Frances Ellen Bradford, or “Auntie” Bradford as she was commonly known, was well known in Mansfield in the years after the Civil War. Very little is known about her early life, but according to her obituary in The Mansfield Shield & Banner on July 16. 1887, she was born in Texas on the plantation of Sam Houston, though this is unproven. “Although a slaveholder himself, Houston repeatedly voted against the spread of slavery to new territories of the United States. An ardent advocate of the Union, Houston was the only Southern governor to oppose secession in the lead-up to the Civil War. Over his opposition, a state convention voted on February 1, 1861 to secede by a margin of 168 to 8. When Houston refused a month later to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America, the Texas legislature deposed him and replaced him with the pro-Confederacy lieutenant governor.”[i] Her obituary continues saying her mother was a beautiful Creole woman and her that father had Indian blood in his veins.
Bradford left Texas and made her way to New York where she married her husband, a coachman, named John. They moved to Mansfield sometime after the death of their infant child. The first time Bradford can be placed in Mansfield is on April 17, 1864 when she became a member of the First Congregational Church in Mansfield. According to the churches website, “in 1833 Matthias Day felt compelled to leave the Presbyterian Church when he could no longer tolerate their support of slavery. He was joined by many Mansfielders, first meeting in an old warehouse. In 1835 the flock built their first Church and Parrish house, which served the congregation until it was destroyed by fire in 1870.”
“Auntie” Bradford was a caterer by trade and had a home on Marian Ave across the street from Carpenter School. She helped out in the church Sunday school primary room on Sunday mornings and had a love for the children of the city and often hosted parties for them. She was a firm believer in a good education for young people, especially those of the African-American community.
“Auntie” Bradford passed away from cancer on July 12, 1887. She was believed to be around 70 years old, although her exact age is unknown. Bradford left most of her $2,000 estate to the library of The First Congregational Church and the Sunday school library was named after her. $50 was also left to Daisy [Sarah] Barker on the condition that she finished her schooling. She did and collected her $50 upon graduation from high school.
“In 1942, fire would again strike, destroying the beautiful building which had served not only as First Congregational’s home, but also as a community center because of large seating capacity. Included in the destruction was the Auntie Bradford library. Her generosity was honored with the establishment of the Auntie Bradford Library within the new Church.”[ii]
It is also believed that Bradford was the inspiration for Louis Bromfield’s character of Aunty Walker in his novel The Farm. The character is described as an intelligent woman, who had a love for books, her church and children.
“Auntie” Bradford’s tombstone in Mansfield Cemetery simply reads “The Children’s Friend.”