Princess Batoula?

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Indianapolis Recorder, 22 July 1939.

The Recorder was rather late to Harriett Mercer‘s remarkable story. A month earlier, the New York Daily News had cast Mercer as latter-day Cinderella in a piece whose mockery was only thinly veiled.

A few basics about Mercer: she was born in Wilson about 1913; lived in Philadelphia with her uncle and family; graduated Simon Gratz High School; briefly attended Cheyney State; worked as a teacher in a W.P.A. project; moved to New York after a layoff; and found work as a laundress. (Note that the African-American Recorder — choosing to focus on the uplifting aspects of Mercer’s life — omitted this last detail. The Daily News, on the other hand, blared it in its headline.)

New York Daily News, 27 June 1939.

There was, unfortunately, more.  Reportedly, a Pullman porter named Carson C. Rollins Jr. glanced at a newspaper on a train to find that his estranged wife, Harriett Mercer Rollins, was about to marry Prince Batoula of Senegal. Rollins claimed that the two had married in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1931 and separated ten months later when she walked out on him.

New York Daily News, 29 July 1939.

Things got worse.

Baltimore Afro-American, 22 July 1939.

Perhaps needless to say, Prince Batoula was no prince at all. But here’s what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had to say about him when he arrived in New York:


7 May 1939.

The New York Age, another African-American paper, ran a full article six days later. Batoula had arrived at the World’s Fair to find that he was not welcome in the best New York hotels and was forced to seek lodging in Harlem at the Braddock, which adjoined the Apollo Theater and catered mostly to the theatrical trade. In addition to touting his own religion, Batoula, a self-professed World War I hero, expressed in meeting Father Divine and Franklin D. Roosevelt and hoped to “make a tour of the Negro educational institutions of the South.”

In fact, per historian Katherine Keller, who is working on a scholarly treatment of his life, Prince Batoula was Mamadou Alioune Kane, a Senegalese immigrant to France who worked as a taxi driver and fruit seller in Paris before transforming himself into African royalty.

Prince Batoula, Pittsburgh Courier, 20 May 1939.

As for Harriett Mercer, there’s relatively little.

Pittsburgh Courier, 1 July 1939.

I have found no references to her birth family or life in North Carolina. Nor have I found her 1931 marriage license to Carson Rollins.

In the 1930 census of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: at 1910 North 21st Street, John Highsmith, 45, grocery store keeper; wife Katie, 42; uncle William Mercer, 18; nieces Cary, 14, and Harritt Mercer, 17; and roomers Winnie Robinson, 25, maid, and Elizabeth Cart, 35, cook, all born in North Carolina.

And here, the manifest for the ship that returned Harriett Mercer to New York.

She apparently made the best of her situation, spending six weeks in France. On 10 August 1939, she boarded the S.S. Champlain at Le Havre, bound for New York City. On 17 August, she was back at home.

New York New York Passenger and Crew Lists, 1909, 1925-1957, www. familysearch.org.

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