Early Novel Written By Free Black Woman Called Out Racism Among Abolitionists In 1859, Harriet E. Wilson published a book about life as an indentured servant in New Hampshire. It remains an obscure classic because it challenges white ideals about racism in the North.
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Early Novel Written By Free Black Woman Called Out Racism Among Abolitionists

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Early Novel Written By Free Black Woman Called Out Racism Among Abolitionists

Early Novel Written By Free Black Woman Called Out Racism Among Abolitionists

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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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