19th-century Milford woman recognized for being 1st African-American to publish novel in US

Milford woman 1st African-American to publish novel in US

Photo by KATHY CLEVELAND JerriAnne Boggis, founder of the Harriet Wilson Project, is shown with the Harriet E. Wilson Memorial Chair. The chair was dedicated March 15 in Milford’s Wadleigh Memorial Library.

MILFORD – During her years working as an indentured servant, there must have been plenty of times when Harriet Wilson would have wanted to just sit down in a chair and rest.

Now, more than a century after her death, she has a chair worthy of her.

Wilson was the first African-American to publish a novel. Her “Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,” was published in Boston anonymously in 1859. It tells the story of a female indentured servant.

On Wilson’s birthday on March 15, a few dozen people, including Gov. Chris Sununu, gathered in the Wadleigh Memorial Library to honor the Milford native with the Harriet E. Wilson Memorial Chair.

In “Our Nig,” Wilson tells her own life experiences through the character of Frado, who is 6 years old when her mother abandons her with a family in Milford after the death of Frado’s father. The spirited girl is physically and mentally abused and overworked.

The autobiographical novel wasn’t widely known until 1982, when Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. documented

it as the first novel by an African-American published in the United States.

Although it became well known in academic circles, the book was locally obscure until 2002, when The Cabinet published a story about Wilson and her novel. The story spurred JerriAnne Boggis, of Milford, to start the Harriet Wilson Project, dedicated to raising awareness of the writer and her work.

Boggis is now director of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and working on the New Hampshire Black Heritage Trail. The house where Wilson lived and other black history sites in Milford will be part of it, and so will the statue of Wilson in Milford’s Bicentennial Park.

“Our Nig’s” subtitle is “Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There.” It takes place in the supposedly free North while slavery was still legal in the South.

Its picture of social injutices in New Hampshire “brings a broader perspective,” said Sununu, who urged better collaboration among all aspects of the state’s cultural life, including schools and libraries.

Michael York, acting commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources, told the crowd that Wilson needs more recognition and schools should start adding her book to their curriculum.

Wadleigh Director Betsy Solon called the chair “a great visual reminder to treat each other with civility and respect.”

Its place in the library will be near the fireplace, she said.

The colonial-style chair was commissioned by Dan and Renee Plummer, of Portsmouth, and handcrafted by Doug Dimes, of D.R. Dimes American Furniture in Northwood.

The Plummers’ real estate development company, Two International Group, is credited with the development of the Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.