History Exhibition!

HARRIET E. WILSON – 1825-1900: earliest known African American novelist, AND HER WORK STILL PACKS A PUNCH!

Statue of Harriet E. Wilson, Milford, NH

March 15th is the birthday of Harriet E. Wilson (1825-1900) of Milford, New Hampshire, born a nominally “free” laboring class African American woman.

In 1859, Harriet Wilson, in an open and honest attempt to supplement her meager income, completed the now famous novel “Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black In a Two-Story White House, North Showing that Slavery’s Shadow Falls even there”.

She got it copyrighted by the US District Court of Massachusetts in August, and published in print by George C. Rand and Avery in September. It is the oldest known printed novel to have been published by an Afrikan author (of any gender) in North Amerika.

This novel was widely believed to have been written by a white person until 1982, when exhaustive irrefutable evidence was compiled and presented to prove the authenticity of Wilson’s authorship.

The novel is still highly controversial today, especially to northern liberals, because it raises critical questions about how different from slavery the life of a “free” Black laborer in the Amerikan North actually was during the lifetime of its author.

The novel begins with the following words:


IN offering to the public the following pages, the writer confesses her inability to minister to the refined and cultivated, the pleasure supplied by abler pens. It is not for such these crude narrations appear. Deserted by kindred, disabled by failing health, I am forced to some experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life. I would not from these motives even palliate slavery at the South, by disclosures of its appurtenances North. My mistress was wholly imbued with SOUTHERN principles. I do not pretend to divulge every transaction in my own life, which the unprejudiced would declare unfavorable in comparison with treatment of legal bondmen; I have purposely omitted what would most provoke shame in our good anti-slavery friends at home.

My humble position and frank confession of errors will, I hope, shield me from severe criticism. Indeed, defects are so apparent it requires no skilful hand to expose them.

I sincerely appeal to my colored brethren universally for patronage, hoping they will not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite, but rally around me a faithful band of supporters and defenders.”

The novel is in the public domain, so the rest of it can be read for free here.

It can also be heard read aloud as a free audiobook here.

The AAHM&CC encourages you to read or listen to it.