Harriet E. Wilson (March 15, 1825 – June 28, 1900) is traditionally considered the first female African-American novelist as well as the first African American of any gender to publish a novel on the North American continent.
In 2006, William L. Andrews, an English literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University, brought to light Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865). Maintaining that Our Nig is more autobiography than fiction, they argue that The Curse of Caste is the first fully fictional novel by an African-American to be published in the U.S. However, a number of novels and other works of fiction of the period were in some part based on real-life events or could somehow be considered autobiographical--some titles include Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall; Louisa May Alcott's Little Women; or even Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1797). The first known novel by an African American is William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, originally published in the United Kingdom
Harriet E. "Hattie" Adams Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire, the daughter of an African American "hooper of barrels", Joshua Green, and Margaret Ann (or Adams) Smith, a washerwoman of Irish extraction. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother abandoned her at the farm of Nehemiah Hayward Jr., a well-to-do Milford farmer.
Documentary research undertaken by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts and incorporated in the latest (2004) edition of "Our Nig" leads to the conclusion that the Hayward family were the same as the "Bellmont" family depicted in "Our Nig" as the family who held the young "Frado" in indentured servitude, abusing her physically and mentally from the age of six to eighteen.
After the end of her indenture, Hattie Adams (as she was then known), worked as a house servant and a seamstress in households in southern New Hampshire and in central and western Massachusetts as her health permitted, until she married Thomas Wilson in Milford on October 6, 1851. Thomas Wilson had been traveling around New England giving lectures based on his life as a (supposed) escaped slave, when he met Hattie Adams. Although he continued to periodically lecture in churches and town squares, he soon confided to her that he was never in bondage ("he had never seen the South") and that his "illiterate harangues were humbugs for hungry abolitionists", as found on page 68 of "Our Nig".
However, he soon abandoned her after they married. Pregnant and ill, Harriet Wilson was sent to the Hillsborough County Poor Farm in Goffstown, New Hampshire, where her only son, George Mason Wilson, was born. His probable birth date was June 15, 1852. Soon after George's birth, Thomas Wilson reappeared in her life and took her and her son away from the Poor Farm. Thomas Wilson returned to sea and died soon after and Harriet Wilson returned her son to the care of the Poor Farm. She then moved to Boston, Massachusetts to seek a living for herself and her son.
While in Boston, Harriet Wilson wrote Our Nig. On August 18, 1859, she copyrighted it, and a copy of the novel was deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. On September 5, 1859, the novel was published by George C. Rand and Avery, a publishing firm in Boston.
On February 16, 1860, her son, George Mason Wilson, died in Milford, at the age of seven at the Poor Farm. In 1863, Harriet Wilson appears on the "Report of the Overseers of the Poor" for the town of Milford. After 1863, Harriet Wilson's whereabouts are unknown until 1867, when she is listed in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light as living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. She subsequently moves across the Charles River to the city of Boston where she is known in Spiritualist circles as "the colored medium." On September 29, 1870, Harriet Wilson married John Gallatin Robinson in Boston, Massachusetts. Robinson, an apothecary, was a native of Canada, having been born in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Robinson was of English and German ancestry; he was also almost eighteen years Harriet Wilson's junior. They resided at 46 Carver Street between 1870 and 1877 when they appear to have separated as the city directories after that date show both Wilson and Robinson in separate lodgings in Boston's South End. No record has been found of a divorce. At Wilson's death, Robinson, describing himself as a "capitalist" was living in the town of Pembroke, Massachusetts with a twenty-four year old woman named Izah Nellie Moore; they would marry two years later. From 1867 to 1897, Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson is listed in the Banner of Light as a trance reader and lecturer. She was active in the local Spiritualist community, and she would give "lectures", either while entranced, or speaking normally, wherever she was wanted. She spoke at camp meetings, in theaters, and in private homes throughout New England; she shared the podium with such stalwarts as Victoria Woodhull and Andrew Jackson Davis. She travelled as far as Chicago as a delegate to the American Association of Spiritualists convention in 1870.
Mrs. Wilson delivered lectures on labor reform, and children's education; although the texts of her talks have not survived, newspaper reports imply that she often spoke about her life experiences, providing sometimes trenchant and often humorous commentary.
Closer to home, Hattie Wilson was active in the organization and maintenance of Children's Progressive Lyceums, the Spiritualist church equivalent to Sunday Schools; she organized Christmas celebrations; she participated in skits and playlets; at meetings she sometime sang as part of a quartet; she was also known for her floral centerpieces and the candies and confectioneries she would make for the children were long remembered.
When she wasn't pursuing Spiritualistic activities, Hattie Wilson was employed as a nurse and healer ("clairvoyant physician"); also from 1879 to 1897, she was the housekeeper of a boardinghouse in a two story dwelling at 15 Village Street (near the present corner of Dover [now East Berkeley Street] and Tremont Streets in the South End) where she rented out rooms, collected rents and provided basic maintenance.
Sadly, despite Wilson's active and fruitful life after "Our Nig", there is no evidence that she ever wrote anything else for publication. On June 28, 1900, "Hattie E. Wilson" died in the Quincy Hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts. She is buried in the Cobb family plot in that town's Mount Wollaston Cemetery. Her plot number is listed as 1337, "old section."
Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989. ISBN 0-452-00981-2