Slave Narratives

What was the earliest unpublished novel written by a black woman slave?

The earliest known manuscript of an unpublished novel by a black woman slave, The Bondswoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts, was written around 1857. (Analysis of the document places its authorship between 1853 and 1860.) The manuscript, which went unnoticed for over 140 years, is probably the earliest known novel by a black woman anywhere, slave or free. It may be one of only a few novels by black slaves in America as well. Years later a book dealer in New Jersey acquired the work. In 1948 Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905–1995), then head of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, acquired the manuscript in the belief that the author was a black American slave woman. She helped to authenticate her belief by noting that the author introduced and treated black characters as people without regard to race, while white writers introduced them with assured reference to their race. The manuscript surfaced again in 2001 at auction at the Swann Galleries in New York. Henry Louis Gates (1950–), chair of Harvard University’s Black Studies Department, was the single bidder for the manuscript and acquired it for less than $10,000. He sold the rights to Warner Books for an undisclosed advance against royalties. The novelist, Hannah Crafts, was a slave on the John Hill Wheeler plantation in North Carolina. In spring 1857 she escaped to New Jersey and wrote the novel, combining accounts of her life as a house slave, stories from works she had seen earlier, and her experiences later on as a teacher in the North. Gates edited the work and it was published by Warner Books in April 2002.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy African American History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App