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Lauren Wilkinson on Real-life Black Female Spies

Posted on 15th July 2020 by Mark Skinner

Lauren Wilkinson's gripping espionage thriller American Spy has garnered much-deserved acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, with former US President Barack Obama selecting it as one of his summer reading picks. Centring on a Black female FBI agent sent undercover to Burkina Faso during the Cold War, the novel draws inspiration from the incredible exploits of real-life Black female spies, such as those detailed by Lauren below.    

Please note: Whilst the books referenced by Lauren Wilkinson in this piece are available to order from Waterstones.com, availability issues mean that they all have a minimum 3 week delivery time.

The main character of my novel is Marie Mitchell, a black female FBI agent who is recruited by the CIA to go undercover to destabilize Thomas Sankara’s Marxist revolutionary government. Below are three of the real-life black female spies who I drew inspiration from while writing my book:

Harriet Tubman

Who do you consider to be the quintessential American spy? For me, it’s Harriet Tubman. Most Americans know her as a conductor on the underground railroad, but far fewer of us are aware of the intelligence work she did for the U.S. Army. In Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader by Rosemary Sadlier, the author explains that at the request of the Governor of Massachusetts, Tubman traveled to South Carolina in 1862 to serve as a nurse for a black Union regiment. By 1863, she had established an informal intelligence service of black men who were local to the area—Tubman trained these men to gather information about the activities happening behind Confederate lines. She also planned and lead a highly successful raid on plantations along the Combahee River that resulted in the release of 750 slaves. And yet, despite her fame and the value of these contributions to the war effort, Tubman was later denied a military pension because of a lack of “official documents” to prove she had served. 

Mary Jane Richards

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, by Elizabeth Varon is a biography about Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy and prominent Virginian who ran an espionage circle – the Richmond underground – on behalf of the Union. The book also details the life of Mary Jane Richards, who was born into slavery on the Van Lew property, but effectively freed as a child, and educated in New Jersey. In 1855, Richards traveled to Liberia to serve as a missionary before returning to Richmond five years later.

Many of the historical accounts of Richards’ life contradict each other (even her name is in dispute because she went by different aliases during and after the Civil War, including Mary Bowser and Richmonia Richards), but it’s a fact that she was an integral member of Van Lew’s Union spy ring. In 1865, a New York-based newspaper reported on a lecture that Richards’ gave at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a lecture which touched on her undercover work during the war – Richards posed as a slave to infiltrate the Confederate White House, where she gathered intelligence on the president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. After the war, she went on to open schools for free people.

Josephine Baker

It is well-documented that the American-born French performer Josephine Baker was a spy for the French Resistance during the second world war. According to the Josephine Baker Critical Reader, edited by Charlene Regester and Mae Henderson, Baker’s celebrity was the perfect cover for her espionage work because it gave her plenty of social power and a plausible reason to travel all throughout Europe. Baker would attend diplomatic parties to collect tactical intelligence about the movements of Axis troops, and would pin notes about it into her underwear, knowing that her fame meant she would never be searched. When the Nazis began to suspect Baker of involvement in the resistance, she fled France for Portugal – valuable intelligence written in invisible ink on her sheet music in tow. After the war, Baker was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Resistance for her service.

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