From Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine, Spring 2008
Who Was Semper Fidelis?
Alumnus Eric Gardner's research reveals
a strong voice in early black journalism.
Story by Amelia Benner ’09
From 1867 to 1874, dozens of articles, columns, essays, and poems appeared in California
African-American newspapers under the pseudonym “Semper Fidelis.” Now, almost a century-and-a-half
later, Semper Fidelis has a name of her own: Jennie Carter.
Eric Gardner ’89, a professor and chair of the English department at Saginaw Valley
State University in University Center, Mich., is the editor of Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi. The book is a compilation
of Carter’s work from the Elevator, an African-American newspaper published in San Francisco after the Civil War.
“As a black woman writing in the West during Reconstruction, Carter is simply a voice
we haven’t heard,” Eric said. “She offers a viewpoint that’s been pretty much absent,
and she considers subjects that are often written out of history texts.”
Eric uncovered Carter’s identity by chance, while working on another project about
the black publications that thrived after the Civil War. While reading these newspapers,
he saw a notice about contributions by “Semper Fidelis,” that further identified the
writer as “Mrs. D. D. Carter” of California.
Eric Gardner (above) believes Carter deserves consideration among the most gifted
American writers of her era.
“I read that ad and just about jumped out of my chair,” Eric said. Up until that time,
historians had never been sure of Semper Fidelis’ true identity. He began searching
Carter’s columns in the Elevator for evidence to support his theory —which he said
he “found in abundance.”
Although details of Carter’s life are still sketchy, much of her personality shines
through in her writing.
“I think the vast majority of her columns are, simply, good reading,” Eric said.
“I think her short sketches are worthy of comparison to those of Fanny Fern, Mark
Twain and Bret Harte, and that Carter needs to similarly be considered as an important
contemporary to black writers of the period like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.”
Eric hopes that his book will inspire other researchers to explore not only Carter’s
work, but also that of the other African-American writers whose contributions have
been largely forgotten.
“My work was, in short, a reminder of how much piecing together we still have left
to do when we talk about 19th-century African-American culture — and yet another lesson
in just how essential archival digging is to that piecing together,” Gardner said.
Eric will receive help for that digging after being named a Braun Fellow by Saginaw
Valley State University. The three-year fellowship, awarded to only two of SVSU’s
faculty each year, will support his continuing research on 19th-century African American
literature and culture. Gardner lives in Midland, Mich., with wife Jodie (Betts) Gardner
’91 and daughters Elisabeth and Abigail.
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