By Neil Dhingra
Frances Joseph-Gaudet’s 1913 memoir, He Leadeth Me, begins by telling the reader that the future missionary, prison reformer, school founder, and Episcopal saint was born in a log cabin in Mississippi in 1861. Her father, likely enslaved, left for the Civil War and never returned. A beloved maternal grandfather was enslaved and an A.M.E. preacher; her mother’s mother was Native American. After the war, when her uncle killed an overseer who had ordered the uncle’s wife “to come to his room while uncle was away,” her grandfather, who perhaps also dangerously allowed his church to be used as an African American school, moved the family, including the 8-year-old Frances, to New Orleans.
Frances eventually attended Straight University — now part of Dillard University — but had to leave to earn money for the family. She wept into her pillow at night. She first married at 17, but after 10 years, “drink, the curse of America,” took hold of her husband, and legal separation became necessary.
Yet this is not quite how He Leadeth Me begins. There are testimonials, the first from the Christian Herald, which compares Frances Joseph-Gaudet to “beautiful Elizabeth Fry, the Angel of Newgate,” and another, from the local Times-Democrat newspaper, which commends her work for juvenile justice as taking place “long before any white woman thought of lending the influence of her presence at the children’s trials.” As Chanta M. Haywood has written, this praise “reinforces the discourse of otherness” exemplified in a white woman’s response to Gaudet’s explaining how to abolish police abuse: “My, you have a fine mind, you ought to be a white woman.”
Joseph-Gaudet’s memoir recounts a life spent in theological challenge to these constraints — poverty, alcohol, white supremacy — founded on the recognition that God is a friend to all of us. This draws us into what Jürgen Moltmann has called “open friendship,” marked not by exclusivity but by the “sympathy of all things.”
There are two recurring themes in Joseph-Gaudet’s memoir: first, amid human betrayal, she becomes a friend to the friendless, herself sustained by God’s friendship; second, she must preempt those situations that lead to criminality, for, as one prisoner sadly remarked of himself, “it’s too late now.”
Joseph-Gaudet, then Frances Joseph (she would marry Adolph Gaudet in 1905; I’ll use Joseph-Gaudet throughout), began prison reform work upon walking alongside an old woman near St. James Church, where Frances was a communicant. The woman had been left alone as her son was imprisoned. That night, as Frances prayed, she heard a voice whisper to her to go to prisoners, a call confirmed at Sunday’s church service.
She went to the jail, at first — and not for the last time — unaccompanied, for nobody would go with her. There, she met James Murray, who had been sentenced to death. Gaudet writes, “I told him we had come to cheer and help him and recommend to him a Friend who was his only hope now.” He responded, “I’ve never had anyone to visit me and pray with me before.” During a prayer service, an unlikely community forms, as not only the prisoners but also the jailer tearfully convert. Even on the gallows, Frances tells Murray, “God be with you till we meet again,” and Murray’s last gesture is to wave farewell.
In several stories, Frances’ loyalty to the friendless contrasts to betrayal at the hands of pseudo-friends, many of them white, who had put them in prison. Once, Frances Joseph-Gaudet is approached in a prison yard by a now-friendless white man who explained he had secretly married, as his bride was still mourning, but then been assaulted by a jilted woman outside a saloon. He and his assailant were arrested, which caused scandal. Despite the entreaties of his best man, his new wife rejected him, and he was left penniless and imprisoned.
Joseph-Gaudet went right away to talk to this wife, despite not having eaten. Tellingly, she notes, “Opposite was a restaurant but being a Negro the laws of my state prevented my being served.” Then, “Mrs. B” eyes Frances “curiously,” but it had been the best man who had lied to her, as he loved her desperately, and Joseph-Gaudet reunites the couple.
Later, Joseph-Gaudet protests against a white superintendent who commits sexual assault and then cynically questions “a charge made by a Negro woman against a white man.” When her friends dissuaded her from making the charges, she had to remember, “God knew my sorrows, and counted my tears” and “would lift up my head.” The white superintendent was at least reprimanded and fined.
Of course, Joseph-Gaudet realized that many prisoners had been unfairly imprisoned and that the prison system, especially the convict-lease system, remained deeply unjust. She also argued that the conditions leading to criminal behavior had to be preempted. She even called for “compulsory Christian education combined with manual training in every community.” When meeting a white prisoner, with “tears streaming down his sad, pale face,” who tells her that all his friends were “a lively set of fellows” who would laugh at him if he were to reform his life, she tells him to find another town: “Seek to know good people and live with them.”
Joseph-Gaudet thus sought to build a “home and school for friendless and homeless colored children, which would prevent this class for being sent to reformatories,” and the latter part of her memoir includes a travelogue through Europe in 1900 as she tries to raise funds for this foundation, which became the Gaudet Normal Industrial School for homeless children. As a temperance speaker, she fought against drinking, which caused the breakdown of homes, including her own, and social trust, to the point that when describing one [white] alcoholic, she remembers her saying, “I am a slave to liquor,” and reiterates, “liquor made her its slave.”
There were compromises. In terms of race, while Joseph-Gaudet’s friendships challenged boundaries, as with her charge against the superintendent, white philanthropists softened any subversion, even by likening her work to “the love and devotion of Negroes in the days of slavery, and their faithfulness during the war.”
