Elizabeth Hart Thwaites (1772–1833) and Anne Hart Gilbert (1773–1833) were born in Antigua to free Black parents. They both embraced the Methodist religion at an early age and went on to become educators, authors, and abolitionists. They are considered to be the first published female Afro-Carribean authors.
Born into a slave holding family, their father Barry Conyers Hart was highly conflicted over slavery because he needed the labor to run his estate but was also a freed slave himself. He was extremely humane to his slaves. He often helped them with legal papers including manumission papers and free legal advice. He also allowed his daughters to teach the slaves to read and write.
Elizabeth married Charles Thwaites, a white school teacher, and Anne married John Gilbert, a white preacher. Antiguan society did not look upon interracial marriage favorably. Anne’s husband commented that white society would have preferred that he just seduced and ruined Anne rather than challenging society’s “Christian” values by respectfully marrying her and making her his legal wife. Part of the issue was that more and more slaves were being freed or earning their freedom. Interracial marriages and bi-racial children were complicating the status structure.
Both sisters used their writings and education to challenge the stereotypes of women, Blacks, and slaves. They believed that true Christianity should challenge the institution of slavery and mistreatment of women. They believed that it was a women’s right to pursue holy work and that through the Methodist teachings and by accepting Christianity that Black and slaves could become equal with whites in society. They promoted the radical idea that even slaves were capable of being educated and having intelligence.
Deeply committed to education, Elizabeth founded a private school in 1801. Together Elizabeth and Anne founded the first fully integrated Sunday School in the Caribbean in 1806. Anne held her meetings in the dark so that no one would be ashamed of their ragged clothing. In 1816, they founded the Female Refuge Society for women and orphans. Anne and Elizabeth worked to eliminate prostitution believing that it was holding back Black women from rising up in society.