Iola Leroy: Or, Shadows Uplifted Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Author: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

First published: 1892

Genre: Novel

Locale: North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and several northern states

Plot: Social morality

Time: The last months of the Civil War through early Reconstruction

Iola Leroy, a mulatto who refuses to pass into white society. She chooses instead to devote her life to “racial uplift” (ad-vancement of black people) along with her black family members. Iola's father is Eugene Leroy, a white Creole and owner of an estate on the Mississippi River. Her mother is Marie Leroy, a former slave of Eugene whom he sends north to be educated, marries, and brings back to his home as mistress of the plantation. When Iola returns from a northern school, she discovers that her father has died suddenly of yellow fever, that her sister Gracie is near death, and that she and her mother have been reduced to the status of slaves. Only her brother, Harry, who also was sent north, escapes this fate. Near the close of the Civil War, Iola is rescued from slavery by Union soldiers and becomes a nurse at a field hospital. After the war, Iola and her uncle, Robert Johnson, search for lost family members. Through a series of coincidences, they are all reunited—Harry, Iola, Marie, Robert, and Mrs. Johnson (Robert and Marie's mother). With the exception of Harry, they all move north. Iola's experiences with discrimination in the North heighten her awareness of the race problem. After marrying Frank Latimer, a black doctor from the South, Iola returns to North Carolina to continue the struggle for racial uplift.

Robert Johnson, Iola's uncle and male counterpart in the novel. Robert emerges as a leader in the opening chapter, when, as one of the few literate slaves on the plantation, he provides information about the progress of the war. Robert joins the Union army and becomes a lieutenant in a “colored” company; he refused to enlist as a white man. After the war, Robert finds his mother and takes her and the rest of his family north. Serving throughout the novel as the family patriarch, Robert later sells his property, returns to North Carolina, and purchases a large plantation, which he converts into a community of homesteads for freed slaves.

Dr. Gresham, a white New England physician for the Union army. His admiration for Iola's energy and devotion as a nurse turns to love, and he proposes marriage with the condition that she not reveal her race. Iola rejects the proposal. When he encounters her again after the war, he accepts Iola's final rejection of him lovingly and with respect for her fortitude.

Dr. Frank Latimer, a black doctor from the South who meets Iola and her family in the North. Dr. Latimer, like Iola, is offered a life of ease; his paternal grandmother offers him a comfortable position if he will consent to pass for white. He refuses, giving many of the same reasons Iola gives to Dr. Gresham when she rejects his proposal. Thus, Frank Latimer proves to be the perfect match for Iola because they share similar convictions. They marry and work together for racial uplift in the South.

Tom Anderson, a heroic former slave. Tom is among the first liberated slaves to join the Union army. He appeals to the post commander for Iola's release. Although he is not literate, as Robert is, he is well aware of the events unfolding around him and is eager to serve the cause of freedom. Tom dies as honorably as he lived, saving a boat filled with Union soldiers from a Confederate attack by exposing himself to enemy fire.

Aunt Linda, at first a cook on the Johnson plantation, then, after the war, a matriarchal leader of the black community. She furthers the idea of community among the newly freed, chastising those who sell their votes and drink to excess. Her entrepreneurship allows her to purchase property. As a successful woman, she introduces feminist ideals among her acquaintances.

Categories: Characters