As Joe Lockard recounts in an insightful analysis of these compromises, Joseph-Gaudet became president of a segregated division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and her memoir avoids directly challenging white sensitivities. As for the hanged James Murray, for example, she does not discuss that his execution was mishandled, so he choked to death for nearly 20 minutes on the gallows, or that his case, heard in the same Orleans Parish courthouse as Plessy v. Ferguson, reached the Supreme Court because of the exclusion of African American jurors. Joseph-Gaudet never names the sexually predatory superintendent. As Geoff Ward recounts, she was successful in “establishing moderate, segregated institutions” characteristic of her era of reform.
For her part, Joseph-Gaudet stressed, “What a pity some people worship color! It is not color that God looks at but character.” Thus, “Christian civilization” could — and, she believed, would in time — relativize the significance of racial difference, especially as she saw Booker T. Washington “coming to take his place and to lead his people out of the wilderness of ignorance.” She did not dismiss higher education, which had been painfully withheld from her, and her memoir ends by juxtaposing the singing of a “humble black man,” “cheap Jim,” in New Orleans, “a Salvation Army by himself,” with the words of Wordsworth on presence and sublimity, which may remind the reader of the juxtaposition of sorrow songs with “canonical” Western literature in Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.
Joseph-Gaudet was widowed in 1920. She eventually moved to Chicago and died in 1934. Her school was continued in 1921 by the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana until it was disbanded in 1945. You can learn about the Frances Joseph Gaudet fund here.
The theological significance of Joseph-Gaudet may be that she practiced “open friendship” and extended it to strangers — a subject about which Moltmann hasn’t written a great deal. For Moltmann, open friendship is not fabricated but discovered. Charmingly, Moltmann cites a children’s book by Joan Walsh Anglund, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You (1958), in which the world, in the form of trees, brooks, and the wind, manifests friendship: “Sometimes they are there all, the time, but you walk right past them.” Or, as Joseph-Gaudet titles her memoir, He Leadeth Me.
Open friendship is not merely between equals but with those who are different, because of a teeming joy in that which will come, the “feast of heaven and earth.” As Jesus manifested God’s friendship to sinners and tax collectors, open friendship also gives freedom to those once considered outcasts, left outside of “exclusive circles,” like prisoners. Joseph-Gaudet recognizes this: “The Negro has few friends when prosperous, he has still fewer when in trouble,” so this especially means African American prisoners. (She recalls that judges assumed the interest she took in “these friendless ones” had to be because of familial relation or payment.)
Granted that Joseph-Gaudet likely had to compromise for her work to retain white support and funding: is this friendship effective? Drawing on Moltmann’s model of friendship, Peter Slade has described an organization called Mission Mississippi that hopes it is “changing Mississippi one relationship at a time” through fostering interracial friendships. The danger of the model is that it neglects systemic issues, but this is not inevitable. As one participant notes, friendships render systemic issues more than merely notional: “It is not a statistic anymore[;] it is my friend.” Further, if the friendship involves interceding for another in prayer, it involves taking on as one’s own the affliction and need of another.
Joseph-Gaudet’s memoir shows the formation of unlikely relationships. She receives a letter from a white mother of a “fatherless child,” betrayed by two acquaintances and now imprisoned. A “first-class white lawyer” will not help for less than $50, so Joseph-Gaudet secures his acquittal, for the mother had asked her to act “as though he were my own son.” When Joseph-Gaudet saves the marriages of two white people, including the wife who had eyed her “curiously,” she ends her account by saying, “They both remembered me.” She maintains that she has “seen a white man risk his life for a Negro man, and a white woman risk her good repute to help a sick Negro woman,” and we can wonder if the giving and receiving of this intensity of commitment surely results in an expanded field of vision.
Further, in one of the last stories she recounts, Joseph-Gaudet discusses barkeepers who were exploiting children to deliver alcohol. The police tell Joseph-Gaudet and her friends they must ride in the patrol wagon to file a complaint. Joseph-Gaudet writes that “horror was written on our faces.” After all, “What would our friends say? The newspapers would write us up, and we would be ridiculed and disgraced.” She claims, however, that an “unseen power urged her on,” and she was placed at the back of the wagon, “under the bright light …, where I could be seen by all,” amid jeers. But it is specifically by taking the place of those arrested that she is able to persuade the barkeepers to stop using children.
That finally leads Joseph-Gaudet to reflect on how that “unseen power” relativizes all distinctions, including that of race, so the woman who tells us that “she ought to be a white woman” is guilty of idolatry, and “cheap Jim” can know what Wordsworth knew. Joseph-Gaudet writes that she only has to “serve Him well where He has placed me,” because Jesus is a friend everywhere, and she just has to mirror that friendship to all. Amid all the compromises and constraints, the awareness of this friendship, and its cultivation in schools and churches, might effectively create what can be called an “anti-prison.”
Merciful God, who didst raise up thy servant Frances Joseph Gaudet to be a champion of the oppressed: Grant that we, encouraged by her example, may advocate for all who are denied the fullness of life to which thou hast called all thy children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.