Posted on 06/23/2012

Photo taken on June 1, 1900

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Harriet E Wilson
Born a free person of color.
Her life as an indentured servant
'Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
In A Two-Story White House North'
circa 1859

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Photo replaced on November  4, 2013
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Harriet E. Wilson --- The 1st Novelist?

Harriet E. Wilson --- The 1st Novelist?
The image above has been determined not to be Ms. Wilson though earlier publications said it was the famous novelist. However, I choose to use this beautiful woman's photo as a representative when talking about Ms. Wilson.

In 1859 her novel, 'Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story White House, North' was published. Its considered the first known novel published by a black woman in English and the earliest novel published in the United States by an African American.

Harriet E. Wilson (1825 - 1900), wrote "Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black," the earliest known novel by an African-American woman. It tells the story of Frado, a young biracial girl born in freedom in New Hampshire who becomes an indentured servant to a tyrannical and abusive white woman. In 1859, when the book was published, the abolitionist movement had created a vogue among Northern readers for autobiographies of escaped slaves, but Wilson's story of a free black abused by her Northern employer did not fit the established mold, and the novel soon fell into obscurity.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, found a copy of the novel in a used bookstore in the early 1980s and was intrigued by it. Among those specialists who were aware of the book, many doubted whether it was really the work of a black writer, but Gates wondered why anyone in 1859 would identify herself as black unless she were.

He started searching for evidence of Wilson's existence and eventually succeeded in documenting her life up to 1863. The facts he uncovered closely resembled the events in the life of the novel's protagonist. Gates, who published his findings in a 1983 edition of the novel, concluded that Wilson must have died around the time the historical trail went cold. Evidence has surfaced showing that Wilson survived almost another 40 years, demonstrating in other areas of endeavor the resilience and creativity that allowed her to try her hand at writing.

Now we can fill in the brushstrokes of Wilson's life and step back and appreciate the larger picture --- those brushstrokes were many and surprisingly varied. A single mother abandoned by her first husband, Wilson wrote her book, as she explains in an epilogue, to earn money to help support herself and her young son. Since the book seems to have sunk without a trace, the experiment must have failed. Moreover, a death certificate discovered by Gates shows that Wilson's son died soon after the book was published.

But Wilson soldiered on, working as a hairdresser and even marketing her own line of hair products. Gates described his excitement upon receiving as a gift from Foreman a small green bottle imprinted with the words, "Mrs. H. E. Wilson, hairdresser, Manchester, NH."

Other evidence shows that Wilson lived for many years in East Cambridge and Boston's South End, working as a trance medium and a spiritual healer. The Banner of Light, a spiritualist paper published in Boston, carried advertisements for her services, mentioning that she made house calls. Its speculated that Wilson may have drifted into the movement out of a desire to communicate with her dead child, the same motive that had driven Mary Todd Lincoln and many others.

Wilson was also active as a public speaker, lecturing on such subjects as labor reform, human brotherhood, and the threat of the "money power."

She died at the age of 75.

Boston sculptor Fern Cunningham, unveiled a life-sized bronze statue of Harriet Wilson that was erected in Bicentennial Park in Wilson's hometown of Milford, New Hampshire, on Nov 5, 2006. The sculpture was commissioned by the Harriet Wilson Project, making it the first statue in the state's history to honor a person of color.

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