Harriet Wilson's Sunday School

The author of the first novel published by a black woman in the U.S. was also a leader of the Spiritualist movement that sought guidance from the dead.

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The more we discover about Harriet E. Wilson, the author of the first novel published in the United States by an African-American woman, the more startling her life becomes. Wilson -- born a free Negro in Milford, N.H., in the 1820s but doomed to serve a very harsh period as an indentured servant with the white Hayward family -- boldly captured the racism that she experienced in New England in her pioneering autobiographical 1859 novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black.

As Gabrielle Foreman and Kathy Flynn have shown, between 1857 and 1861 Wilson became an enterprising producer and marketer of "Mrs. H.E. Wilson's Hair Dressing," a hair "regenerator," which claimed to restore graying hair to its original color and was sold in smart green glass bottles that were advertised widely in newspapers throughout New England, New York and New Jersey, including the New York Times. 

But far more important than this curious and brief interlude in her long career, Wilson (who often called herself "Hattie") also became a well-known and somewhat controversial "spirit guide" in Boston's popular Spiritualist movement, as Foreman detected. According to our research, this new chapter in Wilson's career began as early as 1867, just after the end of the Civil War.

Even here, Wilson's entrepreneurial skills manifested themselves: We have discovered that, in addition to playing a leading role in fostering amateur dramatics among the Spiritualists, she founded her own school. And this venture would prove to be perhaps her most controversial project of all.

Early in 1883, Wilson announced the opening of a new Sunday school for the children of "the liberal minded" in the "Ladies Aid Parlors" in Boston. Though the very first black woman to teach in a white public school in that city, Elizabeth Smith, had begun teaching just a decade earlier, in 1872 a black woman teaching white children in a private school such as Wilson's was still quite extraordinary, to say the least.

Spiritualists believed that certain individuals -- "mediums" -- possessed the power to communicate with those who had passed away but who still, in spirit form, moved among the living, overlooking their lives, and were able to be called upon to provide guidance by way of verbal communication through the medium, or even by assuming visible material forms. These communications could be dramatic and even disconcerting (the mediums, of course, maintained that they could not control the free spirits), so generally speaking, Spiritualists did not go into trances in their children's lyceums.

But Wilson decided that this was an unnecessary precaution. To signify the difference between her school and others, she dropped the word "lyceum" (as Spiritualist schools were generally known) and named hers the "First Spiritual Progressive School." And true to her claim, Wilson's school was avowedly "progressive" and featured some quite radical ideas.

Wilson's pedagogical innovations were also radical and quite effective: She introduced the use of what she called a "little paper," which she named "The Temple Within," which included "lesson sheets" to be used in her classes. These lesson sheets were so successful in helping children learn that they were later taken up by other, more conservative Spiritualist lyceums.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these innovations in her instructional methods, however, Wilson's new progressive approach to teaching children the methods of Spiritualism seems to have generated deep suspicion among the more conservative members of the movement. In May 1883, for example, some sort of ad hoc inspection occurred when senior members of Boston's Children's Progressive Lyceum No. 1, the veritable mother ship of Spiritualist education, visited Wilson's school and offered critical "remarks … as to the proper teaching of children in a school of this kind." Wilson had had her hand slapped by the Spiritualist establishment.

Indeed, there is every indication that Wilson's new school was not viewed at all benignly by her fellow white Boston Spiritualists. Wilson had long played a significant role in the Spiritualist lyceum system, beginning in 1873. But her passage within Boston's considerable and overwhelmingly white movement was never an easy one. Rather, she constantly moved from lyceum to lyceum, suggesting a desire to take a more liberal (and daring), less regimented approach to Spiritualist education.