Williamsport is about to make amends to Julia Collins” is how Williamsport Sun-Gazette reporter R. A. Walker opened his article announcing that the nineteenth-century Williamsport essayist, teacher, and author, was to be honored with a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker dedicated in her name.
The city did make amends and continues to celebrate Collins, whose novel The Curse of Caste, or the Slave Bride, first published serially in 1865, is considered the first novel by an African American woman. Her marker is also the first in Lycoming County to honor a woman, the first to honor an African American, and the first to honor an artist. The marker text reads, in part, “[Collins’s] life and writings provide a glimpse into the rarely documented experiences of nineteenth-century African American women, their families, and their communities.”
It took 140 years from the time the novel was first published in serial form (over a period of eight months in 1865 in the Christian Recorder, the nationally-distributed newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) until the time Oxford University Press published The Curse of Caste in book form, under the careful editorship of William L. Andrews, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, professor of history at Western Michigan University.
The formal process of acquiring the marker for Julia Collins was initiated by the governing board of the Lycoming County Historical Society, the sponsor for the application to the Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission. Members of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, keenly aware that there was not one marker in Lycoming County for a woman, eagerly partnered with the Historical Society. Gaining state approval for the installation of a marker is a very competitive process, and even if the application is approved, the sponsoring agency must agree to raise its own funds. The application was approved in April 2009, and over the course of a year, the Historical Society, along with African American and women’s groups in the city, successfully raised the funds to manufacture and install the marker.
The dedication ceremony took place on June 19, 2010 on the Susquehanna River Walk and Timber Trail, not far from the location where Collins is thought to have lived and taught. Among the attendees were Mitch Kachun, Dr. Leslie Patrick, a member of the Pennsylvania State Historical Commission and professor at Bucknell University, and various government representatives including State Representative Rick Mirabito, Williamsport Mayor Gabe Campana, and County commissioner Jeff C. Wheeland.
The most important guests at the dedication were not, however, the committee members or the government officials, but Jane Luther and Robert Smith and scores of other members of Julia Collins’s family from Lycoming County and from around the United States. These kinsmen and women of Collins, who before the novel and essays were re-published, had never even known their kinswoman existed, let alone that she was the first published African American novelist. Now they gathered for a family reunion to celebrate.
What The Curse of Caste is about
The title Collins gave her novel, The Curse of Caste, or the Slave Bride, matches the drama of the story she tells. Lina, a beautiful dark haired woman, and Richard, the son of a New Orleans slave owner, fall in love. Richard discovers that Nina is actually a slave. Richard and Nina marry despite this fact, and Richard’s irate father disinherits his son. The newlyweds flee north to Connecticut where Lina dies in childbirth while Richard is back in New Orleans, trying to make peace with his father. Richard is deceived into thinking that his baby daughter died along with his wife. An orphan child, the dark and beautiful Clare, grows up not knowing who her parents were—or even their race or hers.
Then the story shifts back to New Orleans, and there is a chance discovery that may change lives and reconcile the family. But the readers of The Curse of Caste, who eagerly followed the weekly installments of the novel, never found out how it ended. Unfortunately for the readers, Julia Collins died of tuberculosis before the final chapter appeared.
Happily, since Oxford University Press published the novel in book form in 2006, researchers and genealogists have been working to fill in some of the gaps in Julia Collins’s own story and to make her life story and her novel more widely known.
How the lost novel was “discovered”
Kachun “discovered” the novel in the pages of the Christian Recorder as he was doing research for his study, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915. He put the discovery aside until he finished that project, but came back to it several years later. Kachun, sure that Collins’s writings were significant, brought them to the attention of Andrews, and the two collaborated on the publication of the unfinished novel and six nonfiction essays that Collins also wrote for the Recorder. Julia C. Collins and her work were forgotten in the city where she had lived.
Research for the Oxford edition brought Kachun to Williamsport twice; yet, even after extensive research in local, regional, and national sources, he still concluded, “Everything we know about Julia Collins dates from April 1864, when she was first mentioned in the Christian Recorder, to November 1865, when she died of “consumption” [tuberculosis].” Kachun continued in the foreword to the edition,
… the basic questions about her life remain unanswered. When and where was she born? Was she born free or enslaved, in the North or the South? Was she light skinned or dark? Where and how did she receive her education? We do not even know under what name she was born, since Collins was her married name. We know that she was married, but we know little about her husband. She had children, but we do not know with certainty how many, their names, ages, sexes, or anything else about them?
