The Courtship Letters of an African American
Couple: Race, Gender, Class, and the
Cult of True Womanhood
ON MAY 31, 1886, CALVIN LINDLEY RHONE WROTE TO LUCIA J.
Knotts in Round Top, Texas, asking "Do you ever think of me? Miss
Lucia, it is unnecessary to say, I love you with all my heart."' This first de-
claration of love began a nineteen-month correspondence during which
Calvin Rhone, an African American schoolteacher in Brenham, Texas,
persuaded Lucia Knotts to marry him. Their courtship letters document
Lucia's resistance to Calvin's proposal, his attempt to prove his devotion
and love for her, and the couple's slow negotiation of the future condi-
tions of their married life. In some ways, Calvin's love letters reflect both
the courtship customs and the romantic rhetoric of urban white middle-
class Victorian Americans, a tradition that has been well documented by
scholars such as Ellen Rothman and Karen Lystra.- At the same time,
however, the conflicts Calvin and Lucia faced and the solutions they
found were uniquely theirs, arising out of their own personal experi-
ences in the African American community.
A shortage of comparable critical work on rural middle-class African
Americans necessitates a cross-cultural contextualization. Past studies of
rural black family history in the nineteenth century lack a personal di-
mension. Due to the paucity of extant historical sources such as diaries
* Vicki Howard is a Ph.D. student in American Civilization at the University of Texas at
Austin. She would like to thank Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Sean M. Kelley, and Suzanne Hurley.
' Calvin L Rhone to Lucia Knotts, May 31, 1886, Rhone Family Papers (Center for American
History, University of Texas at Austin; all letters cited below are from this collection).
2 Ellen K Rothman, Hands and Hearts. A History of Courtship in America (New York" Basic Books,
1984); Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart. Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century
America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). See also Steven M. Stowe, Intimacy and Power
in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1987). Although Stowe's work focuses on planter-class culture during the period 182o-i86o, his
analysis of courtship rituals provides an interesting counterpoint to that of Rothman and Lystra.
Unlike Rothman and Lystra, who examine courtship in terms of gender roles, Stowe looks at
courtship as "an emotional experience tied to considerations of social class" that reinforced the
Southern "sense of legitimate mastery." Stowe, Intimacy and Power in the Old South, 105.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101218/. Accessed April 30, 2016.