When one thinks of 19th century America, slavery and the Civil War come to mind. American slavery, as we know, was a heinous, painful institution characterized by terrifying acts of violence. Whether it was the systematic rape of black women, the sale of black children away from their parents, squalid living conditions or enforced hard labor, slavery was designed to break the spirits of black people who built individual and national white wealth, which quickly made young America a global economic superpower.
A central aspect in the oppression of black slaves was the deliberate mission of white slaveowners to keep their slaves in ignorance. With knowledge, comes power—the power to think, to communicate and to take one’s freedom back by any means necessary. Thus, it was a severe crime to teach any slave to read or write. And yet, black Americans found a way to triumph even in such agonizing conditions.
Although largely ignored in the canon of Western literature, free black Americans educated themselves and published novels as early as 1853. States scholar Dr. Gregg Hecimovich, “William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel was published in London in 1853, making Brown the first African-American novelist.” Wells, like many early black American novelists, drew from his personal experiences of slavery and racial violence in the United States, attempting to process these horrific experiences and regain selfhood through the act of finding his voice and speaking his truth on the page
Now, a new discovery has come to light: the work of black novelist Sarah E. Farro. Farro published her novel, True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life in 1891, but had been widely forgotten until scholar Gretchen Gerzina, author of the books Black London and Black Victorians/Black Victorianafound a passing mention of Farro in an 1893 edition of the British Daily Telegraph. This chance discovery led Dr. Gerzina on a quest to find out more about Farro’s life and work.
Dr. Gerzina writes of Sarah E. Farro’s novel: “Surely those writers owe her a debt of gratitude, just as we have an obligation to bring her back into the fold of African-American and women novelists and to think about how these discoveries change our views of the African-American experience.”
In celebration of Dr. Gerzina’s discovery, here are 12 other black writers who wrote novels during the 19th century.
1. Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, by William Wells Brown
First published in England in 1853, later versions were published in 1861, 1864 and 1867 under the various titles Miralda: or, The Beautiful Quadroon; A Romance of American Slavery; Founded on Fact, Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States and Clotelle: or, The Colored Heroine. Loosely based on the rape of Sally Hemmings by Thomas Jefferson—and the lives of their children—this novel is unique in its value not just as a historical artifact but also for the quality of its literary craftsmanship. William Wells Brown, a former slave, established himself as an immensely talented writer, creating not just novels but also poetry, essays and plays.