Harriet E Adams Wilson 1825 – 1900 is traditionally considered the first female African American novelist as well as the first African American of any gender to publish a novel on the North American continent.
Harriet E Wilson was also a spiritualist medium and a lecturer on spiritualism, education, and other reform issues. Harriet E Wilson was a healer who favored homeopathic care.
Harriet E. Wilson was born in 1825 in Milford, New Hampshire, an abolitionist stronghold. Her father died when she was young. Her mother then abandoned her at the home of the Haywards, a local family. The young black girl was badly abused in this household where she lived and worked for years as an indentured servant.
Her 1859 book, Our Nig, draws on those experiences. She was thought to have disappeared from the historical record not long after Our Nig‘s publication. In fact, she lived for almost forty more years.
Known as Hattie E Wilson, she found success as an entrepreneur; a popular lecturer on spiritualism, education, and other reform issues; and a healer who favored homeopathic care.
She was married twice, in 1851 to Thomas Wilson (who died at sea in 1853), then in 1870 to John Gallatin Robinson, and had one son, George, who died in 1860 when he was eight. Harriet E Wilson died in 1900 in Quincy, Massachusetts…
Wilson’s autobiographical novel Our Nig was published in 1859. Our Nig illustrates the injustice of indentured servitude in the antebellum northern United States. The novel fell into obscurity soon after its publication. In 1982, it achieved national attention when it was rediscovered by professor Henry Louis Gates Junior….
Harriet “Hattie” E Adams Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire, the daughter of Joshua Green, an African American “hooper of barrels”, and Margaret Ann (or Adams) Smith, a washerwoman of Irish ancestry. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother abandoned her at the farm of Nehemiah Hayward Junior, a well to do Milford farmer.
As an orphan, Adams was made an indentured servant to the Hayward family, a customary way for society to arrange support at the time. In exchange for her labor, the child would receive room, board and training in life skills, or that was the ideal.
Documentary research undertaken by P Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H Pitts convinced them that the Hayward family were the basis of the “Bellmont” family depicted in Our Nig. (This was the family who held the young “Frado” in indentured servitude, abusing her physically and mentally from the age of six to eighteen. Their material was incorporated in supporting sections of the 2004 edition of Our Nig.)
After the end of her indenture, Hattie Adams (as she was then known), worked as a house servant and a seamstress in households in southern New Hampshire and in central and western Massachusetts.
She married Thomas Wilson in Milford on October 6, 1851. Thomas Wilson had been traveling around New England giving lectures based on his life as an escaped slave, when he met Hattie Adams. Although he continued to periodically lecture in churches and town squares, he soon confided to her that he was never in bondage (“he had never seen the South”) and that his “illiterate harangues were humbugs for hungry abolitionists” (these quotes are from page 68 of Our Nig.)
Wilson abandoned Harriet soon after they married. Pregnant and ill, Harriet Wilson was sent to the Hillsborough County Poor Farm in Goffstown, New Hampshire, where her only son, George Mason Wilson, was born. His probable birth date was June 15, 1852. Soon after George’s birth, Thomas Wilson reappeared in her life and took her and her son away from the Poor Farm. Thomas Wilson returned to sea and died soon after. Harriet Wilson returned her son to the care of the Poor Farm.
She then moved to Boston, Massachusetts to seek a living for herself and her son. While in Boston, Harriet Wilson wrote Our Nig. On August 18, 1859, she copyrighted it, and a copy of the novel was deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the US District Court of Massachusetts. On September 5, 1859, the novel was published by George C Rand and Avery, a publishing firm in Boston.
On February 16, 1860, her son George died in Milford at the Poor Farm, at the age of seven. In 1863, Harriet Wilson appeared on the “Report of the Overseers of the Poor” for the town of Milford.
After 1863, Harriet Wilson’s whereabouts were unknown until 1867, when she was listed in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light as living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. She subsequently moved across the Charles River to the city of Boston where she became known in Spiritualist circles as “the colored medium.”
On September 29, 1870, Harriet Wilson married John Gallatin Robinson in Boston, Massachusetts. Robinson, an apothecary, was a native of Canada, having been born in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Robinson was of English and German ancestry; he was also almost eighteen years Harriet Wilson’s junior. They resided at 46 Carver Street between 1870 and 1877 when they appear to have separated. City directories after that date show both Wilson and Robinson in separate lodgings in Boston’s South End. No record has been found of a divorce, but divorces were infrequent.
From 1867 to 1897, Mrs. Hattie E Wilson was listed in the Banner of Light as a trance reader and lecturer. She was active in the local Spiritualist community, and she would give “lectures”, either while entranced, or speaking normally, wherever she was wanted. She spoke at camp meetings, in theaters, and in private homes throughout New England; she shared the podium with such stalwarts as Victoria Woodhull and Andrew Jackson Davis. She traveled as far as Chicago as a delegate to the American Association of Spiritualists convention in 1870.
Mrs. Wilson delivered lectures on labor reform, and children’s education; although the texts of her talks have not survived, newspaper reports imply that she often spoke about her life experiences, providing sometimes trenchant and often humorous commentary.
Closer to home, Hattie Wilson was active in the organization and maintenance of Children’s Progressive Lyceums, the Spiritualist church equivalent to Sunday Schools; she organized Christmas celebrations; she participated in skits and playlets; at meetings she sometime sang as part of a quartet; she was also known for her floral centerpieces and the candies and confectioneries she would make for the children were long remembered.
When she was not pursuing Spiritualistic activities, Hattie Wilson was employed as a nurse and healer (“clairvoyant physician”). For nearly 20 years from 1879 to 1897, she was the housekeeper of a boardinghouse in a two story dwelling at 15 Village Street (near the present corner of Dover [now East Berkeley Street] and Tremont Streets in the South End.) She rented out rooms, collected rents and provided basic maintenance.
Despite Wilson’s active and fruitful life after Our Nig, there is no evidence that she ever wrote anything else for publication.
On June 28, 1900, “Hattie E. Wilson” died in the Quincy Hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was buried in the Cobb family plot in that town’s Mount Wollaston Cemetery. Her plot number is listed as 1337, “old section.”
At Wilson’s death, her estranged husband Robinson, describing himself as a “capitalist”, was living in the town of Pembroke, Massachusetts with a twenty four year old woman named Izah Nellie Moore. Two years later they married.
The Harriet Wilson Project of Milford has raised funds to place the Harriet E Wilson Memorial Statue in the town’s Bicentennial Park. It was unveiled November 4, 2006.
Harriet E Wilson’s book is dedicated to Paula Augusta Coleman Gates and Henry Louis Gates Senior (see also Henry Louis Gates Junior), and it was written in memory of Marguerite Elizabeth Howard Coleman and Gertrude Helen Redman Gates.