Editor's note: This report contains a racial slur.
Here's one thing historians know to be true about Harriet Wilson: Some indomitable part of her spirit allowed her to survive a life on the margins of American society.
In 1859, Wilson published a book that she gave a provocative title: Our Nig. That name is a derivative of a racist nickname given to the book's protagonist, a little girl of mixed race who grows up as an indentured servant to a white family. The girl is tortured by the family matriarch, beaten and forced to sleep in a frigid crawl space. Even the kindest members of the family call her "nig."
"Some of the things she wrote in her book were shocking," says JerriAnne Boggis, founder and director of The Harriet Wilson Project. "But it's not any more shocking than anything that you didn't know about slavery. It was shocking that it happened in the North because that's not our story. Our story is the abolitionist movement."
Wilson's book called out racism among abolitionists in the North. It's also emblematic of how important pieces of African American history can be forgotten — and then rediscovered.
In the novel, Wilson did not say much about the story's setting or about herself. But Our Nig's long subtitle gave clues historians would later pick apart: "Sketches from the Life of a Free Black in a Two-Story White House, North; Showing That Slavery's Shadow Falls Even There."
"A period of harsh indenture"
Wilson's book never sold well in the 1800s, and it disappeared for more than 100 years. Then in the 1980s, her story intersected with a historian who was destined to become one of America's most famous storytellers: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Gates is now the host of Finding Your Roots on PBS and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. But in the early 1980s, he had just finished his doctoral dissertation and was wandering the aisles of a rare-book store in New York City. He saw a title that jumped off the shelf.
"I thought, 'This woman has spirit,' " says Gates. "She used the N-word in the title."
"When I read the preface," Gates continues, "the woman said that she was black and that she was writing this book because she was in such dire straits that she had had to put her son into a foster home. She was hoping that her colored brethren would rally around her universally to purchase this book."
Gates dove into historical archives looking for a Harriet E. Wilson, and discovered one born to a white mother and black father in Milford, N.H., in 1825. Among the facts Gates discovered about Wilson that corroborated details from the novel were that she had a child in a poorhouse at the time she wrote the story. Sadly, Gates learned, her son passed away shortly after she published her book.
Wilson would likely have been familiar with slave narratives — books such as Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup — which were popular at the time among Northern abolitionists. Ironically, Milford, N.H., was also a hotbed of abolitionist activity. At the time that Wilson was surviving what Gates describes as "what we could only call a period of harsh indenture," just up the road lived some of the most prominent abolitionist families of the mid-1800s.
"[Wilson's] teaching us in a spiritual way," says Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, "about the paucity of substance in people who claim to see your suffering, but then they do absolutely nothing. And that is so American in so many ways."
"Oh my God, that's me"
Since Gate's rediscovery of Our Nig, the book has been republished three times. Each edition contains new details uncovered by historians about Wilson's life — details that further suggest the harsh story she wrote was in fact her own experience as a black woman in Milford, N.H.
It seems likely that Wilson was the little girl in her book who was so terribly mistreated. She hinted as much in the book; in the earliest pages, she writes in the first person before pivoting to the third person.
Of all the discoveries about Wilson's life, JerriAnne Boggis may have made the most extraordinary one. Boggis found the house where Wilson grew up — the house where she was likely indentured to a white family.
Boggis didn't read Our Nig until 2002. When she did, she felt like Wilson had written the book just for her.
"I really empathized with that sense of isolation, being a black woman in Milford," Boggis says. "That really was like, 'Oh my God, that's me.' "
Boggis began to study the text of Our Nig. She searched Milford for homes that matched descriptions from the book. Eventually, she found a match. It's now owned by a family, whom Boggis has befriended, and working with them, she has located the crawl space where Wilson likely slept as a child.
"That is the story of black history in the country," Boggis says. "You have to keep telling it, keep telling it, keep telling it, reviving it. Or else it disappears."
Our Nig inspired Boggis to learn more about black history in New England. Now, she's the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. She has also done her part to honor her town's forgotten literary hero, including erecting a monument in Wilson's honor.
In that statue, Wilson stands with her book in one hand, and she protects her son with her other hand. Her back is to a historical church — a church where abolitionists prayed and a church that did not allow her to enter because of her skin color.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In 1859, a woman named Harriet Wilson published a provocative novel, a book that called out racism among abolitionists in the North. Today, her story is emblematic of how important pieces of African American history can be forgotten and then rediscovered. New Hampshire Public Radio's Jack Rodolico has the story. But before you listen, a warning - this report includes the book's title, which uses an offensive slur.
