A mulatta woman, former slave, and the novel’s protagonist. Iola’s
parents raised her as white, but she eventually embraces her black heritage and
later marries a mulatto man, Dr. Latimer. Even as a slave, Iola exhibits inner
strength and optimism. She exudes feminist qualities in her independent spirit
and her desire to work outside the home as a teacher, accountant, nurse, and
staunch advocate for racial equality.
in-depth analysis of Iola Leroy.
A physician in the Union hospital and Iola’s suitor. Dr. Gresham
embodies one of the novel’s main conflicts, that between professing beliefs and
living them through action. While he castigates slavery, advocates for blacks’
equal rights, and even vocally supports Dr. Latimer’s choice to publicly
proclaim himself black, Dr. Gresham, a white man, will marry Iola only if she
hides her identity as a mulatta woman and opts to pass as white.
in-depth analysis of Dr. Gresham.
A physician, firm proponent of equal rights, and Iola’s husband. Dr.
Latimer’s scholarly accomplishments challenge Dr. Latrobe’s beliefs that blacks
are intellectually inferior to whites. In dispelling Dr. Latrobe’s
misperceptions of blacks, the mulatto Dr. Latimer resists the racial stereotypes
rampant in the nineteenth century. Dr. Latimer is principled and committed to
uplifting the black race, and he encourages Iola to enlist her talents for the
same social cause.
in-depth analysis of Dr. Latimer.
Lieutenant in a black unit of the Union army, former slave, and
Iola’s long-lost uncle. Robert is literate, articulate, hard working, and
courageous. He rallies the slaves in their efforts to abandon the plantations,
owns a successful business, and quickly rises in the army’s ranks. Generous and
forgiving, Robert offers financial support to his former slave mistress after
the Civil War dismantles the slave system and her plantation, leaving her
destitute. Robert is also a mulatto who could pass as white.
Iola’s brother, Miss Delany’s fiancé, and a soldier in the Union
army’s black regimen. Harry initially wavers about his decision to pass as
black, unwilling to accept the decline in social status that accompanies such a
choice. At times portrayed as lacking confidence and appearing physically weak,
Harry’s resolve strengthens throughout the novel, and he becomes more assertive
and proud of identifying himself as black.
Iola and Harry’s mother, Eugene Leroy’s wife, and a former slave. As
a mulatta herself, Marie is conflicted over her husband’s refusal to inform
their children of their black heritage. The merciful and compassionate Marie
cares for her slave master during his illness and his spiritual decline. Overtly
maternal, Marie is dedicated to her children. She is also industrious and
employs her skills in the domestic arts to sustain herself financially.
Iola’s white father and a wealthy Southern plantation and slave
owner. Leroy leads a morally depraved and spiritually empty lifestyle fraught
with carousing and carelessness until he falls ill. Progressive in thought and
bold in his actions, Leroy marries a slave, Marie, at a time when southern
culture deemed him a social pariah for doing so. However, the cautious father
overprotects his children and hides their true identities from them.
A Confederate supporter, cousin to Eugene Leroy, and the novel’s
antagonist to Iola and her family. Alfred, corrupt and wicked, destroys the
Leroy family for a financial payoff. Lorraine objectifies women and commodifies
blacks. That is, he dehumanizes the race as mere property to be sold for
A slave on the Johnson plantation. Aunt Linda’s clairvoyant visions
reveal her strong faith, as she predicts the slaves’ freedom and ultimate
salvation. She also acts as a preacher of sorts who converses regularly with
other characters about leading a moral life, and she endorses pro-suffrage and
antislavery sentiment. Intelligent and worldly, the feminist Aunt Linda
establishes her own business and contributes her earnings toward purchasing a
home for herself and her husband.
Harry’s fiancée and a teacher and community leader. Miss Delany is a
college-educated black woman who represents a model for the race, as she devotes
her time to intellectual pursuits and teaching women. Strong-willed and
opinionated, yet fraught with feminine decorum, Miss Delany freely expresses her
views about racial uplift even among a group of men. Harper emphasizes that Miss
Delany is not a mulatta and praises Harry’s marriage to this successful black
A resourceful, high-spirited, intelligent slave. Tom joins the Union
army with Robert Johnson. Remarkably selfless, Tom functions as a Christ figure
who orchestrates Iola’s rescue from an abusive slave owner and sacrifices his
life to save his fellow soldiers. Tom’s character attests to slaves’ innate
intelligence despite their masters’ rejection of a formal education for them.
Aunt Katie’s husband, loyal slave to his master, and storyteller.
Uncle Daniel leads prayer meetings and shares stories with the slaves,
particularly his personal slave narrative. His character is a vehicle for the
A southern colleague of Dr. Latimer and Dr. Gresham with racist
attitudes about blacks.
Uncle Daniel’s wife and a slave on the Gundover plantation. The
benevolent Aunt Katie represents Christian forgiveness, as she does not seek
retribution against her former owners who sequestered her from her husband and
who physically assaulted her.
Aunt Katie’s slave owner. Master Gundover embodies the hypocrisy of
Christian believers who own, and therefore dehumanize, slaves.
Uncle Daniel’s slave owner. Master Thurston entrusts Uncle Daniel
with guarding his money while he fights in the Confederate army, and he
exemplifies the slave owner who, though kind, still suppresses and brutalizes
blacks because he embraces the institution of slavery.
Robert Johnson’s slave owner. While Mrs. Johnson teaches Robert to
read and treats him fairly kindly, she does believe that Robert is unequal to
A former slave and Robert and Marie’s mother. Harriet reunites with
her son and daughter after nearly thirty years of separation.
An attorney hired by Alfred Lorraine. Despite his scruples about the
institution of slavery, Louis nonetheless deceitfully kidnaps Iola and delivers
her into the hands of Lorraine, ostensibly setting in motion her inevitable sale
at the slave auction block.
A Union army leader and friend to Robert. Captain Sybil frequently
engages Robert in heavy discussions about slavery and its political, social, and