(The Root) — Each February the Swann Auction Galleries in New York City holds an auction of rare artifacts from the black past. It features all sorts of treasures, like slave chains and other instruments of torture, daguerreotypes and sepia-tinged photographs, rare books and lithographs and occasionally handwritten manuscripts, usually letters but sometimes something as rare as a work of literature written by a canonical author such as Phillis Wheatley, let's say. That auction is like taking a trip in a time machine to the black past; think of it as "black to the future." Anyway, scholars and collectors look forward to receiving the beautifully edited four-color catalog that rare-book dealer Wyatt Houston Day prepares each year for the auction with the same anticipation that children look forward to Christmas morning.
The catalog for 2001 contained an entry that riveted me. It was entitled The Bondwoman's Narrative, written by a woman named Hannah Crafts. It was claimed to be a "301-page handwritten manuscript purportedly written by a female fugitive slave." The manuscript was being put up for auction by the estate of my old friend, Howard University librarian and editor Dorothy Porter Wesley, who had actually mentioned the manuscript to me years before when I authenticated the identity of Harriet E. Wilson, who published the novel Our Nig in 1859, still the first novel actually appearing in print and written by a black woman (in this case, by a free Northern woman who had been an indentured servant). Dorothy told me that she had a treasure that was even more rare and valuable than Our Nig tucked away in a file cabinet, but she was too busy to undertake any thorough research about it or its author.
To be honest, I really thought that she was just playing the dozens with me — that is, until I read the Swann catalog. Now here was that same manuscript, which, according to the note in the catalog, Dorothy thought was authentic. I decided that I would purchase it and see.
To avoid elevating the bidding, I asked a friend to bid in my stead. It went for $8,500, a lot of money, I know, but which I gladly paid. And when I read it, cover to cover, nonstop, I understood why Dorothy was so excited. It read like a book that could only have been written by a black woman and a slave. So I decided to devote as much time as I could to authenticating the date the manuscript was written, to find as much detail about the events and places about which she wrote in the novel and hopefully to find the author herself.
I was able to date the time of writing of the manuscript to the mid- to late 1850s, and most important, I identified the master who owned the author. His name was John Hill Wheeler, and he lived in North Carolina and in Washington, D.C., just as Hannah Crafts said. I could identify just about everything about the book but the author herself. So I published it after David Kirkpatrick wrote a front-page story about my discovery for the New York Times and it became a Times best-seller. Another literary scholar, Hollis Robbins, made a major contribution to the scholarship about the novel by identifying several passages that Crafts had borrowed from other authors, especially Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House. Then, in honor of my 25th reunion at my alma mater, Yale University, I donated the manuscript to its marvelous rare book library, the Beinecke.
Over the last decade, I received many inquiries about Hannah Crafts' identity, and many leads, especially after Hollis and I published a book of essays by scholars speculating on the identity of the real Hannah Crafts. Hollis had located Gregg Hecimovich, then teaching at East Carolina University, and encouraged him to pursue further research among the papers of John Hill Wheeler, since Gregg was living near what was once Wheeler's plantation. Gregg, who now teaches at Winthrop University in South Carolina, proposed the fascinating theory that the author could originally have been the slave of Lewis Bond. (And who, he would prove, ended up in the household of the Wheeler family, through Lucinda Bond, the wife of John Hill Wheeler's brother, Samuel Jordan Wheeler. In 1856 John Hill Wheeler and his wife, Ellen, both villains in the novel, gained ownership of Hannah, it would turn out.)
I found this idea quite compelling because of the pun between the surname "Bond" and the "Bondwoman" title of the novel. I encouraged him to pursue his research, and the Du Bois Institute at Harvard awarded him a grant to do so. Hollis and I pointed at the end of the introduction to our essay collection to Gregg's intriguing thesis about the Bond family and their slaves.
A decade or so later, as the New York Times reported this morning, Gregg has found the author of The Bondwoman's Narrative, and it was indeed Hannah Bond! This is the most important discovery in African-American literary studies since that of Harriet Wilson and Our Nig. Both Gregg and I estimate the manuscript to have been written in 1858, for various reasons, but most of all because it doesn't mention John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
That means, most probably, this is the first novel written by a black female (or that it was written in the same year Harriet Wilson wrote Our Nig), and that it is the first novel written by a female fugitive slave. As I said to the Times reporter, the discovery of the identity of the author forever changes the history of African-American literature, of the genre of fugitive slave literature and the development of African-American women's literature. In a word, this is huge. And I look forward to publishing the second edition of The Bondwoman's Narrative with Gregg.
Editor's note: Read an excerpt from The Bondwoman's Narrative here.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.