Boston has a rich literary history, and in honor of Black History Month we wanted to highlight some of the literary personalities - from first published authors to journalists to literary magazine editors to literary society creators - of Boston's past.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Known as the first published African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa and sold into slavery as a child, coming to live with the Wheatley family who purchased her in Boston. She learned to read and write while with the family, and wrote her first poem, “To the University of Cambridge, in New England,” at age fourteen. Her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773, brought her renown in the Colonies and in England, as she wrote about contemporary events and people, including George Washington (who invited her to meet after she sent him a poem about him). Her later poems were published in various newspapers and pamphlets, but they were never published in a second volume during her lifetime.
Nancy Gardner Prince (1799-1856)
Born in Newburyport, Nancy Gardner Prince grew up around Boston, marrying Nero Prince, a founding member of the Prince Hall Freemasons in Boston. The two traveled to Russia, which inspired the writing of A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, published in 1853. Upon returning to Boston, Prince was active in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879)
Born in Hartford, Maria W. Stewart spent her twenties as a lecturer in Boston, the first black woman to do so, and the first to speak to an audience of mixed gender and race. Her written works – Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build and Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart – were both published by William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, who also published a number of her speeches.
William Wells Brown (1814-1884)
William Wells Brown settled in Boston around the age of twenty after escaping slavery in Kentucky. A prolific writer, working in various genres such as fiction, poetry, travel writing, and playwriting, Brown’s novel Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1853) is considered the first novel written by a black author. He published his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself, in 1847, which was reworked and republished by his daughter Josephine in 1856 to make sure his story was continual in print.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
One of the most well-known and most popular figures of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass holds a place as one of our nation’s prominent abolitionist orators. Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass secretly taught himself how to read, and escaped at the age of twenty. He settled in New Bedford, and frequented the lecture circuit, specifically in Boston, speaking at the African Meeting House, Tremont Temple, and Faneuil Hall. Additionally, he wrote three autobiographies – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass – as well as a short story entitled “The Heroic Slave.”
Harriet E. Wilson (1825-1900)
Harriet E. Wilson is considered the first published black woman. Originally born in New Hampshire, she moved to Boston, where she wrote the semi-autobiographical novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, published anonymously in 1859. She was also an ardent lecturer and member of the community, yet never published another work. Our Nig was rediscovered in 1982 by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and republished.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924)
A lifelong resident of Boston, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was active in the suffrage movement, and helped start the American Woman Suffrage Association, as well as a number of other organizations during her lifetime. She was also a writer and a member of the New England Woman’s Press Association. In 1886, she started The Woman’s Era, the first newspaper published in America by and for black women, serving as editor and publisher from 1890 to 1897.
Pauline E. Hopkins (1859-1930)
Pauline E. Hopkins was a prolific writer, publishing four novels (three of which were serialized), short stories (“Talma Gordon” is considered the first mystery written by a black person), and a musical play (Slaves’ Escape; or, The Underground Railroad), as well as editor of the magazines Colored American Magazine, Voice of the Negro, and New Era Magazine. Born in Maine, she lived most of her life in Boston and Cambridge.
Florida Ruffin Ridley (1861-1943)
The daughter of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Florida Ruffin Ridley was born and raised in Boston, and was the second black teacher in the Boston Public School system. Like her mother, she was involved in women’s suffrage, and founded a number of her own societies. Ridley was also a journalist who contributed to The Boston Globe, among other publications, and served as editor of The Woman’s Era. She was also a member of the Saturday Evening Quill Club.
George Washington Forbes (1864-1927)
Moving to Boston after growing up in Mississippi, George Washington Forbes started The Boston Courant, one of the first black newspapers in the country; it published weekly between 1890 and 1895. The following year, Forbes became the first black librarian in the Boston Public Library system, where he worked for 32 years. During that time he co-founded The Boston Guardian with William Monroe Trotter, and he wrote and published articles and essays until his death.
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
The first black man to earn a PhD at Harvard (he earned a BA from Harvard as well), W.E.B. Du Bois is one of America’s most well-known black historians, writers, and activists. Born in Great Barrington, MA, he would write The Souls of Black Folks (1903), his most well-known work, as well as a number of books, essays, novels, and biographies, including one of John Brown. Du Bois also lectured extensively, and co-founded the NAACP in 1909, as well as edited its magazine.
William Henry Lewis (1868-1949)
Most known for being a graduate of Harvard Law School, the first black Assistant United States Attorney, and one of the first to be admitted to the American Bar Association, William Henry Lewis also spent twelve years as a football coach for Harvard University. In 1896, he wrote one of the first books on football, entitled A Primer of College Football, some of whose practices are still in use today.
