Susan Angeline Collins: ‘Grace, Gumption and Grit’
Long before a friend suggested she write a book about Susan Angeline Collins, a young Jan (Bennington) Van Buren noticed a bluish twinkling high on the sanctuary ceiling of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Fayette, Iowa. Seated next to her mother, Mildred Bennington, for the evening service, the inquisitive 8-year-old asked her mother what it was.
“That’s Susan’s star,” she replied, “She was a Negro missionary in Africa.”
Jan adored missionary work and hoped to be one someday. In the meantime, questions about Susan filled her head. Why did she go to Africa to be a missionary? Was it dangerous for her? What did she do there?
“Now, over 60 years later, I am finding answers for many of the questions I asked my mother that evening,” said Jan.
In 2005, just prior to her retirement from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Jan was back in Fayette visiting her mother when family friend, Merle Sternberg, suggested a worthy project for her. “She said to me, ‘You need a project when you retire and I have the perfect one. When I was a young girl, there was a small black woman who walked by our house to Main Street. She pulled her little grocery cart behind her. My mother told me she was a missionary in Africa. You need to write about her. Her name was Susie Collins,’” said Jan. “I mulled our conversation over numerous times until November 2008. It was time to talk seriously with Merle about Susan Angeline Collins.”
In the early 1850s, a settlement of African-American people sprang up just a few miles north of Fayette in Westfield Township. An old pioneer cemetery known as Pleasant Hill Cemetery marks the general location of the community. In November of 1865, Susan traveled with her parents and siblings to this community. Her father, Isaac Collins, had served in the Civil War in a company formed in Wisconsin, enlisting in 1864. He was mustered out at the end of the war. Isaac Collins was born in North Carolina in 1808 and emancipated in 1845. Susan’s mother, Sarah Ann Joiner Collins, was born in 1825 and emancipated in 1839. To their union, seven children were born, including Susan Angeline who was their fourth daughter.
After living in Westfield Township for about four years near the long-gone village of Albany, Isaac purchased 6.5 acres. A year later, he bought an additional 10 acres.
As a young woman, Susan worked for the Rev. Jason Paine family, with whom she developed a special relationship. Jan can only suppose it was Rev. Paine who encouraged Susan to attend Upper Iowa University for Normal Training. She did so at the age of 24 becoming the University’s first African-American student. In 1882, Susan moved herself to the Dakota Territory. There, oral historians state she took a claim, however there is no record of that occurring. It can be confirmed, however, that Susan opened a laundry in Huron. After the death of her step-mother, Susan’s father moved to Dakota Territory to be looked after by his daughter. In 1884, he died and was buried in Huron. Jan has tried several times to locate his grave marker, but has been unable to do so.
It was customary in those days to ferry clothes to the laundry wrapped in newspapers. One day, while going about her job, Susan noticed an advertisement for home and foreign mission training in Chicago. She began correspondence courses with the Chicago Training School, and in 1885, sold her laundry business and moved to Chicago to attend training full-time.
In 1887, Rev. William Taylor, the first American missionary bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Africa recruited Susan to serve as a missionary there. At 35-years old, she left to serve in the Congo near Banana Point. After two years, she went to Angola, which was a Portuguese colony, beginning her service in Dondo. Living in Africa during this time, and under Bishop Taylor’s self-sufficiency model, was difficult. Rev. Paine’s wife, Margaret Fletcher Kent Paine, often took up collections of food and clothing items in Fayette to ship to Susan.
From 1889-1900, in addition to her post at Luanda, Susan served in Malange, before being placed in charge of a training school for girls in Canandua, which was relocated to Quessua a year later. After nearly 13 years in Africa, Susan returned to America and was told that because of her age she would not be able to serve as a missionary in Africa any longer. She spent some time visiting friends in Fayette, but spent the bulk of 1901 in California raising money to support a return trip to Africa. She found a friend in the Pacific Branch of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. At 50-years old in 1902, Susan returned to Quessua and stayed for 18 more years.
During that time, she bought a house in Fayette by sending home a portion of her earnings to Rev. Paine. He, in turn, purchased the home and rented it out in her absence. It still stands today on the corner of State and Alexander Streets in Fayette.
Throughout her years as a missionary, Susan was often alone at the missions stations due to either the death or furloughs of colleagues. In 1918, when her two fellow missionaries returned to the United States on furlough they left her in the supervision of 65 girls and the management of the Quessua school. The school is still alive in spirit in Quessua today. After burning down and surviving several civil conflicts, the United Methodist Committee on Relief rebuilt it.
In 1920, at the age of 69, Susan returned to the United States for good and traveled to California. Arriving back in Fayette in October 1921, she lived with Rev. Jason Paine’s wife until the renter’s lease expired for her home. She was considered on “home leave status” by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society until her official retirement in 1922.
Many Fayette residents like Merle Sternberg witnessed Susan toting her grocery cart behind her from home to the downtown area and back. Susan also stayed active in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Fayette and Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society until her health deteriorated. In 1935, Susan moved to the home of the Graham sisters (Julia Stepp and Harriet Lewis), childhood friends, on a farm northeast of Fayette until her death in 1940, just a few weeks short of her 89th birthday. She is buried at Lima Cemetery, alongside her mother, Sarah, sisters Martha Indiana Thompson and Maranda, who shares a headstone with brother William.
In all, Jan said she has spent over six years researching and writing about the life and travels of Susan Angeline Collins. She is currently developing a proposal for a publisher for Susan Angeline Collins: Grace, Gumption and Grit.
Jan’s odyssey into Susan’s life and travels has taken her many places. From the archives and dusty stacks of Henderson-Wilder Library on UIU’s Fayette campus to the trails and tall grasses of Susan’s old stomping grounds of the former Albany site and the Lima Church to Huron, South Dakota – much time and careful research has gone into this full account.
“I have talked with the few members of the church who remembered Susan, walked the land her father owned, and obtained her African thumb piano and its history,” said Jan. “Having a personal connection to the land, the community and the church where Susan had spent many of her years inspired me to learn all I can about her.
“Since I began my research in early 2009, Susan has been a frequent companion in my thoughts and at the computer. Her many firsts and spirit of adventure will be an inspiration to girls and women of any era as they read about her amazing, yet humble life.”
My great-grandfather, Frank F. Swale, graduated from UIU in 1886, just 4 years after Susan Collins was there. I doubt they met, but it’s exciting to think they were both in the same institution at about the same time so long ago. She was an incredible pioneer and like her, Frank’s granddaughter, my mother, went overseas as a single woman missionary 60 years later – to Iran.
Has your book been published? I’d love to read more. I’m pretty sure that her friends Harriet & Julia are my great great aunts. Thanks for the wonderful article.
I think your book will be greatly anticipated. You have an amazing story to tell. Can’t wait for the publication.