Harriet Wilson

First African American Woman Novelist Image: Harriet Wilson Memorial Statue Bicentennial Park, Milford, New Hampshire Harriet Wilson is considered the first African American of any gender to publish a novel on the North American continent as well as the author of the first novel by an African American woman. Her novel Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published anonymously in 1859 in Boston, Massachusetts, and was not widely known. It was re-discovered in 1982 by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., which led to the publication of a facsimile edition in 1983. Image: Harriet Wilson Memorial Statue Bicentennial Park, Milford, New Hampshire Early Years Born a mixed race free person of color in Milford, New…

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Rebecca Jackson

Founder of a Black Shaker Community Little is known of the early life of Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), a free black woman who became an elder in the Shaker religion, which was founded by Mother Ann Lee just before the Revolutionary War. At age 35 Jackson underwent a religious conversion during a thunderstorm, after which she became an itinerant preacher and established a black Shaker community in Philadelphia in 1859. There are no known images of Rebecca Cox Jackson. Image: African American Church in Philadelphia by Pavel Petrovich Svinin, 1815 Rebecca Cox was born on February 15, 1795 to a free family in Hornstown, Pennsylvania and lived until the age of three or four with her grandmother, who died when…

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Jane Johnson

Slave Freed by Abolitionists in Philadelphia Jane Johnson (1820-1872) was a slave whose escape to freedom was the focus of precedent-setting legal cases in 19th century Philadelphia. Safeguarded by Philadelphia abolitionists after her escape in 1855, Johnson later settled in Boston. There she married, and sheltered other fugitives slaves. Her son Isaiah served in the American Civil War with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. Jane Johnson is believed to have been born into slavery as Jane Williams in or near Washington, DC, the daughter of John and Jane Williams; the exact year of her birth is unknown. Virtually nothing is known of her early life, which she presumably spent on Virginia plantations; it is believed that she lived…

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Annie Burton

Former Slave Who Became a Businesswoman Annie Louise Burton was born a slave in Clayton, Alabama in 1858. She was the daughter of a woman named Nancy, the cook of Mr. and Mrs. William Farrin whose plantation was near Clayton. Annie’s father, a white man born in Liverpool, England, owned a plantation that was a long walk from the Farrin plantation. Annie grew up during the Civil War and remembered fondly her early days on the plantation. Excerpt, Memories of Childhood’s Slavery Days: On the plantation there were ten white children and fourteen colored children. Our days were spent roaming about from plantation to plantation, not knowing or caring what things were going on in the great world outside our…

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Anna Brown

Wife of African American Author William Wells Brown On April 12, 1860 twenty-five year old Anna Elizabeth Gray married William Wells Brown – author of Clotel, the first novel written by an African American in the United States. Anna later published Brown’s works under the imprint A.G. Brown. They had one daughter, Clotelle, in 1862. William Wells Brown (1814-1884) was a prominent African American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright and historian. After spending the first 25 years of his life in slavery and most of a decade on the run as a fugitive, Brown came into prominence in the abolitionist movement. He wrote his autobiography, several volumes of black history and Clotel, the first novel written by an African American. Although…

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Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson’s Slave and Mistress Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law – Elizabeth Hemings and her children did live at John Wayles’ plantation during his lifetime. In 18th-century Virginia, children born to slave mothers inherited their legal status, therefore Elizabeth and Sally Hemings and all their children, were legally slaves, even when the fathers were their white masters. If Sally Hemings’ father was John Wayles, she would have been the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. After Wayles died in 1773, Martha inherited the Hemings family; when Martha died in 1782, she left the Hemings family to Thomas Jefferson.

Edmonia Highgate

Teacher of Former Slaves in the South Teaching in the South during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) took great courage. The women who traveled there to teach often feared for their lives but were determined to empower the freed slaves through literacy. Image: The Misses Cooke’s school room, Freedman’s Bureau, Richmond, Va. In Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1866 Nov. 17, Library of Congress Edmonia Highgate, the daughter of freed slaves, was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1844. She graduated from high school with honors, taught for a year in Montrose, Pennsylvania, and then became principal of a black school in Binghamton, New York. She was one of the many upstate New Yorkers who responded to the appeal to aid those…

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Elizabeth Freeman

Black History Month: Massachusetts Slave Mum Bett was among the first black slaves in Massachusetts awarded freedom in court under the 1780 constitution, and a decision that slavery was illegal. Her county court case, decided in August 1781, was cited as a precedent in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appeal review of the Quock Walker case. When the state Supreme Court upheld Walker’s freedom under the constitution, it was considered to have informally ended slavery in Massachusetts. When Elizabeth Freeman was nearly 70 years old, Susan Ridley Sedgwick painted a miniature portrait of her in watercolor on ivory. Sedgwick was the young wife of Theodore Sedgwick, Jr., whose father had represented Freeman in her claim for freedom from slavery under…

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Harriet Tubman

Conductor on the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman was an African American abolitionist, humanitarian and Union spy during the Civil War. After escaping from slavery, she made thirteen missions back to the land of her servitude to rescue scores of slaves, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Image: Painting by Paul Collins: Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad She was born Araminta Ross around 1820 the fifth of nine children born to slave parents, Harriet (“Rit”) Green and Benjamin Ross, in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As with many slaves in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of her birth was recorded, and historians differ as to the best…

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Jenny Slew

Illegally Enslaved Woman Jenny Slew was born circa 1719 to a free white woman and an enslaved black man. That fact would become the core of an historical legal case forty-six years later in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jenny contended that her parents had married and established a home and family. Jenny Slew had been raised free and lived all her life as a free woman, but in 1762 she was kidnapped and enslaved by John Whipple. In most of the colonies, she would not have been able to turn to the law for help. As a slave, she would have been banned from the courts. However, by that time in Massachusetts an enslaved person could bring a…

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