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 abandoned by her mother to be raised by a prominent family where she suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hand of her employers 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, February 2002 there was an article in our paper a reporter wrote Milford’s forgotten daughter. And was the first reference I’d heard to Harriet Wilson. The first novel published by a black woman in the world. She was born here and lived here in Milford,” says JerriAnne Boggis, executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of NH.
“I was blown away so I went out and got the book right away and I read it and it was absolutely 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 were born and lived here from the 1700s on. Not just passing through on the way to Canada but were a vital part of our NH culture," explains JerriAnne.
Harriet Wilson had first come to light in the early 1980s when Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. had rediscovered the novel and verified the identity of its author: a black woman.
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 JerriAnne. She didn’t want Wilson’s name to disappear again so she formed the Harriet Wilson Project to celebrate and share her story.
Harriet 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.
Milford was, at the time, a stronghold of abolitionism. An abolitionist convention drew all of the big names - Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Hutchinson family singers, also from Milford.
Harriet’s father died when she was 7. Her mother remarried but abandoned Harriet to work for the Hayward family as an indentured servant. She was still only 7 years old.
We don’t know much about her life beyond what she wrote in her book. She attended school for three summers and likely worked for a few other families.
She eventually left Milford for a town that she refers to only as "W-" in her book. It's there, according to JerriAnne, that Harriet met two people who proved very influential in her life.
One shared his recipe for a hair care product. Harriet’s hair business is a more recent discovery about the novelist. She’s said to have gotten the recipe for restoring gray hair to its natural color from a friend. Ads for Mrs Wilson’s Hair Regenerator appeared as early as 1857.
The other influential person she met when she left New Hampshire was a woman who instilled a love of books and reading.
In 1851, she married Thomas Wilson. But he was a con man who abandoned her and their newborn son George a year later.
Harriet, often ill, and left destitute by her husband, had to leave George at a poor farm while she earned money selling hair products and maybe working as a dressmaker. It’s at this time that she starts writing.
Slave narratives, stories from escaped slaves, were becoming bestsellers and Harriet thought she could make a living off of her story.
Her book Our Nig; Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black tells the story of Frado, a young girl who is left by her mother to work for a local family known as the "B family." That family, particularly the mother and daughter, abuse Frado both verbally and physically. JerriAnne calls the book Frado's coming of age story.
"There's a passage in the book where Mrs B puts her out in the sun to make sure she's never mistaken for one of her children," says JerriAnne. "That tells us that she's biracial and light skinned, and that it was important that no one thought Frado was one of her kids."
The novel, published by an abolitionist printer in Boston, was a hard sell.
"Wilson's writing was contrary to what would have sold as a slave narrative because they wanted the overcoming story," says JerriAnne. "Wilson's book tore apart all of the treasured institutions of the day. Take motherhood - Mrs B, the protagonist, was an evil woman to her children. Motherhood took a blow. She called the church hypocrites. The abolitionist movement were hypocritical because here you are fighting for us but you won't have one of us to dinner in your home."
Documentary evidence has shown that many of the details of the book are literally true aside from the names.
A few months after the book’s publication, Harriet’s son George, the reason she wrote and published the book, died.
It was her son’s death that provided the proof of Harriet’s race. Gates found his death certificate, which lists his mother as a black woman.
As far as we know, Harriet didn’t keep writing after her son’s death. She did return to her hair care business. She also joined the lecture circuit and became deeply involved with the spiritualist movement. She died in 1900.
In 2006, the Harriet Wilson Project unveiled a statue of the writer. Sculptor Fern Cunningham, who’d previously done the Harriet Tubman memorial in Boston was commissioned for the work. But unlike Tubman, we don’t know what Wilson looked like.
The statue on a patch of lawn in Bicentennial park depicts Harriet holding her book. Her son George is just behind her in the folds of her dress.
JerriAnne has done much to change the story for Harriet Wilson. But Harriet has also changed JerriAnne and her relationship with New Hampshire.
"It really gave me a sense of belonging. Harriet's story is not my story. I'm not African American. I came to New Hampshire from Jamaica," explains JerriAnne. "But discovering that blacks were always a vital, integral part of New Hampshire's history created roots in a place that formerly had no roots for me. Once you feel like you belong in a place, you are invested in it's future."