William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934)
William Monroe Trotter was raised in the Boston area, attended Harvard, and was one of the first black men to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. In 1901, he helped found the Boston Literary and Historical Association, and co-founded The Boston Guardian with George W. Forbes, moving the offices in 1907 to the offices of Garrison’s The Liberator.
William Stanley Braithwaite (1878-1962)
Educated only until the age of twelve, after his father’s death William Stanley Braithwaite apprenticed as a typesetter to a Boston publisher to earn money for the family, and began writing poetry. In 1904 he self-published his first book, Lyrics of Life and Love. He went on to write articles for Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and The New Republic, and became editor for The Boston Evening Transcript.
Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958)
Born and raised in Boston, Angelina Weld Grimké was an English teacher, writing stories, essays, and poetry published in various newspapers and anthologies. She wrote the play Rachel in 1920, dealing with themes of lynching and racial violence, in the aftermath of the release of The Birth of a Nation. She later wrote a second play, Mara, and was one of the first black women to have a play publically produced.
Eugene Gordon (1891-1972)
Thought born in the South, Eugene Gordon attended Boston University and eventually wrote for the Boston Daily Post. His stories and articles were featured in magazines such as Scribner’s, The Nation, and Opportunity, and in 1925 he founded – along with Helen Johnson and Dorothy West – the black literary group The Saturday Evening Quill Club, which eventually produced its own literary magazine. He also served as the editor of Leftward. He continued to write for political magazines until the mid-1950s.
Edythe Mae Gordon (1897-1980)
Born in Washington D.C., Edythe Mae Gordon (née Chapman) married Eugene Gordon, and moved to Boston in 1919. Thought she earned a BA and MS in social work from Boston University, she was a prolific writer for the Saturday Evening Quill, as well as other magazines, and one of her short stories, “Subversion,” was recognized by the O. Henry prize committee.
Helene Johnson (1906-1995)
Helene Johnson was born in Boston and raised in Brookline with her cousin Dorothy West, and began to write stories and poetry, winning a contest in the Boston Chronicle. She was also given honorable mention in Opportunity, and published in Vanity Fair. She was once considered one of the best poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Though she published her work in her early adulthood, she stopped, instead writing privately until she died.
Dorothy West (1907-1998)
Dorothy West was born in Boston, and began writing stories at a young age, with her first story published in the Boston Post when she was fourteen. She attended Boston University, and the Colombia School of Journalism. Other writing was published in the Saturday Evening Quill and Opportunity, and she was the first black author published in the New York Daily News. She wrote two novels in her lifetime – The Living is Easy and The Wedding – as well as a collection of short stories, and began the literary magazine Challenge.
Additionally, here are some facts about the publications started in Boston:
Boston Courant (1890-1895)
George Washington Forbes founded the Boston Courant in 1890, one of the first black newspapers in Boston.
Woman's Era (1894-1897)
Founded in 1897 by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, The Woman’s Era was a newspaper published by and for black women. Developed out of the first black women’s club in Boston, the newspaper published articles on women’s suffrage, interviews, profiles, and editorials. The newspaper was of national renown.
The Colored American Magazine (1900-1904 in Boston; 1904-1909 in New York City)
The first black culture magazine, The Colored American Magazine was founded in 1900 by Walter Wallace, Jesse W. Watkins, Harper S. Fortune, and Walter Alexander Johnson, and was “an illustrated monthly devoted to the higher culture of Literature, Science, Music, Art, Religion, Facts, Fiction and Traditions of the Negro Race.” From the beginning, writer Pauline E. Hopkins was involved in publishing the magazine, and became its editor until 1904, when the magazine was bought by Booker T. Washington and moved to New York City, replacing her.
Boston Guardian (1901-1950)
Co-founded by William Monroe Trotter and George W. Forbes in 1901, the Boston Guardian addressed both local and national issues, and it was the Guardian that initiated a boycott against the play The Clansman (the basis of the movie The Birth of a Nation). The newspaper was a commercial success, and continued publishing until the 1950s.
The Saturday Evening Quill (1928-1930)
The Saturday Evening Quill Club, founded by journalist Eugene Gordon, was a black literary society that produced the short-lived Saturday Evening Quill literary magazine. Though it only published three issues, its founding members included Helene Johnson and Dorothy West, and they published many Harlem Renaissance authors.
Robbins, Hollis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editors. The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers. Penguin, 2017.
Wallinger, Hanna. Pauline E. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. U. of Georgia Press, 2005.
Wilson, Susan. Literary Trail of Greater Boston. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.