911) was herself an advocate for abolition and civil rights. Iola Leroy explores themes such as racial oppression, gender limitations, and the fight for freedom.

Iola Leroy Iola Leroy

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Table of contents

    Iola Leroy Context

    Iola Leroy was first published in 1892 by Frances Harper, a Black woman who was born free but had to witness the enslavement and oppression of other African Americans. When Harper was born in Maryland in 1825, Maryland was a slave state. At 21, she began publishing her anti-slavery writings in magazines and poetry collections.

    After teaching for a few years, Harper began touring the United States, giving lectures on the need for abolition. Her poems, short stories, essays, and novels—such as Iola Leroy—allowed her activism to reach a large audience. Harper was one of the first African American women to not only publish her works but also become a popular author in the United States.

    Iola Leroy is set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction in post-war America. The Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865 when the Union forces defeated the Confederate Army. Although many issues caused the South to secede from the United States, one of the most prominent issues centered around the institution of slavery. Iola Leroy is set during the Civil War when the country faced massive conflict.

    Iola Leroy, Civil War Reenactment, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The action of the novel is set primarily set during the American Civil War.

    In addition to slavery, the novel also speaks to the issue of interracial marriages and miscegenation. At the time of the novel's publication, many people thought having children with someone of another race was socially unacceptable and even (wrongly) biologically incorrect. Children of mixed-race parents were ostracized more than their Black or white parents because they could not fully identify with either community. This is an issue that many of the characters in the novel face.

    Miscegenation: a blending of races.

    Women were also viewed as second-class citizens who had little rights, and the compound discrimination of being a woman and a mixed-race child creates obstacles for Iola throughout the novel.

    Iola Leroy Summary

    Iola Leroy begins in North Carolina as a group of slaves secretly meet to discuss the Union Army's war progress and their lives under their slave masters. The slaves later flee their owners and escape to find refuge with a nearby unit of the Union Army. The group is led by Robert Johnson, a mixed-race slave who is courageous, kind, and compassionate.

    With the Union soldiers, the now former slaves learn that an abusive slave master is holding a young woman named Iola Leroy. One of the slaves, Tom Anderson, arranges for her rescue. Once she is freed, Iola stays with the Union army as a nurse. Tom Anderson is gravely wounded in a fight with the Confederate forces, and Iola cannot save him. Iola appears white and has blue eyes, and Dr. Gresham, a white physician, falls in love with Iola. He is initially taken aback when he learns that she is biracial but proposes to her regardless.

    Iola Leroy, African American Army nurse Susie King Taylor, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Iola works as a nurse in the Union army (Susie King Taylor, pictured above, is considered the first African American Army nurse).

    The story flashes back to Iola's parents and her childhood. Her father, Eugene Leroy, was a wealthy slave owner whose friends deserted him when he became dangerously sick. He falls in love with Marie, one of his slaves, when she nurses him back to health. He then sends Marie to school, frees her from slavery, and marries her despite protests from his family. The couple has three children: Iola, Harry, and Gracie, who pass as white. They send Harry and Iola to a school in the North and keep them ignorant that they have Black ancestors to protect them from prejudice.

    At school, Iola ironically argues for the institution of slavery before she realizes she is a Black woman.

    When Eugene dies, his cousin, Alfred Lorraine, finds legal loopholes to take everything from Marie and the children. He has the Leroys' marriage voided and sells Marie, Iola, Harry, and Gracie back into slavery.

    Back in the present, Iola refuses to marry Dr. Gresham. Harry joins the Union army and joins a black unit. Although he could pass for white, he chooses to identify with the other Black soldiers. Iola cares for Robert when he is hurt in battle. Through their conversations, the two discover they are long-lost relatives.

    As the Civil War ends, the Leroys are reunited. Robert returns to the plantation where he was a slave to find it a thriving Black settlement where all the former slaves are free. He also reconnects with his long-lost mother.

    When Iola moves north, she struggles with discrimination in the housing market and the workforce. She falls in love with and marries Dr. Latimer, an intelligent biracial man who faces obstacles in his medical career due to his race. The Leroy family continues advocating for civil rights and speaking out against racial oppression.

    Iola Leroy, Civil rights protests, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Leyroys continue fighting for civil rights long after the Civil War ends.

