The Life of Rachel H. Flowers (1900-1988)

Still piecing together this journal article. It is difficult to write without access to a library or archives, but I am pressing through with this piece. Rachel Flowers holds a special place in my journey as a historian because it all began with this research. 


Figure 1. Rachel Flowers in Class—1, 1916-1918, Messiah College Archives. Below—back of the image.


Flowers for Martha: Sentiment and Slippage in the Multicultural Archive

                                  Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everyone knows my name.
—Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”

The photographer directed each student to gaze into the camera with one student standing out.[1] You notice her immediately. Her blackness shines here, in this black-white printed image. She sits between two white young women and across from three white young men. She does not dress in the traditional Mennonite women’s attire of a bonnet and “plain clothing.” She wears her thick, black hair pinned back, away from her face, in what appears to be a low bun. She stands still, pen in hand, interrupted by the photographer’s request. A full smile does not grace her face, but neither does a frown. She seemsr content. Under the photographer’s direction, she looks into the camera’s lens and by participating in this photograph finds a place in the school’s archive. The front of this image tells this story—the story of the first Black student at Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home.[2] The back of this image tells a second story, one of slippage and misnaming in a multicultural archive.

Known today as Messiah University, the institution initially identified this student as Martha Bosley. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on March 29, 1909, Bosley attended Messiah Academy, the college’s high school, from 1926 to 1929 and Messiah Bible School from 1930 to 1932.[3] In the 1932 yearbook, The Clarion, students left the following caption under an image of Bosley: “With banjo, song, and cherry smile, she makes the bluest days worthwhile.”[4] Believed to be the first African American student to attend Messiah, this revelation, contradicted a 1918 class photograph in which another Black girl appears nearly a decade before Bosley’s admission. In 2009, Hierald Edgardo ‘06, alumnus and former Director of Multicultural Programs, revealed that the Black student in the opening photo and Martha Bosley were two different individuals.[5] She was misnamed, and it took nearly a century for her to be properly identified. That year, a strikethrough appeared over Bosley name with the following caption to the side, “Rachel Flowers (incorrectly identified as Martha Bosley).”[6]


Figure 2. Martha Bosley, The Clarion, Messiah College Archives, 1932.

The opening epigraph comes from Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65

[1] In the background you see a second, although blurred, photographer. Rachel Flowers in Class—1, 1916-1918, Messiah College Archives.

[2] A note on reading photographs: Drawing upon feminist historian and historian of photography Laura Wexler, Tina Campt challenged scholars to move past looking at photographs as merely “the way things were,” but rather read photographs as a record of intentions and a record of choices. She noted, “The question of why a photograph was made involves understanding the social, cultural, and historical relationships figured in the image, as well as a larger set of relationships outside and beyond the frame—relationships we might think of as the social life of the photo. The social life of the photo includes the intentions of both sitters and photographers as reflected in their decisions to take particular kinds of pictures. It also involves reflecting historically on what those images say about who these individuals aspired to be; how they wanted to be seen; what they sought to represent and articulate through them; and what they attempted or intended to project and portray.” Tina Campt, Images Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 6.

[3] Martha Bosley’s School Records, Messiah College Archives, Grantham, PA.

[4] Messiah Bible School, The Clarion (Grantham, PA: 1932), 16, Messiah College Archives.

[5] In preparation for the college’s centennial celebration, Hierald Osorto ’06, then Director of the Office of Multicultural Programs at Messiah, began researching the first underrepresented students to attend Messiah College. As Hierald and his student researcher, Mollie Gunnoe ’12, identified students, they determined that Martha, who later attended Messiah Academy (1926-1929) and Messiah Bible School (1931-1932) was the second African American person to attend the institution.

[6] Rachel Flowers in Class—1 (cropped), 1916-1918, Messiah College Archives

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