1865 Novel by African American Woman
"The Curse of Caste, or The Slave Bride," a novel about a mixed-race
relationship and a light-skinned young woman who passes for white, made its
debut as a serialized story in the Christian Recorder. The author
was Julia C. Collins, a free black woman from Williamsport.
novel, Collins--a published essayist and teacher--wove an intricate story of
love and romance centered around Claire Neville, the daughter of a Louisiana
slave who began a relationship with the man that owned her. Claire's
mother died giving birth to her and her father fled the country in the face of
social taboos against mixed-race and owner-slave relationships. Claire,
who is very light-skinned, is unaware of her slave heritage and ends up as a
young governess in a wealthy household, where she finds love and romance with a
visiting French count.
Collins died before finishing the novel, and the fate of Claire and the count,
who, in the last published installment, had just discovered her past, remains
unknown. Two possible endings--one happy and one sad--have been created by
modern editors, who are republishing the novel with Oxford University Press.
Though not significant by modern literary standards, "The Curse of Caste" is
important because it is one of the earliest novels by an African American woman.
Collins, writing sometimes from Williamsport and sometimes from the Susquehanna
River village of Owego, New York, published several essays in The Christian
Recorder. "School Teaching," an essay drawn from her experience as a
teacher, was published in The Christian Recorder on May 7, 1864.
"Intelligent Women," written from Williamsport, appeared on June 4, 1864.
"Originality of Ideas" was published on December 10, 1864. Her essay
"Memory and Imagination" appeared in the January 28, 1865 edition.
On February 18, 1865, The Christian Recorder
promised "Something New and Good for our Readers," and published a short teaser
about a forthcoming "narrative on The Curse of the Caste," to be written
by "Mrs. Julia C. Collins, now of Williamsport, Pennsylvania." The
Christian Recorder introduced the novel in its February 25, 1865 edition.
Notice. We respectfully invite the careful attention of our readers to Mrs. Collins' first article, entitled, "the Curse of Caste; or, the Narrative of a Slave-Bride." The story is one of great depth and thrilling interest - bespeaking a rare genius and powerful intellect in the happy writer. We are sure it will meet with much approbation, and cause an increased demand for our paper. So be it.
Installments appeared weekly, developing a good
following among the newspaper's readers. Installment 31, "Strange Events,"
was published on September 23, the last to be seen in print. In its
September 30, 1865 edition, The Christian Recorder reported:
We are sorry to inform our numerous readers that we received a letter, informing us of the illness of our correspondent of "Curse of Caste, of Slave Bride" notoriety. We hope that her sickness is not unto death. We look forward to a speedy return of health and the continuation of her beautiful story.
16, the newspaper broke the news of Julia Collins' death, reported to them by
her husband in Williamsport. A week later, it published the following more
elaborate account of her death from a Williamsport correspondent:
On Saturday, November 25th, Mrs. Julia C. Collins, the wife of Stephen C. Collins, departed this life after a short, but severe attack of consumption. Sister Collins was not a member of the church when taken sick, but, while she was contending with her affliction, she found Christ precious to her soul, and told, to all around her, what a dear Saviour she had found; and made all promise to meet her on "Jordan's Stormy Banks," where sickness, sorrow, pain, nor death are felt and feared no more. Mrs. Collins will not only be missing by her bereaved husband and motherless children, but by the public generally, as she was one of the writers for the Christian Recorder. Her last subject was the "Slave Bride," continued. The readers of your paper are anxious to see the end of that story.
The Christian Recorder,
7 May, 4 June, 10 December, 1864; 28 January, 18, 25 February, 23, 30 September,
16, 23 December 2006.
Dinitia Smith, "From 1865: A Black Woman's Love Story,"
International Herald Tribune, online version, 01 November 2006,
http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/11/01/features/slave.php?page=2, accessed 06 November 2006.
Calobe Jackson, Jr., email
correspondence to Afrolumens Project, 02 November 2006.
Mary Slaughter and the Home for Aged Colored Women
The news article below notes, in part, the appearance of Mary Slaughter of Williamsport, "an aged colored woman, a former slave," before the State Board of Charities in Harrisburg. Ms. Slaughter made the trip to Harrisburg in 1914 to appeal for state funding for her Home for Aged Colored Women, which she established in 1897 in her home in Williamsport.
Mary and her family had been enslaved on the Myers plantation in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and came to Williamsport in 1866. Mary's husband William died in 1886 and she took in boarders after that, eventually recognizing the need for a place that would care for elderly Black women. The home she established survived on donations from local benefactors, but Mary realized a more consistent source of support would be needed. She went to Harrisburg and appeared before the board members with her request on October 28. Her appeal was successful and the state agreed to fund the home with her as matron, a position she held until her death in 1934.
The story of Mary Slaughter and the Williamsport Home for Aged Colored Women is told in detail by historian Mary Sieminski, published in the Williamsport Gazette. Read the story here.
Sieminski, Mary, "Mary Slaughter: Founder of the Home for Aged Colored Women," Williamsport Sun-Gazette, 9 February 2014. Accessed online at https://www.sungazette.com/life/lifestyle-news/2014/02/mary-slaughter-founder-of-the-home-for-aged-colored-women/, July 31m 2023.
"Local Charities Ask Aid," Harrisburg Star Independent, 28 October 1914, p. 2.