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.
Read an 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.
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.
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 monetary gain.
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 woman.
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 oral tradition.
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 whites.
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 religious ramifications.