Discussion focuses on Milford author of historic ‘Our Nig,’

MILFORD – David Palance hated his history classes when he was a kid, so it’s a little ironic he is now president of the Milford Historical Society.

As he grew older, he realized that history is fascinating, partly because it’s about human beings in all their complexity.

In school, history was about perfect people, he says, “and I don’t believe there are perfect people.”

That’s why he calls the historical society’s series of talks at the Union Coffee Company, “Frank History,” or “History You Didn’t Learn in School.”

On Thursday, May 18, the Frank History topic was black history, and it shows there was plenty of imperfection among our founding fathers.

Thomas Jefferson called the institution of slavery the “most depraved and greatest threat to the survival of the new nation,” Palance said, yet he owned slaves and wrote in favor of moderate punishment for misbehaving slaves.

Then there was George Washington. When first lady Martha Washington’s personal slave, Ona Judge, ran away, the first president organized a search to force her to come back.

Closer to home was Joshua Crosby, the “Father of Milford,” who brought with him to New Hampshire two children, “one white and one colored” and then sold the black boy when he was 5.

Palance’s guest for the evening presentation was JerriAnne Boggis, founder of the Harriet Wilson Project and director of the Portsmouth Black History Trail.

Wilson, born in Milford, is considered the first African-American female to publish a novel. The autobiographical “Our Nig” tells of her mistreatment by a Milford family for whom she worked as an indentured servant. Palance happens to live in that 18th-century house, which is near the Wilton border.

It was an obscure book until 1983, when scholars, including Henry Louis Gates, head of the Harvard black studies department, reintroduced it to the public. Then about 15 years ago, The Cabinet published a story about how the novel was studied all over the world but ignored in Milford.

“It happened right here,” Palance said. “She wanted people to know that ‘Slavery’s shadows fall even here.’ “

The title, “Our Nig,” was totally shocking, he said. It shows the author’s spunk and that she wasn’t afraid to call out hypocrisies in the abolitionist movement.

Frado, the title character in her novel, is brought each Sunday to the Milford Congregational Church, a center of the anti-slavery movement, but she wasn’t allowed to join the other worshipers inside.

And the Elm Street house of church pastor Henry Moore, Palance said, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. But “for all his abolitionist viewpoints, he still wouldn’t allow a mulatto girl in a church service,” Palance said.

Boggis talked about Wilson’s life after her period of indentured servitude ended when she was 18.

She started an apparently successful hair products business, joined the lecture circuit for the burgeoning spiritualist movement, opened her own school, became a nurse and married a man 20 years younger.

“She was self-made, and invented herself over and over to survive,” Boggis said.

When Wilson died, there was a notice in the newspaper on how to get to her funeral,“so she was a pretty big deal,” Boggis said.

New Hampshire has been proud of its anti-slavery past, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made every state part of the evil institution.

Milford “was kind of a Woodstock for abolitionists,” Palance said, “but if you had dark skin and someone was harboring you, they were consider to be possessing a stolen item.”

Wilson wrote about having to hide from slave catchers, Boggis said, and since she was never enslaved, she had no emancipation papers.

“In a state considered the whitest in the nation, these stories keep popping up,” Boggis said.

The event was sponsored by the Milford and Mont Vernon historical societies, the Union Coffee Company and Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area.

The Frank History series will take a summer hiatus, Palance said.

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