    Iola Leroy Characters

    Most of the characters in Iola Leroy are black or biracial, and they embrace their identity instead of feeling shame for it. Most white characters are sympathetic toward the Union's cause and fight to end slavery.

    Iola Leroy

    The novel's titular character, Iola Leroy, is a biracial woman who was raised believing she was white. She takes on a pro-slavery view at school because her father always treated his slaves kindly. Her outlook on slavery changes when her family loses everything and she becomes a slave. She eventually embraces her Black identity and advocates for civil rights long after the Civil War.

    Robert Johnson

    Robert Johnson is a former slave who flees his slave owner to join the Union army. After he is wounded in battle, he and Iola realize he is her long-lost uncle. Robert moves with Iola to the North, where he advocates for civil rights.

    Harry Leroy

    Iola's brother, Harry is also raised believing that he is white. He becomes ill after he learns that he is biracial but later enlists in a Black unit in the Union army. Although he could pass as white, he embraces his Black identity.

    Marie Leroy

    Iola and Harry's mother, Marie Leroy was a biracial slave owned by Eugene Leroy. She is compassionate and kind, taking care of Eugene when he is abandoned after falling ill. Eugene falls in love with her, marries her, and frees her. Marie and her children are sold back into slavery after Eugene's death.

    Eugene Leroy

    A kind slave owner, Eugene Leroy realizes the immorality of slavery after he falls in love with Marie. He goes against the status quo and marries her despite protests from his family and friends. He becomes a social outcast and sends his children to school in the North so they won't discover and be persecuted for their biracial identity.

    Alfred Lorraine

    The cousin of Eugene, Alfred Lorraine is racist and pro-Confederate. He tells Eugene not to marry a Black woman. After Eugene's death, Lorraine sells the Leroys back into slavery.

    Dr. Latimer

    A biracial physician, Dr. Latimer is a strong proponent of civil rights. Latimer's intelligence challenges the commonly-held belief that Black people are mentally inferior. He and Iola fall in love and marry.

    Dr. Gresham

    A doctor in the Union army, Dr. Gresham supports the abolition of slavery but believes that African Americans were socially inferior to whites. He pursues Iola but is taken aback when he realizes that she is biracial. He still wants to marry her but only if she renounces her Black identity and identifies as a white woman.

    Iola Leroy Themes

    The main themes in the novel are racial oppression, gender limitations, and the fight for freedom.

    Racial Oppression and Gender Limitations

    From the very first page, slaves seek an escape from the racial oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. From their family members being sold to physical abuse, the characters have plenty of reasons to flee to the Union army. Even there, they experience racism as they can only fight in Black units and the doctors treat them differently from white soldiers.

    The US Army wasn't integrated until July 26, 1948, under President Truman. That's roughly 80 years after the end of the Civil War.

    Racial oppression is just as apparent in the lives of the multiracial Leroy family. Eugene, who grew up with wealth and prestige, is socially ostracized after he marries Marie. After his death, there is no protection for his wife and children against the villainous Alfred Lorraine, who is quickly able to disown the family as Eugene's heirs. Iola's subsequent enslavement, issues with the housing market, and inability to find employment because of her gender are further examples of the gender and racial oppression apparent in her society.

    The Fight for Freedom

    The Black characters never stop fighting for the freedom of all African Americans. Robert and the other former slaves volunteer for the Civil War in the hopes of winning their freedom, with some like Tom Anderson even giving their lives for the cause.

    Even after the war, the Leroys and former slaves continue fighting for equality and freedom. Part of that freedom comes from honoring their past and reclaiming their history, as Harry's wife notes:

    Instead of forgetting the past, I would have [our people] hold in everlasting remembrance our great deliverance." (Chapter XXX)

    By the end of the novel, the Black characters still face racial injustice. Still, they continue fighting for freedom and empowerment as they advocate for civil rights.

    Iola Leroy Analysis

    Iola Leroy is a story about perseverance, empowerment, and the fight against racial oppression. Set during the Civil War, it is a celebration of the end of slavery and the hope for a better future. The characters in the novel are (literally and figuratively) not just black and white. Instead, they are complex characters who change over time and grow as they become more educated.

    Eugene, for example, was a wealthy slaveowner who profited from the people he kept enslaved. Yet his entire view on slavery changed when he developed a deep connection with a slave. Eugene is far from perfect, keeping his children's identities a secret from them and hiding them from the rest of the world. But he is also one of the loudest critics of the institution of slavery and shows how even someone with the most privilege to lose can be an ally.

