Storytellers: Harriet Wilson

Gail Hoar, Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area

Harriet Wilson, born in Milford, New Hampshire in 1825 to an Afro-American father and white mother, was just such a person: a storyteller who through her autobiography, became the first published Afro-American author. She narrated her own history in her book Our Nig or Sketches of a Free Black published in 1859 with the hope of earning enough money to keep her and her son, George, alive. After it was published, thought originally to be the work of a white author, it became a controversial story told with an emotional and narrative power that was deemed “unsettling” to many who read it. It wasn’t just read in the United States, but had an international following as well.

What the book reveals is Wilson’s tenacity and drive to survive in spite of the odds. Between the ages of five and six, Harriet was abandoned by her mother and began serving as an indentured servant. She was able to attend school three months each year between 1832 and 1834 in Milford, NH. By the time she reached eighteen, she had taken on several other jobs serving local families, but her health began to fail between 1846 and 1850, when she was listed as a town pauper. In 1851 Harriet married Thomas Wilson in Milford, and by 1852 their son, George, was born at the Hillsborough County Poor Farm, where they were living. Just prior to this, Harriet had a small success when she published her poem, Fading Away, in the local Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper (The Harriet Wilson Project).

Christine Muriithi, Student, Fitchburg State University

Harriet Wilson’s monument is erected in Milford, NH. It is a way of honouring her accomplishment as a woman. This monument is important because it symbolizes the struggles of women to tell their own stories. As a female novelist, Harriet found herself in a world dominated by male novelists. When she published her fictional biography highlighting the experiences of free Blacks, she became the first woman to be an author of a novel, and go on and publish it (Logan 21). The monument tells the story of a strong Black woman who worked hard to provide for her own child. After her separation from her husband, she was left with their child to take care of. She worked as house help and other jobs to ensure her child was fed, had clothes, and went to school. Even though she later took the child to foster care, she did her part as a mother and went against the established patriarchal system to write history from the perspective of a woman. With many of the novelists and authors male at the time, African-American experiences were usually told from the perspective of men, which marginalized women.

Also, Harriet was born in Milford. In this regard, this monument is important for the people of Milford and the whole of America because of how Harriet fought against all odds to bring women into the literary space. She made women recognized and their experiences understood by writing her fictional biography. Therefore, Harriet’s monument is an important part of America’s history.

Araújo, Eliza de Souza Silva, and Liane Schneider. “Our Nig, by Harriet E. Wilson: Frado and the characterization of oppression.” Caderno Espaço Feminino, vol. 29, no. 1, 2016.

The Black Past, 2020.

The Harriet Wilson Project. 

Logan, April Catrina. Theorizing and Performing Socio-political Representation: Harriet Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, and Pauline Hopkins. Diss. Temple University. Libraries, 2011.