Milford woman receives Martin Luther King award JerriAnne Boggis brought attention to African-American author

MILFORD – JerriAnne Boggis, the woman responsible for spreading the word about Milford’s Harriet Wilson, received the 2015 Martin Luther King Award on Monday.

Harriet Wilson was the 19th-century author considered to be the first black woman to publish a novel in this country, and her book, “Our Nig,” is also the first novel in English to be published by a black woman.

The award was presented by the Martin Luther King Coalition at its 33rd annual Martin Luther King Community Celebration at Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Manchester.

The coalition presents the award each year to a New Hampshire resident whose community work brings the spirit of King to life.

Boggis started the Harriet Wilson Project in 2003 after The Cabinet reported that Wilson, who has long been famous in literary and academic circles, was not so familiar around here.

Written in the 1850s, Wilson’s autobiographical novel is called “Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,” and tells the story of her life in Milford.

The theme of the Coalition’s 2015 celebration is “The time is always right to do what’s right,” a quotation from a speech King delivered at Oberlin College in 1964.

Twelve years ago Boggis knew the time was right to bring attention to Wilson, and she did that by organizing the Harriet Wilson Project and spreading news about the remarkable achievement of a woman who was abandoned by her mother, desperately poor, and abused by her white employer.

In the early 1980s, Harvard black history professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. rescued the book from obscurity and helped make it a literary landmark.

But in Milford, where Wilson was born and lived for much of her adult life, she had been virtually unknown.

Black history trail

Thanks to the Harriet Wilson Project, local schools now have “Our Nig” on their reading lists, teachers across the state are aware of the novel, and Boggis knows that some teachers are teaching it. The next goal is to develop a curriculum.

In 2006, a statue of Wilson was unveiled at Bicentennial Park, overlooking Railroad Pond. Wilson’s son is part of the full-sized statue because she wrote the book to help support him, though the young boy died shortly after its publication.

Boggis said in a phone interview that the monument is especially important because it “creates space that is visible and permanent.”

There is also a Milford Black History Trail, part of a statewide trail, developed by the Harriet Wilson project, with 15 sites that will eventually be marked.

There needs to be continuous reminders, Boggis said, because “it would be easy for us to forget.”

The Coalition was also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and Gov. Maggie Hassan, the first speaker, called the federal law “essential to our democracy,” and inclusion is part of New Hampshire’s heritage.

“We are imperfect but we continue to make progress, that is the message of Dr. King” that we build on, she said.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Hedrick Smith earned a standing ovation after a speech in which he described being “just a reporter on the sidelines,” during the 1960s in the South, including the morning after the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

This was a time people put themselves on the line,” he said. “What was going on then, and what does it tell us about what we should be doing?

“People of good will in the South were sitting on the fence. (Martin Luther King Jr.) marched and got arrested,” a message to moderates that their inaction was holding back the cause.

The achievements of the women’s movement and the consumer movement also demanded that people have the courage to protest and work for change, he said.

Labor unions were responsible for the five-day work week and overtime. “We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t recognize where these good things came from,” he said.

After the April 1970 Earth Day demonstrations when 20 million American people “got off their duffs” and protested the destruction of the environment by major corporations, he said, “Congress passed seven major pieces of legislation,” including the Clean Water Act.

“Citizen action in America can work. Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said, calling for people to demand reform of income inequality and work to raise the minimum wage and cut the cost of college.

Apple CEO Tim Cook makes thousands more than the average worker, meaning that his company is “centuries out of date and stuck in a slave ethos,” he said.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or