Harriet E. Wilson: America's First Black Published Novelist

February 3, 2018



In honor of Black History Month, I want to talk about a very important and influential woman, that you may or may not have ever heard of, Harriet E. Wilson. Also known as "Hattie Wilson", America's first black published novelist. 


Born on March 15, 1825, in New Hampshire, Harriet Adams was a free negro, orphaned until the age of 18 where she found work to support herself, struggling to make a living. At the age of 26, she married Thomas Wilson, an escaped slave, who abandoned her about a year later, while she was carrying her first child. While pregnant, she fell ill and was sent to a poor farm where she delivered her son, George Mason Wilson. Her husband, Thomas, returned soon after, taking his wife and son away from the poor farm. He served as a sailor and after his death, Harriet, who was now a struggling widow took her son back to the poor farm until she had the means to provide for him again.  George died tragically at the age of 7 while she was living in Boston.


On August 18, 1859 Wilson wrote her first and only novel, an autobiography titled 'Our Nig'( Sketches from the Life of a Free Black). This was a year before her son's death, and she wrote this novel to raise money for him while he was sick. She copyrighted it,  and deposited a copy in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. On September 5, 1859, the novel was published anonymously by George C. Rand and Avery, a publishing firm located in Boston. 


From 1867 to 1897, Harriet was listed in the spiritualist newspaper 'Banner of Light' as a trance reader and lecturer. She was active in the local Spiritualist community, giving lectures. She spoke at camp meetings, in theaters, and in private homes throughout New England; she shared the podium with speakers such as Victoria Woodhull and Andrew Jackson Davis. In 1870 Wilson traveled to Chicago as a delegate to the American Association of Spiritualists convention. Wilson delivered lectures on labor reform, and children's education. Although there is no longer any written record of her speeches, newspaper reports imply that she often spoke about her life experiences, often providing humorous commentary. 


Harriet returned to Boston that same year, where she met a white man named John Gallatin Robinson who was 18 years younger than her, from Canada. They got married in September. They were together for 7 years before they separated, no records of a divorce were ever found.


On June 28, 1900, Harriet died in the Quincy Hospital in Massachusetts. She was buried in Mount Wollaston Cemetery.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Scholar rediscovered 'Our Nig' in 1982 and documented it as the first novel by an African American to be published in the United States. His discovery and the novel gained national attention. The Harriet Wilson Project of Milford, New Hampshire raised funds to commission and install the Harriet E. Wilson Memorial Statue, which was built in 2006 in Bicentennial Park in her honor.


I purchased a copy of her novel "Our Nig", and you can check out my review here!: https://www.chardypublications.com/single-post/2018/02/11/“Our-Nig”-Sketches-from-the-Life-of-a-Free-Black-REVIEW



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