Historic book from Black novelist returns to NH

  • Authenticating the first edition copy of Harriet Wilson's novel are (from left) book owner Rebecca Davis, Black Heritage Trail of NH Executive Director JerriAnne Boggis, donor John Robbins, and antique dealer Hollis Brodrick. Courtesy

  • Harriet Wilson's book gets letter of authentication signed at the First Congregational Church in Milford, NH. From L-R, Rebecca Davis (Book Owner) , John Robbins (Donor), David Nelson (Milford Historical Society) & JerriAnne Boggis (Black Heritage Trail of NH). —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 1/28/2022 3:13:06 PM

Last month, JerriAnne Boggis got a call she wasn’t expecting but had long been hoping for.

“She called me, and I thought she was kidding,” said Boggis, the Executive Director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. “Because nobody calls you having an original copy that we've been looking for forever.”

Rebecca Davis, a California native, was on the other end of the line. Just days before, she found the first edition of Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig; or Sketches in the Life of a Free Black, published in 1859 and believed to be the first novel written by a Black woman in America.

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

Davis, a former accomplished medical librarian at the University of California at Davis, found the book in a safe at the time she settled her late husband’s estate in 2021. Davis knew of Wilson and her story’s impact because of 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 not able to successfully make 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 in America, and how the organization would highlight the novel. Boggis added that the book was not an outright gift but was sold to the trail for a “very generous price.” When the book’s acquisition became more likely for the trail, John and Shaye Robinson, two long-time supports, quickly helped with the payment of the book.

“To think 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 secure location while it is being restored and has shown it publicly for various events. Boggis said that book is in great condition and only has “a few loosening pages.”

One of those events was a ceremonial reading of the book put on by the Milford Historical Society and the Black Heritage Trail and held at the First Congregational Church in Milford on Wednesday.

Members of the church, Black Lives Matter Nashua, Boggis and Davis read excerpts of Wilson’s book or spoke at the event in some capacity to celebrate its historical significance and importance to the trail.

“It was amazing to have this come home. In love, the church really supported it. It was just touching,” Boggis said. “It almost had that biblical feel of someone returning home.”

Boggis said a larger event will be held on Juneteenth to celebrate the book, among other aspects at the trail. She also said a trail marker for the book will be unveiled at the Harriet Wilson memorial in Milford during the summer of 2022.

Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301


© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy