Henry Louis Gates / P. Gabrielle Foreman / R. J. Ellis

ESSAY: Gates and Ellis on Harriet Wilson, 19th Century Novelist and Spiritualist

Quite a late posting.  Many apologies on the hiatus.  ~JMJOHNSO

For more on Wilson as an entrepreneur see Gabrielle Foreman and Katherine Flynn’s 2009 Boston Globe piece here.

Gates, Henry Louis, and R. J. Ellis. “Harriet Wilson’s Sunday School.” TheRoot.com, January 10, 2011, sec. Views. http://www.theroot.com/views/harriet-wilson-s-sunday-school.

Excerpt:

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 theNew 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.

Read the rest @ TheRoot.com

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One thought on “ESSAY: Gates and Ellis on Harriet Wilson, 19th Century Novelist and Spiritualist

  1. Pingback: ESSAY: Foreman on Violence, Citizenship, and Histories of Slavery (2013) | African Diaspora, Ph.D.

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