For over a decade, Janis Bennington Van Buren spent countless hours interviewing people; pouring over census records, journals, newspaper articles, reports, and letters; visiting libraries and county recorders’ offices; walking through cemeteries and land holdings; and even traveling to an Africa to visit a mission. Due to the West Lafayette, Indiana, author’s efforts, a new generation can now be inspired by the life of Upper Iowa University’s first African-American student, Susan Angeline Collins.
Enrolling as the first Black student at Upper Iowa University (UIU) in 1876, Collins later became an entrepreneur in the Dakota Territory and served as the first African American female to serve at a Methodist Episcopal Church mission in Angola. An advocate of educational opportunities for African girls, she opened a school in north central Angola enabling some of them to find employment as teachers.
“Susan’s story offers encouragement and demonstrates what can happen when people are given the opportunity to thrive regardless of race, gender or creed,” Van Buren said. “I did not want Susan’s life to remain hidden in musty cupboards, filing cabinets or on the shelves of library archives. It was important to illustrate the ways in which she was a pioneer for women, and especially women of color.”
When starting her research, Van Buren expected to find little information about Collins and intended only to create a short essay. However, as the she learned more about her subject’s family of orientation, education and missionary work, the author’s curious nature was aroused and more questions were developed to which she wanted answers. Noting there are few stories about missionaries, and even fewer about female African American missionaries, and the influence they had on untold numbers of women and children, Van Buren felt it important to share the UIU alumna’s challenging life with a larger audience.
“As a young person, I dreamed of becoming a missionary, romanticizing their lives and travel opportunities,” the northeast Iowa native said. “The more I delved into Susan’s life experiences I realized how difficult the lives of missionaries actually were, and I now know that life wouldn’t have been for me. Learning about Susan’s aspirations, challenges and accomplishments provided me a deeper understanding of her dedication, not only to her own family but also to her extended family in Angola and throughout the Congo Delta region.”
Through the entire experience, Van Buren developed an awakened appreciation for Collins’ work and the more than two dozen missionaries from the Fayette United Methodist Church who previously or currently have been influenced by Susan’s legacy. So much so that the author is contemplating writing about another missionary with Fayette roots, Allie Bass.
“My level of appreciation for those who do historical research, and my ability to be more patient and persistent has increased,” Van Buren said. “Finding answers became an obsession and there are many questions concerning Susan that remain unanswered. I have included a list of those toward the end of the book. Perhaps some people who read it will share answers with me if they have them.”
Continuing to build on the legacy
With the publication of “Susan Angeline Collins: With a Hallelujah Heart,” Van Buren recently returned to where her research began at UIU’s Fayette Campus. As part of her Monday, September 20, visit, Van Buren presented a copy of the book to UIU and President William R. Duffy II. In addition to UIU faculty, staff and students in attendance were descendants of Julia Graham Stepp, who helped care for Collins during the last five years of her life.
“This book ensures that the legacy Susan began to develop while here at Fayette Campus, and the paths of success that have been enjoyed by everyone she influenced, will carry on,” Duffy said. “It took a lot of commitment, persistence and patience for Jan to get this story written, and she can be assured that as Upper Iowa University provides an ‘education built for life’ to all students, we will continue to build on Susan’s legacy.”
“I cherish the enthusiasm, interest and support Upper Iowa University and the entire Fayette area community have shown through the research, writing and publication of my book,” Van Buren earlier commented. “This long-term commitment to my efforts is heartwarming. Now that the book has been published, several people have told me their elders were friends of Susan or knew about her missionary work. This project has brought me a tremendous sense of accomplishment and joy because Susan remained a hidden figure in our history far too long.”
Published by Westbow Press, “Susan Angeline Collins: With a Hallelujah Heart” is available for purchase by visiting janisbenningtonvanburen.com or mailing a check in the amount of $30 to Janis B. Van Buren, 6146 Gallegos Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47906. Ten percent of book profits go to the Susan Angeline Collins Scholarship at UIU.