The bare bones of Julia Collins’s life story were reported in the Christian Recorder: She had been appointed the teacher for the African American children in Williamsport for the term beginning in May 1864. Her husband’s name was Stephen. She suffered from tuberculosis. She died before the novel was finished and left “motherless children.”
Since its publication, scholars have debated the novel’s literary merits and questioned whether it is entitled to the claim on the cover of the Oxford edition, that it is “the first novel by an African American woman.” Henry Louis Gates has suggested that that distinction belongs to Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, written and published in 1859 by Harriet P. Wilson. Kachun and Andrews argue that Our Nig is autobiography, not fiction. For others it has sparked an interest in discovering more about her. Who was this young woman—a wife, mother, and teacher in the small town of Williamsport during the Civil War? What gave her the motivation—the audacity—to write and publish her essays and her novel in a national newspaper—a newspaper with thousands of readers across the entire county? And how could she then drop so completely out of sight?
Looking for Julia in Williamsport
When Kachun first came to Williamsport to look for traces of Julia Collins, there were none. There were no records in the census for a “Julia C. Collins;” there was no city directory published until after her death; he could find nothing in the newspapers of the time. Of course, Kachun did not know her birth name, and women were rarely listed in the public documents anyway. Kachun found one person named “Julia” in the 1860 census—a young woman named Julia Green who was living with the family of Enoch Gilchrist, an African American abolitionist who had been a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It was Enoch Gilchrist who announced in the Recorder that Julia had been appointed the teacher for Williamsport’s black children, a position that Simon Gilchrist, Enoch’s father, had held a decade earlier. These connections make is seem plausible that “Julia Green” could have been Julia Collins, but there is no verification of that.
Another connection was even more vague—Julia Collins had purchased a subscription to the Christian Recorder for Charles O. Bryan in Jersey Shore. Bryan’s mother was Ann Elizabeth Gilchrist, Enoch’s sister. Were Julia and Charles cousins?
Seemingly at a dead end, Mitch Kachun came to Williamsport once again and spoke at the annual Juneteenth celebration. Celebrating “Juneteenth,” the anniversary of the day in 1865 when former slaves in Texas learned that they had been freed has become a tradition among Williamsport’s African American community. Kachun inquired of the audience whether anyone had any information about Julia Collins, her husband Stephen Collins, or their families.
Jane Luther, of nearby Jersey Shore, did. The clue was in a letter written to Jane’s uncle, Robert Smith, by an elderly woman hoping to identify her grandmother.
Ethel M. Caution, an 84-year-old woman, living in New York City, but who had been born in Williamsport, had sent a long letter to Robert Smith asking for his assistance in finding out more about her family history, and specifically about her grandmother, who had died before she was born. In the letter, dated May 17, 1971, Caution stated,
“I am related in some way to the Joseph Henry Bryan, Charles O’Brien, Ann Elizabeth Gilchrist, Julia O’Brien complex. Just how, I do not know. I think that perhaps my mother’s mother may have been a descendant of the O’Brien clan. You may have heard of my grandfather Stephen Collins and of his wife whose maiden name I do not know and of his daughter Annie Collins.”
Robert Smith and Jane Luther knew they had a connection to Caution, as they were descendents of Joseph Henry Bryan and his wife, Ann Elizabeth Gilchrist. Bryan, a cooper, had lived with his family in Jersey Shore in the mid-nineteenth century. And Luther and Smith had known of cousins Charles O’Brien and Julia O’Brien.
So, at last Kachun had tentatively identified two descendents of Julia Collins: Annie Collins and Annie’s daughter, Ethel Caution. They were the first of many descendents of Julia Collins.
The publication of the book and dedication of the marker generated front-page stories in local newspapers and coverage on local radio and television. By this time, Collins’s story had also attracted the interest of Reginald Pitts. Pitts is a nationally known genealogist and historian specializing in African American genealogy and literature; Pitts, along with Gabrielle Forman, edited the 2005 Penguin edition of Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, another contender for the first novel by an African American woman. Pitts began extensive research in an attempt to identify Julia, her husband Stephen, and their family. Pitts’s research is ongoing. It promises to tell us much more about who Julia was and what life was like for an African American woman in Williamsport in the nineteenth century. Pitts notes that. “as an African American woman writer living in the time of the American Civil War, Mrs. Collins was a member of two minority groups—blacks who wrote and published their literary creations, and women who wrote and published their literary creations.”
