Susan was born on July 3, 1851 in Illinois to parents who had recently been freed from their indenture. Several years later the family moved to the Wisconsin Dells and Susan had to adjust to attending a different school. More life changes occurred when her father Isaac enlisted in a Civil War infantry regiment in 1864 serving as an undercook for eleven months in the East. I wondered what new struggles and responsibilities fell upon Susan, her mother, two older sisters, and two younger brothers?
By November 1865 the family had crossed the Mississippi River and settled near an enclave of nearly 100 Blacks near Fayette, Iowa. Within a short time Susan was doing housework for a local minister Reverend Paine and his wife and helping with their four children. That work was sporadically interrupted from 1873 through much of 1877 when she cared for her mother, two sisters, and one brother who died of tuberculosis.
The Paines recognized Susan’s academic potential and in 1876 she became the first Black student at Upper Iowa University where she completed the two-year Normal Training Teaching Program. At that time all but three Iowa counties prohibited Blacks from teaching in country schools. Her experience illustrates historical discriminatory practices for Blacks with teaching credentials
In 1882 Susan moved to Huron, Dakota Territory after her father had married again and she no longer felt responsible for looking after him and her youngest brother born in Iowa in 1867. Pursuing her entrepreneurial talents she opened a laundry business that inadvertently led her to a missionary career. Often the laundry brought to her by railroad men and miners was wrapped in newspapers. One day several years later she spied an article that caught her attention. It described a training school in Chicago for those who wanted to become missionaries. Susan wanted to attend but had to delay. After her stepmother died in May 1884 Susan brought her father to Huron. When he died six months later she no longer had family responsibilities. That freed her to pursue her dreams.
In less than a year she had sold her business and was taking a train to attend the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions (CTS). Her schooling included sociology, social and family relations, nursing and elementary medicine, and industrial work. Practical experience focused on aiding and teaching the immigrants in crowded tenement housing. Upon completion of the one-year course of study, the missionaries were expected to be active in social reform with a focus on changing the prison system, promoting temperance work, and helping the needy and disenfranchised.
Susan’s life changed dramatically after the Methodist Episcopal Bishop to Africa William Taylor came to CTS and recruited her to join his band of missionaries leaving for Africa in April 1887. Upon her arrival in the Congo Delta region, the cultural differences shocked her, notably the near nakedness of the people and the uneven work load between the men and women. She wrote telling a friend that the men had multiple wives and laid about all day while the women struggled to keep up with the workload.
Two years later Susan observed these same behaviors when she was assigned to mission stations in Angola, a west African country about twice the size of Texas. She was deeply concerned when girls as young as 12 were forced into marriage with older men. She taught the girls how to read and write Portuguese, English, and Kimbundu, the local language. In addition to the academic and life skills Susan taught she was responsible for their religious education. In June 1897 she wrote, “We have school usually four hours in the forenoon for four days a week. In the afternoon I teach them various things, such as sewing, cooking, and washing.” (“Report of Miss Susan Collins.” Report of the Congo Mission Conference, June 9-17, 1897. New York: Easton & Mains). Susan and the older girls stitched the yards of fabric making clothing for themselves and the younger children. Mrs. Paine had obtained the fabric through donations from Fayette area residents.
Susan taught the older girls to sew and make clothes for themselves and these younger children. Author’s collection.
Poor nutrition, due to inadequate food supplies, often contributed to these deaths. Until 1898 Bishop Taylor’s missionaries had to survive on his self-sufficiency model. That meant they had to obtain food from family and friends in the States, get it from the local people, or raise their own field crops and gardens. To provide adequate food Susan taught the girls gardening, food preservation and preparation skills. Garden crops included beans, corn, okra, white and sweet potatoes called yams, peanuts called ground nuts, and potatoes. They harvested and processed cassava roots using them to replace potatoes and as flour in bread. Some of you now likely use this flour because it is gluten-free. Boiled cassava leaves were used as a vegetable.
With the appointment of a new bishop, life became easier and the missionaries received a salary and money for running their mission stations. In 1902 Susan was permanently assigned to the Quessua Mission Station under the auspices of the Pacific Branch of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) rather than the missionary board that consisted entirely of white men. Those men tried to get Susan to retire because she was too old! When I realized she was only 51, I was appalled at their attitude. Male missionaries served beyond that age illustrating ageism and gender issues.
The Quessua Mission was located in the Angolan high plateau region. When Susan again walked along the narrow trails to the mission, she would have seen the dried bones of native peoples who had perished decades earlier on their way to Portuguese slave ships anchored in the Luanda harbor. My mind raced wondering what her feelings might have been. Had she thought perhaps her ancestors had been brought to the States from Angola?
The death of two female missionaries at Quessua in 1903 left Susan alone caring for 30-40 girls without assistance except help from the older girls. When she was joined by a nurse missionary, Martha Drummer from Atlanta, Georgia in May 1906, she was able to focus on other mission needs. Susan demonstrated her leadership skills when planning and managing the three-year construction of the girls new home and classroom building completed in late 1909. Throughout the process her patience was sorely tested because materials had to be carried on rough trails over 200 miles from the coast one man-load at a time. A man-load typically weighed between 65 and 75 pounds.
Susan, at right and wearing a black dress, was responsible for construction of girls home and classroom building at Quessua Mission prior to 1910. Author’s collection.
With construction concerns behind her, Susan was able to return to Luanda in 1910 and purchase two sewing machines. This efficiency helped ease her concerns for keeping the girls clothed. She also taught the girls rug and basket weaving. The new cook stove she bought shortened food preparation time for the nearly 60 girls in her care.
Susan in late 1920’s, is displaying rugs and baskets created by her Quessua students. She is standing in the yard of her Fayette, Iowa home. Courtesy of Barry Zbornik.
Susan’s missionary career ended in 1920 when she was nearing 70 due to retirement age requirements set by the WFMS. Because there was a missionary shortage, she had worked two years beyond the society’s stated retirement age of 67. Those women were forward thinking and initiated a retirement fund in 1912 for single and widowed female missionaries. That was a great benefit to Susan who lived until 1940 when cancer caused her death. She, her mother, and three siblings who died of tuberculosis are buried with members of white pioneer families in a small rural cemetery near Fayette.
Susan’s life story illustrates lessons relevant for today including the long-term impact inclusion can have on society as a whole coupled with the important role community, educational opportunities, family, and religion have in daily life. It offers encouragement and demonstrates what can happen when all people have the opportunity to thrive regardless of race, gender, creed, and age. Susan’s upward trajectory started with the interest of a mentor. She was able to pursue her desire to become a missionary through education at Upper Iowa University and the Chicago Training School. During her lifetime she demonstrated courage, initiative, perseverance, grace, gumption, and grit helping an untold number of girls and women in Africa. In retirement she was a lecturer sharing her knowledge of the Angolan people, beliefs, climate, culture, and language. Colleagues visited Susan because they valued her friendship, knowledge, and wisdom.
Susan’s legacy continues at Upper Iowa University through the Susan Angeline Collins Memorial Scholarship awarded annually to a female African American student who demonstrates excellence in academic achievement and extracurricular activities. Ten percent of the profits from my book will go to the scholarship fund. Visit http://www.janisbenningtonvanburen.com for more information about the book. Books can be ordered from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and Westbow.com.
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