The Lyceum’s first African-American pioneer

Memorial to Harriet E. Wilson, in Milford, New Hampshire

The author of the first novel published by an African-American woman in the United States was also a leader of the Spiritualist movement.

Harriet E. Adams Wilson was born in  Milford, New Hampshire, in 1825, the daughter of Joshua Green, an African “hooper of barrels”, and Margaret Ann (or Adams) Smith, a washerwoman of Irish ancestry.

Her father passed when Hattie, as she was known, was very young, and her mother abandoned her. She then became an indentured servant to the white Hayward family, who abused her physically and mentally from the age of six to 16. It was this period she captured in her pioneering first novel, Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black‎.

In 1851 she married Thomas Wilson, who claimed to be an escaped slave, but this was revealed to be untrue. He abandoned Harriet shortly after their marriage. Pregnant and ill, Harriet was sent to New Hampshire Poor Farm, where her only son was born.

Between 1857 and 1861, Harriet became an enterprising producer and marketer of “Mrs H.E. Wilson’s Hair Dressing”, which claimed to restore greying hair to its natural colour.

In 1860, her son died in the care of the Poor Farm, and Harriet moved to Boston, where she became a well-known figure in Boston’s popular Spiritualist movement. As well as fostering amateur dramatics among the Spiritualists, she founded her own school “for the liberal minded”, which was probably her most controversial enterprise. She had created the extraordinary situation of a black woman teaching white children in a private school. She became known in Spiritualist circles as “the coloured medium”.

Harriet’s second marriage took place in 1870, when she married John Robinson, a Canadian apothecary. He was of English and German ancestry, 18 years older than Harriet. They eventually separated.

She announced her school venture of 1883 in the Banner of Light, saying: “The first meeting of a Progressive School for children which is being formed in the Ladies’ Aid Parlours, met Sunday morning February 4th and will continue to meet every Sunday morning. The children’s friend, Mrs Hattie E. Wilson, with a few others, has undertaken to form a school that will aim to be both pleasing and instructive to the children.”

Mediums at that time did not only provide guidance by verbal communication with those who had passed on. Maintaining that they could not control the free spirits, they would go into trances and deliver disconcerting communications. For this reason they did not go into trances in their children’s Lyceums, as Spiritualist schools were generally known.

Harriet Wilson decided this was an unnecessary precaution. To signify the difference between her school and others, she dropped the word “Lyceum” and named hers the “First Spiritual Progressive School”. It was certainly progressive.

For one thing, tutors in her school sometimes addressed their young pupils directly when under the control of spirit guides, and in trance, they relayed the words and feelings of those in the Spirit World.

Harriet also dispensed with the ritual ceremonies of Boston’s other Lyceums, such as the staging of quasi-military Banner Marches, often performed before military veterans.

She introduced the use of what she called a “little paper” named The Temple Within, which included lesson sheets to be used in her classes. These were so successful in helping children learn that they were taken up by other, more conservative Spiritualist Lyceums.

Her new method of teaching children the methods of Spiritualism generated deep suspicion among the more conservative members of the movement. In May 1883, an ad hoc inspection took place, when senior members of Boston’s Children Progressive Lyceum No.1, the mother of Spiritualist education, visited Harriet’s school and offered criticism about the proper teaching in a school of this kind.

Harriet had had her hand slapped by the Spiritualist establishment. Her new school was not viewed at all benignly by her fellows, the white Boston Spiritualists. Her passage within them had never been easy. She had constantly moved from one Lyceum to another, suggesting a more liberal, less regimented approach to Spiritualist education.

Each switch seemed to take her on a search for a more progressive approach. She even taught in the same Children’s Progressive Lyceum No.1, which was later to criticise the methods in her own school.

In 1879 she set up what she mischievously named Progressive Lyceum No.2, and moved into Amory Hall in the centre of Boston, only just vacated by Progressive Lyceum No.1.

Tensions ran high, and taught Harriet a lot about the politics of pedagogy within the movement. It wrested from Lyceum No.1  major control of the anniversary celebrations of the “advent of modern Spiritualism” – the rappings heard by the Fox sisters in Hydesville in 1848, which launched the Spiritualist movement in the United States.

Harriet participated in exchange programmes in Brooklyn and New York, and sponsored amateur theatricals. She directed two productions, and also performed in a cross-dressing role as Tom Carberry in The Spirit of 76, a popular farce of the time.

Her radical propensities are known 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, Harriet spoke on behalf of the rights of women, on the superiority of education in the Lyceums, and agreeing with a motion advocating that “the instincts of true womanhood are against bearing children for the State, and handing them to its cares, whilst it so stupidly ignores the best modes of moral and spiritual culture”.

But she also spoke at that meeting about abuses she had received from her fellows in the movement, passionately venting her “grievances at the treatment she received from Boston Spiritualists”. It is difficult to know to what this refers, though commonly at that time mediums had begun to accuse each other of deceit, partly in search of commercial advantage.

Harriet may have been challenged in that way. Possibly, considering the uneven treatment of African Americans in the movement, in the Spiritualist press, there was also the rarity of a black woman teaching white children anywhere in Boston. This was a strain of institutional racism.

Research by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and R.J. Ellis makes them suspect that Harriet Wilson’s repeated failure to sustain leadership positions in the Spiritualist movement had something to do with concerns about her race.

She did not last long as the school’s de facto, and was never formally appointed as “conductor”, as Lyceum leaders were known. Two white males soon took over the school’s management and Harriet was gradually sidelined. Her radical decision to expose her students to the “voices of the dead” would not have helped her to hold her position.

A prominent Boston Spiritualist, Maggie Folsom, gave her support in 1884, when she spoke of Harriet’s transcendent “motherly care”. In a speech at a Lyceum Union Anniversary, Folsom ended with the plea, “May harmony ever exist between the two schools represented here today.”

Shortly after this, Harriet was squeezed out of the Spiritualist Lyceum Movement. She went into semi-retirement, running her mediums’ sessions from her home.

She passed in 1900 and is buried in Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy.

Henry Louis Gates Jr, editor-in-chief of Roots, and R.J.Ellis, are the editors of a book on this subject, to be published in the spring by Random House.

More pictures of the Harriet E. Wilson Memorial in Milford, New Hampshire, and its unveiling, can be found by clicking here, courtesy of The Harriet Wilson Project.

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One response to “The Lyceum’s first African-American pioneer

  1. This is a wonderful story to tell and share with us. It refelects the time when Spiritualism was very active in the move to abolish slavery and to bring about equal rights for men and women of all races.

    There is a sad sequel to this After the formation of what was to become the National Spiritualist Association of Churches in the USA in 1893 a large number of African Americans were drawn to the Spiritualist Movement. Despite the talents of many, the rules of segregation meant that they were separated into auxiliary societies but associated with teh National body.

    Then in 1925, when racial tension increased, the NSAC separated from these auxiliaries creating for them the National Colored Spiritualist Association of Churches. Of the 20 delegates who attended the meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 21 1925, 6 left in disgust at further segregation and 14 were left to found this new and separate organisation.

    So Spiritualism, once fiercely supportive of equality, even including this as part of its Principles, embraced the policies of separation and segregation. It has to be one of the lowest moments in our history.

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