Local roots connect Milford to major African-American history

“It can truthfully be said that in no town in New Hampshire were the seeds of opposition to the institution of African slavery earlier planted than in the town of Milford.”

So writes George Ramsdell in his “History of Milford, N.H.” In honor of Black History Month, I thought I would take the opportunity to devote this month’s column to Milford’s unique place in the abolitionist movement and the annals of African-American history.

First established in 1926 to celebrate the contributions and milestone achievements made by African-Americans, Black History Month was initially Negro History Week. During the nation’s bicentennial of 1976, it was broadened to a month. February was chosen in honor of the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

As many of us learned in grade school, Douglass was a former slave who had secretly learned to read and write before escaping to New Bedford, Mass. He became famous as an orator and journalist of the anti-slavery movement. A search in the Farmer’s Cabinet, precursor to today’s Milford Cabinet, shows that abolition was a regular topic of news from the late 1830s on.

Milford played host to a number of anti-slavery meetings and conventions, many held in Town Hall – now known as Eagle Hall – as early as 1838. A search on Douglass’ name alone yields several dozen hits including his attendance – along with several other famous abolitionists of the day – at an 1843 anti-slavery convention at Town Hall, as well as an announcement welcoming him to Milford in 1854 to deliver a lecture.

Douglass became close friends with the Hutchinson Family Singers, the world-traveling minstrels who made their home on North River Road in Milford. The quartet became one of the most famous entertainment acts of their time. They were highly controversial given the topics of their song lyrics: temperance, workers’ rights, women’s voting rights and abolition. The family is known to have traveled with Douglass to England to help deliver his message of tolerance. The Milford Historical Society has some of the family’s original instruments, as well as many other items, including photographs and broadsides. The library has several of the family’s original scrapbooks documenting their travels and performances through photographs, newspaper clippings and other ephemera.

At the same time, Milford was hosting conventions and drawing national leaders in the abolitionist movement, a young mulatto woman by the name of Harriet Wilson was making history of her own.

But first: It was only in 1982, not so long ago, that the renowned Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates revealed his discovery of the first known novel published by a black woman. The announcement was splashed everywhere from the pages of the New York Times to People Magazine to scholarly journals. It astonished researchers and the general public alike due to the fact that the novel was written and published by an African-American woman in 1859 – before the Civil War – then seemingly forgotten and lost to history until Gates stumbled upon it in a Manhattan used bookstore.

The autobiographical novel, “Our Nig; Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” has since been added to the literary and historical canons and is studied in classrooms around the world. What’s particularly special about Gates’ discovery is that “Our Nig’s” author, Harriet E. Wilson, is one of our own. She was born right here in Milford on March 15, 1825, to an African-American barrel-hooper named Joshua Green and Margaret Ann Adams Smith, an Irish-American washerwoman. Harriet’s father died when she was young and her mother, unable to support the family, abandoned her at the Milford farm of Nehemiah Hayward Jr. As was common at the time, Harriet, now an orphan, became an indentured servant for the Hayward family. It is these years spent as a servant for the Hayward family that are thought to be the premise of her autobiographical novel.

In 2003, the Harriet Wilson Project was founded to educate people on the significance of Wilson and her contribution to history and literature. The next year, Gates delivered a keynote address in Milford’s Town Hall, expounding on the novel and the author’s place in history. In 2006, a full-sized bronze statue of Wilson was dedicated. The Harriet E. Wilson Memorial is located off of South Street and is the first statue in New Hampshire history to honor a black person.

These are just a few teasers for the many ties Milford has to African-American history. Several historic Milford homes, for example, are known to have been stops along the Underground Railroad.

There are too many potential threads and not enough space in a newspaper column!

For more information about any of the above – or to read “Our Nig” – that milestone achievement in American literature, check out your favorite library to find books by and about Harriet Wilson, Frederick Douglass and the Hutchinson Family Singers. And to discover more about what was happening in Milford in the 1800s, see George Ramsdell’s “History of Milford,” but don’t forget America’s GenealogyBank. It’s one of the many research databases the library offers and among other things, features historical newspapers, including the Farmer’s Cabinet (1802-1879). It can be found on our website under the “Research” toolbar.

Michelle Sampson is the director of Wadleigh Memorial Library.