The United States is the only country known to have enacted anti-literacy laws. It began with South Carolina’s 1740 Negro Act, which was enacted after the Stono Rebellion in 1739. This act prohibited, among other things, enslaved Africans from learning to write. Other states followed suit in the 1800s following the publication of David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World which openly advocated rebellion. Walker was an African American abolitionist and wrote his incendiary appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) to encourage readers to take an active role in fighting oppression.
In response to both Walker’s appeal and the Denmark Vesey conspiracy that was unearthed in Charleston, South Carolina passed the Negro Seaman Act, which called for Free Blacks working aboard ships harbored in South Carolina ports like Charleston to be jailed while the ship was harbored. If the captain refused to comply, they could be sold into slavery. This act worked to prohibit free men from distributing information like Walker’s pamphlet. Walker died on August 6, 1830, at the age of 33. His death was listed as caused by tuberculosis, but there is also a belief that he was poisoned, as his life was repeatedly threatened. He was buried in an unmarked grave, and his wife and children lost possession of their house shortly after his death.
Another early author, George Moses Horton was born on a tobacco plantation in North Carolina outside of Chapel Hill in 1798. He taught himself to read and began selling his poems. Students and teachers at Chapel Hill took notice and his first book of poetry was published with the help of a novelist and professor’s wife, making Horton the first African American to publish a book in the South. Horton wrote poems with the hope of purchasing his own freedom, and aptly named his book The Hope of Liberty (1829). It was the first book of literature published in North Carolina. Although he made some money from his poetry, it was not enough to gain his freedom. He continued to write and purchase his time from his master. His second book, The Poetical Works, was published in 1845. His third, Naked Genius, (1865) came with his freedom, which was finally granted only at the end of the Civil War.
The first spiritual autobiography by an African American woman is thought to be The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee. Lee herself printed 100 copies in 1836 and distributed them at camp meetings and on the street. In 1839 she had 1000 more printed, and in 1849 she expanded it as she traveled and preached. Lee is credited with making the Methodist church begin to recognize that African Americans could be preachers, as well as women of any race.
Maria W. Stewart, born in Connecticut in 1803, was the first African American woman political writer and one of the first female speakers in America at a time when women were banned from speaking in public. Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build was published in 1831, and Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart was published in 1832, both by The Liberator, a weekly abolitionist newspaper printed in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison. Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart presented to the First African Baptist Church and Society of the City of Boston was published in 1835 by Friends of Freedom and Virtue. In 1879, using funds from her widow’s pension, Stewart republished Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart with additional material added from her service at the Freedman’s hospital during the Civil War. She died shortly after.
The earliest short story by an African American, Victor Sejour’s The Mulatto, was originally published in Paris in 1837.
Ann Plato, a young woman of 16, published her book Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Poetry in 1841. Not much is known of Ann, her life and death unrecorded after this publication.
Born in Kentucky in 1814, William Wells Brown escaped slavery at the age of 19 and settled in Boston. He became an abolitionist and a prolific writer. In 1847 he published Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, which became a bestseller.
Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States by William Wells Brown, was first published in London in 1853 after Brown tried multiple attempts at publication in the United States. It was finally printed in the United States in 1864 as Clotelle: A Tale of Southern States.
After the publication of Clotel, Brown wrote several histories, including The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867), The Rising Son (1873), and the memoir My Southern Home (1880). He also published the first play written by African-American, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom by William Wells Brown, and published in 1858, although not produced until 1971 at Emerson College.
In 1856, Well's daughter Josephine Brown published Biography of an American Bondman, a follow-up to Brown’s previous memoir that included his life in England, where he stayed for a few years until his freedom was purchased in 1854. The biography, published in Boston by R.F. Wallcut, was one of the first biographies written by an African-American woman, pre-dated only by Susan Paul’s Memoir of James Jackson, the attentive and obedient scholar (1835).
The first African American novel published in the United States was Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson, a free person of color living in New Hampshire. Our Nig was published anonymously in 1859, and rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 1982. Gates discovered another manuscript, The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, that may have been written between 1853 and 1860 but it was not published until 2002.
Another early African-American novel was Julia C. Collins The Curse of Caste, or the Slave Bride. This novel was serialized in the Christian Recorder but remained unfinished when she died at the young age of 23 of consumption in 1865.
Martin R. Delany’s Blake: Or the Huts of America was another serialized early novel, first published in Anglo-African Magazine starting in 1859. Part 2 was published in 1862, but Part 3 remains missing, as no surviving copies of the magazine it was published in are known to exist.
The Garies and Their Friends, by Frank J. Webb, was published in London in 1857. The novel included a two-page preface by author Harriet Beecher Stowe and depicted the hardships of a free black community in Philadelphia during the 1820s and 1830s. It was the first novel by an African American author that portrayed free blacks in the North.