JACK RODOLICO, BYLINE: Here's one thing historians agree on about Harriet Wilson. Some indomitable part of her spirit allowed her to survive a life on the margins.
This is the house.
JERRIANNE BOGGIS: This is the house.
RODOLICO: What's known about Wilson's story starts here in this house in southern New Hampshire. A local activist named JerriAnne Boggis brought me to see it. Wilson was mixed race, and she grew up in this house, which was owned by a white family she was not related to. David Palance lives here now with his family.
DAVID PALANCE: This is the room where we believe she had her bed.
RODOLICO: That doesn't look like a room. It looks like maybe an attic.
PALANCE: It's an attic, but those are...
BOGGIS: That's the space. But that's what it says in the book. Where will she sleep? In the crawl space.
RODOLICO: And when she left this house at the age of 18, Harriet Wilson was on her own. She was poor and in poor health. And she needed to make a living. So she wrote a book. Historians don't know much about Wilson's childhood, but many believe she wrote her novel directly from her own experience. Wilson's book is about a little girl born to a black father and white mother who is abandoned at the doorstep of a white family. The little girl is an indentured servant until the age of 18. The family physically and verbally abuses her.
When Wilson published her book just before the Civil War, she gave it a provocative title. She called it "Our Nig." That title is the nickname the family gives the little girl in the novel. The book did not sell many copies. It disappeared for more than 100 years. And then in the early 1980s, a historian walked into an old bookstore and saw a title that jumped off the shelf.
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR: I thought, this woman has spirit - that she used the N-word in the title.
RODOLICO: Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an acclaimed Harvard historian, and he's best known as the host of "Finding Your Roots" on PBS. And he's the one who rediscovered Wilson's book in that old bookstore. Gates started researching the author. He connected her name with a Harriet E. Wilson in Milford, N.H. Gates says at the time Wilson's book was first published, slave narratives, books like "Twelve Years A Slave" by Solomon Northup, were popular, especially among northern abolitionists. Wilson's book was similar to those stories, with a big exception. Her story wasn't set in the South.
GATES: What's still confusing to many people, even some of our most distinguished historians is that it was entirely possible to be an ardent and passionate foe of slavery and still be wittingly or unwittingly racist.
RODOLICO: Gates got Wilson's book republished in 1983, and it had a cultural moment. Alice Walker had just become the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Color Purple." She wrote a blurb for the dust jacket of Wilson's book. And today, Alice Walker says Wilson's book is as relevant as ever.
ALICE WALKER: She's also teaching us in a spiritual way about the paucity of substance in people who claim to see her suffering, but then they do absolutely nothing. And that is so American in so many ways.
RODOLICO: And that Wilson's story was uniquely American, that's something that drew JerriAnne Boggis to the book. She's the activist who showed me the house in Milford, N.H. Boggis lives in Milford. And as a black woman living in this mostly white town, a part of her felt like Wilson had written the book just for her.
BOGGIS: I really empathized with that sense of isolation. Being Jamaican, being a black woman in Milford, that - you know, that really was like, oh, my God, that's me.
RODOLICO: She says her sons used to come home from school having been called a gang by a teacher or the N-word by a classmate. Harriet Wilson's book inspired her. When the book first landed in her lap, she was a stay-at-home mom. Now, she's the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire and the founder of the Harriet Wilson Project. Her activism focuses on highlighting stories of black history in the state.
BOGGIS: This park was overgrown and not in use, and this was one that they offered to us to have the statue.
RODOLICO: The town of Milford let JerriAnne Boggis erect a monument to Harriet Wilson. It's next to a historic church, a church where abolitionists once worshipped, a church that did not allow Wilson inside to pray.
BOGGIS: These are moments when you do the right thing. You know, you honor somebody who's done something, you know? And she's not - no longer invisible. Her story may not be - we're not quite where we want to be yet, but it's a beginning. It's a beginning.
RODOLICO: And that, says JerriAnne Boggis, is the story of black history, that if you don't shine a light on a book like the one Harriet Wilson wrote, it will be forgotten.
For NPR News, I'm Jack Rodolico in Milford, N.H.
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