Scholar Who Rediscovered the Earliest Biography By and About An African American To Read November 8 at 6 pm At The Abiel Smith School In Boston

For immediate release
November 3, 2000


SOUTH HADLEY, Massachusetts--At a free, public event on Wednesday evening, November 8, at 6 PM at the historic Abiel Smith School in Boston, Lois A. Brown will read from the earliest-known biography of an African American. Brown, an English professor at Mount Holyoke College, rediscovered the narrative three years ago. The scholar first saw a reference to the book and its author while combing through nineteenth-century newspapers. Interested by the author, whom Brown had never heard of, she later found five extant copies of the book's first edition, which were simple pasteboards published by a Boston abolitionist.

The book is also the earliest-known published narrative by an African American woman and the first account documenting the life of free black child in the U.S. Titled the Memoir of James Jackson: The Attentive and Obedient Scholar, Who Died in Boston, October 31, 1883, Aged Six Years and Eleven Months by his Teacher, Miss Susan Paul,the book was originally published in 1835. The historical account sheds new light on the spiritual and political education of African American children in the antebellum North. According to Brown, "the narrative is about a black child who has no idea that there are limitations on what he can become. And in 1835, that is remarkable."

After Brown rediscovered the memoir, she sought a reprinting of the book. Harvard University Press quickly signed on, and the new edition of the Memoir of James Jacksonwas reissued in 1999. The story of how Brown found this unique piece of African American history was featured this September by the Boston Sunday Globe.

The Memoir of James Jacksonis a 169-page volume and includes photographs and documents of the period. The narrative chronicles the brief life of a loving, well-behaved, and spiritually mature child who, before his premature death, had begun to read the Bible and learn through school about slavery. Brown has written an introduction to the newly published book. In it, she points out that, unlike the early slave narratives of the 1830s, Paul's biography stands out in a time when women's writings typically blended genres of autobiography, essay, and poetry.

The memoir's author Susan Paul was the young student's primary school instructor, Sunday school teacher, and family friend. The daughter of a prominent minister of the first Baptist church in Boston, she was the sister of the first African American graduate of Dartmouth. Paul's mother was also a noted teacher and activist.

Currently on leave from Mount Holyoke College through a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, Brown is spending the year at Harvard University's DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research. There she has resumed work on a book about African American novelist Pauline Hopkins, the topic that inadvertently had led her to the nineteenth-century newspaper that promoted Susan Paul and her biography.

The Abiel Smith School, the first public school in the country for African American children, is located at 46 Joy Street in Boston and is part of The Museum of Afro-American History. The Museum preserves, conserves, and accurately interprets the contributions of African Americans, and the Abiel Smith School on Beacon Hill is among its most valuable assets.

For more information on the reading, call 617-725-0022 ext. 4.