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.
Each switch of lyceum seemed to take Wilson on a search for a more progressive approach. Early in her teaching career, she even taught in the same Children's Progressive Lyceum No. 1 that would later criticize the methods she was using to teach the children in her own school. In 1879 she played a part in the establishment of a lyceum set up to rival her nemesis, Progressive Lyceum No. 1, which was mischievously named Children's Progressive Lyceum No. 2. When this lyceum moved into the center of Boston from Charlestown later in 1879 and took up residence in Amory Hall, only just vacated by Progressive Lyceum No. 1, tensions must have run high.
Progressive Lyceum No. 2 taught Wilson a lot about the politics of pedagogy within the movement. It wrested from Progressive Lyceum No. 1 major control of the anniversary celebrations of the "advent of modern Spiritualism" (the so-called famous "Rochester Rappings" heard by two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, at Hydesville, N.Y., in 1848, which launched the Spiritualist movement in the United States).
It set up exchange programs with the main lyceums in Brooklyn and New York, in which Wilson herself participated. It even sponsored theatricals, and Wilson not only directed two but, incredibly, also performed in a cross-dressing role as Tom Carberry in The Spirit of 76 — a highly popular farce of this time, exploring what might happen if gender roles were completely inverted. Clearly, no one could have accused the author of Our Nig of being either timid or shy.
Wilson signed this article herself, which makes it one of the very few pieces of writing that she'd published since 1859, when Our Nig appeared. Wilson used the statement to serve notice that she was breaking out of the formal bonds of the lyceum system — and, more important, to protest against certain, unwarranted abuses that she felt she had experienced from her fellow Spiritualists.
We know of her radical propensities from her participation in a "National Mass Meeting of Radicals, Socialists, Infidels, Materialists, Free Religionists and Free Thinkers" in 1874. In her speech at that meeting, Wilson spoke on behalf of the rights of women and on the superiority of education in the lyceums, agreeing with a motion advocating that "the instincts of true womanhood are against bearing children for the State, and handing them over to its cares, whilst it so stupidly ignores the best modes of moral and spiritual culture" — a reference to the feeling of many radical Spiritualists that a Spiritualist lyceum education was better than any education provided by the state.
But Wilson also spoke out at that meeting in 1874 about abuses she felt she had received from her fellow practitioners in the movement, passionately venting her "grievances at the treatment she received from Boston Spiritualists." It is difficult to be sure to what this refers, though commonly at this time mediums — long accused of chicanery in their claims to be in direct contact with the spiritual world — had begun to accuse one another of deceit (partly in search of commercial advantage). Possibly, Wilson had been recently challenged in this way.
Or, just possibly, considering the uneven treatment meted out to African Americans in the movement (in the Spiritualist press, for example, they were generally stereotyped in ways that must have grated), as well as the rarity of a black woman teaching white children anywhere in Boston, a strain of institutional racism may have informed at least some of the mistreatment of which she complained. In fact, we suspect that Wilson's repeated failure to sustain leadership positions in the movement had something to do with concerns about her race, since blacks in leadership positions were almost unknown. This, perhaps above all, may explain why Wilson decided to set up her own "liberal minded" school in the first place, although her desire to expose children to the utterances of the dead transmitted through teachers in trances was probably a strong motivation as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilson did not last long as the school's de facto, but never formally appointed, "conductor" (as lyceum leaders were called). Two white males soon took over her school's management, and she was gradually sidelined: Conductors were never female, or African American. And though the schoolchildren still witnessed her perform as a medium, her radical decision to expose her students to the voices of the dead certainly would not have helped her hold her position.
A prominent Boston Spiritualist, Maggie Folsom, sought to support Wilson in January 1884, speaking of her transcendent "motherly care." At a "Lyceum Union Anniversary" in Paine Hall, where the Progressive Lyceum No. 1 met, Folsom ended with a plea that "may harmony ever exist between the two schools represented here today." But these words, a last effort at bridge building between the "mother lyceum" and Wilson's school, would fall on deaf ears.
Shortly after this, Wilson was squeezed out of the Spiritualist lyceum movement. She seems to have gone into semiretirement, running her medium sessions out of her home. She died in 1900 and is buried in Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy.
The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and R.J. Ellis, are the editors of the annotated new edition of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, the first novel to be published in the United States by an African-American female, published in 2011 by Random House.