Lois Leveen occupies an unusual role as both historian and novelist.
Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which is based on
the true story of black woman who became a Union spy in the Confederate
White House during the Civil War. Very few details about the historic
Mary Bowser can be proven, and many ostensibly nonfiction, scholarly
accounts of her life make claims that are either untrue or at least
undocumented. Although The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a work of fiction,
Leveen has also done substantial research on the "real" Mary Bowser,
including debunking many of the claims about her. In this article,
originally published on TheAtlantic.com under the title "The Spy Photo
That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me," Leveen
explains how "a story of a mistaken identity reveals a lot about the
history of black women in America, the challenges of understanding the
past, and who we are today." Leveen and BlackPast.org thank the editors
of The Atlantic for allowing us to share this piece here. Readers
interested in learning more about the real Mary Bowser should consult
the Encyclopedia Virginia entry about her, also written by Leveen.
Students and scholars interested in doing their own original research on
Bowser can begin by exploring what Leveen describes as the most
promising areas for further research. This is a wonderful opportunity
to practice real research techniques and to increase our collective
understanding of the how black women have contributed to the history of
the United States.