Born in Clarion County, Pennsylvania on September 26, 1832, Joanna P. Moore was raised by Episcopalian and Presbyterian parents. During a revival meeting in 1851, however, she joined a Baptist church. Attending Female Seminary in Illinois earlier this year, she learned of the needs among a colony of freed women and children on Union-controlled Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River near Memphis.
Moore writes of how the revelation of Island No. 10 impacted her life:
Some time in February a man who had been on Island No. 10, which is located in the Mississippi River about thirty miles north of Memphis, visited the Seminary and told us of his visit to that island, where were about 1,100 women and children in great distress. A Baptist minister had moved there and was in command of a colored regiment, who guarded the island. The speaker drew a very sad picture of their bodily suffering and their extreme ignorance, asking, “What can a man do to help such a suffering mass of humanity? Nothing. A woman is needed, nothing else will do.” I cannot recall all he said, only I know my school room and foreign missions, with all their sweet attraction, receded and kept receding, till they were in the background of my picture, and there in the front stood the black woman, with her child, both half naked, stretching out empty hands, crying for help. I had a great way of building air castles, and my castles were now filled with black people; but I threw them all down and marched off in another direction; but the first thing I knew there was a whole panorama of black people right before me. Finally I began talking to myself in real earnest, asking, “What can I, a poor child, do? What kind of people are they? Why did God let them be slaves and shut the door of knowledge to them for so many years? Will they listen to me? I have nothing to give them; I suppose God will show me how to love them. Every heart needs love. Yes, I expect I can love them, but they need something more substantial than love. There are many older and wiser than I. Let them go and do this work. But oh, it will take an army to supply the needs of these people. What shall I do?” and so on, I asked myself and asked God a thousand questions and only got one answer: “Go and see and God will go with you.” My decision was made before school closed. I did go, I did see, God did go with me and He went before me and cleared the way, and behind me as a rear guard. Duty was made plain, results glorious, and to-day I stop to shout “Glory Hallelujah.” I surely made a good bargain when I invested in the Negro race.
This month, she moves to Island No. 10 as the first American Baptist Home Missionary appointee to the South. With four dollars in her pocket, here she finds “1,000 colored women and children in distress.” Moore writes of her early days on the island:
Some time in November, 1863, I landed on the desolate shore of Island No. 10. Another woman from Ohio had just arrived, on the same mission. Rev. Benjamin Thomas, a Baptist minister from Ohio, was captain of the regiment that guarded the island. His wife was with him. They kindly gave us a part of their home. I cannot make you understand how it all seemed to me. I had scarcely ever seen a colored person, and had never spoken to but one till then.
Some time after I arrived two women were called up before Captain Thomas to be punished for fighting, and the fight was not yet over. Both were still in a most fearful rage, calling each other terrible names. Captain Thomas called me out, and in a laughing manner said: “Miss Moore, I will turn this case over to you. Since you came here to make people good, try your hand on these women.”
I do not know what I said, only I know they laughed at my earnestness, and I cried myself to sleep that night, as I did many another night that winter. Such a mass of suffering, sin, and ignorance as was gathered on that island surely no one ever saw before.
I had a talk next day with the women Captain Thomas handed over to me, but I fear I did them but little good. I have learned since that you can never help any one till you love them a little after the way that Jesus loved you. I only pitied those women then. God showed me that I must keep in close communion with Him, and take His spirit with me in all my work, if I ever expected to be a comfort to any human soul; and there on that island, among those wretched people, I learned “to walk with God” as I never did before.
Soon the poor women learned to come to me with their troubles and cares. Miss Baldwin, who shared my labors, was an earnest Christian. We wrote hundreds of letters to our friends in the North for clothing, for the people were almost naked. Often we found children on the wharf with nothing on them but a part of a soldier’s old coat. The women and children were free, but did not know where to go or what to do. They were taken by the soldiers on the boat, and as this was a “contraband” camp, they were landed here.
The winter of 1863-’64 was very cold. We suffered greatly. Our store-room had no fire. There we spent every alternate day. Our plan was to visit in the cabins and tents one day and find what each one needed, and give a written order, which we filled the next day from the store-room that our friends from the North kept filled in answer to our letters. Often those who needed help least would tell us the most pitiful story, so we found it necessary to visit their homes, if homes they could be called. They had to use so many things in common. Three families with six or ten children each, cooked their food in the same pot on the same fire. Each had to wait for the other. No wonder that a mother with crying, hungry children would quarrel when thus situated.
We had a large Sabbath school, besides other meetings with the women and children in their homes. It was indeed a great joy to read the Bible to those who had never heard it before.
The Sabbath School of her Baptist church in Belvidere, Illinois helps support Moore in her mission endeavor. Five months after arriving on the island, the colony of freedpersons is moved to Helena, Arkansas. Moore moves with them, her career determined. She remains a missionary in the South for more than four decades. Working with African Americans throughout the South, including in the vicinity of New Orleans, she becomes known as the “Swamp Angel of the South.” Her ministry includes caring for the helpless and teaching the illiterate to read.
Moore’s life work makes her one of the most prominent Baptist home missionaries in the late 19th century. While yet an active missionary of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society, Moore dies in Selma, Alabama on April 15, 1916.
Sources: Joanna P. Moore, In Christ’s Stead: Autobiographical Sketches, Chicago: Women’s Baptist Home Mission Society, 1902, digitized by the Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (link); “To Think That Happened on Mulberry Street” (link)