Black novelist’s landmark book returns to NH

Posted: 01/28/2022 15:13:06

Last month, JerriAnne Boggis received a call she hadn’t expected but had been hoping for for a long time.

“She called me and I thought she was joking,” said Boggis, executive director of New Hampshire’s Black Heritage Trail. “Because no one calls you with an original copy that we’ve been looking for forever.”

Rebecca Davis, originally from California, was on the other end of the line. A few days earlier, she had found the first edition of Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig; or Sketches of the Life of a Free Negro, published in 1859 and considered the first novel written by a black woman in America.

Wilson was an indentured servant in the North for much of the mid-19th century, but was free when she published the story. The book is an autobiography that chronicles Wilson’s life as both free and black servant in the North just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Its significance was rediscovered by Havard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 1982.

Davis, an accomplished former medical librarian at the University of California, Davis, found the book in a safe when she was settling her late husband’s estate in 2021. Davis knew Wilson and the impact of his story due to her years in libraries, as well as her husband being a book scout.

Davis wanted the book to be in a place where people of all ages could benefit from it and be educated by its story.

She first tried to donate it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., but was unable to reach a deal with the museum. She did more research and found the Harriet Wilson Project, which was founded in 2003 by Boggis, among others.

From there, Davis called Boggis and asked for more information about the trail, which promotes a more inclusive history of race and America, and how the organization would highlight the novel. Boggis added that the book was not an outright giveaway, but was sold at the trail for a “very generous price”. When acquiring the book became more likely for the trail, John and Shaye Robinson, two longtime supporters, quickly helped pay for the book.

“To think that she found us on the web and determined that our organization was the perfect home for her treasure is still mind-blowing,” Boggis said.

The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire is storing the book in a safe place while it is being restored and has displayed it publicly for various events. Boggis said the book is in very good condition and only has “a few loose pages.”

One such event was a ceremonial book reading organized by the Milford Historical Society and the Black Heritage Trail and held at the First Congregational Church in Milford on Wednesday.

Church, Black Lives Matter members Nashua, Boggis, and Davis read from Wilson’s book or spoke at the event to celebrate its historical significance and importance to the trail.

“It was amazing that it was coming home. In love, the church was really supportive. It was just touching,” Boggis said. “It almost had that biblical feel of someone coming home. .”

Boggis said a larger event will take place on June 19 to celebrate the book, among other aspects of the track. She also said a trail marker for the book would be unveiled at the Harriet Wilson Memorial in Milford in the summer of 2022.

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