American Daughters by Piper Huguley: Bringing People Together Through Historical Fiction


When Piper Huguley — author of the acclaimed novel By Her Own Design: A Novel of Ann Lowe, Fashion Designer to the Social Register (William Morrow, 2022) about the African-American woman who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress — visited book clubs, she noticed how segregated they are. As a literary scholar, she also noticed how white women wrote about interracial friendship far more frequently than Black women. When Black women did write about the subject, it was often with another white author.

So when she discovered a connection between Alice Roosevelt Longworth, eldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, and Portia Washington Pittman, eldest daughter of Booker T. Washington, in sparse mentions within their biographies, she decided to explore the tension within their friendship as well as the ways in which they could bond and lean on one another.

From that discovery and exploration came her most recent novel, American Daughters (William Morrow, 2024) a riveting story of two famous daughters and how their lives intertwine as they pursue their dreams, struggle in their marriages, bear children, and manage to leave a mark on a society where they have little power.

“These two women had so much in common: loss of their mothers at incredibly early ages, statesmen fathers who were distant, stepmothers who resented them, huge eldest daughter energy and the expectation to find husbands who were also great,” she said. “Their commonality showed me how people can come together in spite of differences.”

As the daughter of the most prominent African American man in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Portia’s life was well documented. Huguley noted that biographies of Portia and letters belonging to her father gave her insight into Portia’s early years.

“Her birth was documented, an unusual occurrence in the Jim Crow South of 1883 because even though Booker T. Washington was not nationally prominent at that point, he still, as an educator and head of Tuskegee, was an individual whose moves were being watched by the establishment,” Huguley said.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s unconventional life has also been well documented, but Huguley said she was more interested in “getting to the ‘why’ of the nonconformities of her behavior instead of just marveling at how outrageous she was.”

author Piper Huguley

These two women meet after Theodore Roosevelt has invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House and ignited an uproar among the public. In order to quell the anger of his white constituents, Roosevelt makes a point of snubbing Washington the next time they are in public, which is when the book opens. While the president is ignoring one of the most important men in the country because of the color of his skin, Alice has invited Washington’s daughter into her private quarters where Portia plays the piano for her and a friendship is born — in spite of Alice’s clueless racial assumptions.

“We don’t focus enough on women’s friendships in fiction. Their unexplored bond, for me, made for a natural story in historical fiction to show how women can be supportive of one another,” Huguley said.

While the lives of the two women are the central focus of the story, they are deeply influenced by their connection to two great institutions: Portia by growing up in the environs of Tuskegee University, an important historical Black University (HBCU), and Alice by coming of age in the White House.

Portia must be cautious of her father’s reputation and the needs of Tuskegee, so she carefully navigates her connection with the impulsive Alice. Alice has to learn that the strictures affecting Portia will affect their relationship as well.

“Booker T. Washington was an extremely important figure in U.S. history who has not been examined much in fiction,” Huguley said. “I think for a long time, there was a certain amount of shame about his view about what Black people should and should not do, but in some respects, some of what he has said about the role of Black labor in this country has borne out to be the truth.”

Huguley has taught at HBCUs herself and has studied and written extensively about HBCU history in her fiction.

“The legacy that Washington leaves behind is how he proved that even in a time of repression, as he endured in the post-Reconstruction south, Black people can still be creative and resilient. Tuskegee as well as the approximately one hundred other HBCU schools stand as a testament to the ways Black people can respond to repression,” she said.

Because of her father’s forward thinking, Portia has the opportunity to study music in Germany where she experiences life relatively free of the racism endemic in the United States. Her love of music and her deep sense of herself as worthy of respect enable her to spread the gift of music when she returns in spite of her marriage to a resentful man who had been emasculated by racism. Music provides her a way through the difficulties of her marriage and into a fulfilling life.

Growing up in a musical family, Huguley said she was brought up to appreciate the history of Black classical musicians in the United States.

“I noticed how Booker T. Washington allowed his oldest child to go to Germany and study music. He knew that by allowing Portia Washington to have that training others would follow her, like Marion Anderson, Madame Mary Caldwell Dawson, Grace Bumbry, Jesse Norman, Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves and down to the young ones today like J’Nai Bridges,” Huguley said.

“Even though Portia did not pursue a musical career, her willingness to be trained and to pursue music education influenced many in ways that have not been appreciated.”

Alice had her own way of influencing events, mainly through back-room politics.

“I always wish she had gone the next natural step and used her celebrity and nepotism to forward the cause for women more directly,” Huguley said. “However, I’m fully aware that is a 21st century perspective of how politics work, but at least there were contemporary men who could look at her, listen to her ideas, and believe women were capable of so much more.”

In her author’s note, Huguley states that she hopes connections such as those between Portia and Alice may remind us of the importance of looking for what we have in common “instead of keeping our relentless focus on how we differ.”

“Exposure to different ideas and ways of looking at the world is what we need right now, and I am hopeful that Portia and Alice’s friendship can spark discussions in that direction. We have to start somewhere,” she said. “Historical fiction can play an important role in bringing people together.”


About the contributor: Author of the Delafield & Malloy Investigations series, the historical coming-of-age novel, Cinnamon Girl (Livingston Press, Sept. 2023), and more, Trish MacEnulty is currently working on a play about silent film star, Theda Bara. More info at her website.


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