    Iola Leroy, Brain, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The characters are dynamic and their thinking evolves as they do, showing the complexity of the human condition.

    Iola, similarly, is a dynamic character with a complicated and ever-evolving relationship with slavery. At first, she has pro-slavery leanings. But when she learns of her ancestry and experiences slavery herself, her Blackness becomes a central part of her identity. She even refuses to marry a white man because of how her people have been oppressed. The characters are realistic because their relationships with racism and oppression evolve over time as they do. They have morally gray moments, but they constantly strive to be better.

    The novel does not follow a chronological timeline, instead jumping between the past, present, and future. This helps to create suspense as well as develop conflict. It also reveals the lingering effects of racial oppression in the United States. Though slavery legally ends, the Black characters do not experience true freedom or equality.

    Iola Leroy Quotes

    The major quotes in the novel examine themes of racial oppression, sexism, religion, and freedom.

    In the North no one would suspect that she has one drop of negro blood in her veins, but here, where I am known, to marry her is to lose caste...if I make her my lawful wife and recognize her children as my legitimate heirs, I subject myself to social ostracism and a senseless persecution. We Americans boast of freedom, and yet here is a woman whom I love as I never loved any other human being, but both law and public opinion debar me from following the inclination of my heart. She is beautiful, faithful, and pure, and yet all that society will tolerate is what I would scorn to do." (Chapter IX)

    Eugene Leroy makes this impassioned speech as he argues with his cousin about his decision to marry Marie. Eugene notes society's hypocrisy and blind hatred. This quotation reveals Southern society's belief that African Americans are socially inferior and mixed race marriages are abhorrent. Eugene realizes that society will scorn him for making Marie his wife instead of just selling her and their children into slavery, but he does not care. He ultimately marries Marie and raises their biracial children as his own, which, as he predicted, ostracizes their family.

    "I have a theory that every woman ought to know how to earn her own living. I believe that a great amount of sin and misery springs from the weakness and inefficiency of women." (Chapter XXIV)

    Iola speaks this quote after the war ends and she has moved to the North with her family. As Iola struggles to find a job, she considers how society is controlled by men who had built the world to benefit them and keep women weak and subordinate. With these feminist views, Iola states that life would be much better for women if they were given the opportunity to make a life for themselves.

    'But, Mr. Bascom,' Harry said, 'I do not understand this. It says my mother and father were legally married. How could her marriage be set aside and her children robbed of their inheritance? This is not a heathen country. I hardly think barbarians would have done any worse; yet this is called a Christian country.'

    'Christian in name,' answered the principal." (Chapter XIV)

    When Harry learns that his family lost everything because they are Black, he questions how something like this could happen in civilized, supposedly-Christian America. Harry's principal at his school in the North helps him grapple with this question and why slavery in general was permitted in one of the most advanced countries in the world. The principal asserts that people call themselves Christian but do not actually live by the code of ethics that Jesus preached.

    Did you know most slaveholders were Christian and used the Bible to justify slavery? One of the Biblical verses used to justify slavery appears in Ephesians 6:5-8, when Paul says, "Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ."

    Iola Leroy - Key takeaways

    • Iola Leroy was published by Frances Harper in 1892.
    • Harper was a free African American who witnessed slavery and publicly advocated against it.
    • One of the main storylines centers around the Leroy family, who are multiracial and lose everything after the death of their patriarch, who is wealthy and white.
    • The other storyline centers around a group of slaves escaping their masters and fighting in the Civil War.
    • The main themes are racial oppression, gender limitations, and the fight for freedom.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Iola Leroy

    Is Iola Leroy real?

    Iola Leroy is a work of historical fiction. It's based on true events but the characters are fictional. 

    Who does Iola Leroy marry?

    Iola marries Dr. Latimer, a scholar and doctor of mixed race.

    When was Iola Leroy written?

    Iola Leroy was written in the late 19th century and published in 1892. 

    Who wrote Iola Leroy?

    Iola Leroy was written by Frances Harper. 

    Who is Robert Johnson in Iola Leroy?

    Robert Johnson is a former slave as well as a lieutenant in the Black unit of the Union army. Later in the novel, he and Iola realize he is her long-lost uncle. 

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