Unsung: Harriet Wilson

Aug 13, 2019

In 1859, a Mrs. H.E. Wilson published a novel at her own expense. The book told the story of a biracial girl named Frado who was abandoned by her mother to be raised by a prominent family in a New Hampshire town famous for its abolitionist activities.

The novel didn’t sell well - likely less than 100 copies - and the book as well as its author fell into obscurity.

“So in 2002, there was an article in our paper, 'Milford's forgotten daughter,' and that was the first reference I had ever seen in our town about Harriet Wilson, the first black woman to publish a novel in the world," said JerriAnne Boggis, executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. "And she was born here and lived here in Milford.”  

 

Boggis bought and read the book right away. She found the story fascinating. 

"[It was] a story that opened up a new way to view our town, a new way to view our state. That black people actually were born and raised here from the 1700s on, not just passing through on the way to Canada but were a vital part of our New Hampshire culture," explained Boggis.

Harriet Wilson had first come to light in the early 1980s when Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. rediscovered her novel, Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, and verified the identity of its author: a black woman. At the time, her novel was thought to be the work of a man, possibly a white man.

But that rediscovery was made in the 1980s and by the 2000s, few outside the scholarly community knew Harriet Wilson’s name. Even people in Milford, like Boggis. 

Wilson was born Harriet Adams in Milford in 1825. Her father was a free black man. Her mother’s identity isn’t certain but some believe she was a white woman from Portsmouth who moved to Milford. 

Wilson's father died when she was 7. Her mother remarried but sent Wilson to work as an indentured servant. She was 7 years old. 

We don’t know much about her life beyond what she wrote in her book. But documentary evidence has shown that many of the details of the book are literally true aside from the names. Wilson attended school for three summers and likely worked for a few other families. 

In 1851, she married Thomas Wilson. But he was a con man who abandoned her and their newborn son George a year later.

Left destitute by her husband, Wilson was forced to leave George at a poor farm while she earned money. It’s at this time that she starts writing.

“And at that time, the slave narratives were making former enslaved people wealthy," said Boggis. "The abolitionist movement really flourished with those books."

Wilson thought she could make a living off of her story and asked for people to rally around her so she could support her son George. 

But the novel, published by an abolitionist printer in Boston, was a hard sell. Her story wasn't one of overcoming adversity but one of struggle and racism.

A few months after the book’s publication, Wilson's son George, the reason for her book, died. It was his death that provided the proof of Wilson's race. Gates found his death certificate which lists his mother as a black woman. 

As far as we know, Wilson didn’t keep writing after her son’s death. She died in 1900.

So Wilson wouldn’t be forgotten again, Boggis formed the Harriet Wilson Project. In 2006, a statue of the writer was unveiled in a park in Milford.