“Today, when asked the names of literary figures of that period, people will mention Melville or Whitman or Longfellow or Hawthorne, but very few would mention Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Frances E. W. Harper. To get a clearer view of the people who were active during this time, more work is needed in trying to find out more about them, and that includes Julia C. Collins.” “At first,” acknowledges Pitts, “it may appear to be a tall order, and even her grandchildren were largely unsuccessful in finding out anything about her. However, work continues to unearth the facts of her life and her truncated career.”
So, what do we know now about Julia C. Collins?
Her name at birth? We still don’t know this name, but the most promising theory so far is that she was the stepdaughter of Enoch Gilchrist. This places her in a very active and educated family. The Gilchrist family was active in the local African American Episcopal Church, in politics, and in the fight to gain legal rights for blacks. Gilchrist’s obituary states that, not only was he was a friend of Frederick Douglass, but that “he was personally known to President Lincoln.” Elizabeth Gilchrist, his sister, was married to the well-known Bishop Joseph Pascal Thompson, of the AME Zion church, who she had most likely met in Williamsport when the former slave came to Williamsport from Virginia on the Underground Railroad.
Where was she born?Although Williamsport was a very active station on the Underground Railroad, it seems much more likely that Julia was born a free woman in the North. Hopefully, some day we will know exactly where.
Her race? Julia Green was listed as mulatto in the 1860 census. We know that her daughter, Annie, is identified as mulatto on census records as are her children. We have a picture of Elizabeth Gilchrist Thompson and a picture of Ethel Caution. Both are light skinned blacks. Enoch Gilchrist was identified in his obituary as both African American and German, with a note that both father and son spoke German. Ethel Caution had heard stories that the male ancestors of the Bryan family were originally from Ireland. Clearly this was a mixed-race family.
How was she educated? We do not know that either, but we do know that she was well read and that her essays and her novel are sophisticated. She quotes Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Longfellow in her essays, and names her characters after classical figures. She surely had access to a good personal library.
And her husband, Stephen Collins? Pitts has uncovered a great deal of information about him. He was born in Pottsville, PA, and lived in Williamsport with his mother and stepfather. No marriage records have survived, but Stephen’s Civil War records give us valuable information about him. He was married once before he married Julia and was a barber with a shop on West Fourth Street in Williamsport. He was a commander of the Fribley Post of the G.A.R, the veterans’ organization for colored civil war soldiers in Williamsport. Pitts has determined that Stephen Collins married three more times after Julia’s death and died in Atlantic City at the home of a daughter in 1917.
Where did she live? From city directories we can make a good guess that she lived in the mostly African American section of town, on Mill Street, near the Susquehanna River. Stephen Collins’s parents lived on Mill Street, and most likely, Julia and the children lived with them while Stephen was serving in the Civil War. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was also on Mill Street. The entire section of town was destroyed a large flood in 1889. It is still unclear how long Julia might have lived in Williamsport and where else she might have lived since. To add even more mystery to her life story, several of her essays are datelined Owego and Oswego, towns in upstate New York.
What about her “motherless children?” Research by Pitts and others has determined that Julia left two children—the older, Sarah, probably about eight when Julia died was Stephen’s child by a previous marriage, the other, Annie, would have been Julia’s natural child and would have been about three when her mother died. Census records indicate the Annie was raised in Williamsport by her grandparents, worked as a domestic, and, in 1884, married John L. Caution, a lumber worker originally from Maryland. They had four children, but tragically both parents died while they were quite young and John Caution’s brother took the children to live in Cambridge, MA, and eventually were adopted by different families. Ethel M. Caution, who wrote to Robert Smith searching for her grandmother, was once of those children.
And her appointment as a teacher? Enoch Gilchrist posted an announcement in the Christian Recorder that Julia Collins was appointed a teacher for the black children and that she would teach “for the summer” beginning on April 11, 1864. In 1850, African American citizens had petitioned for a school building, but did not get it. John Meginness in his History of Lycoming County suggests that as early as 1850, the school board authorized a salary for a teacher for black students, but the teacher was responsible for providing his or her own space and materials. In February, 1853, C. S. Gilchrist was employed for three months at $18 per month to teach colored children, the teacher to find a room, stove, fuel everything, except benches. It seems that the school term for blacks was three months; white children spent six to eight months in school. It would be another decade until the city provided a school building for its African American children.
Where is she buried?There are no burial records in Williamsport for that time period. We know that Julia and Stephen Collins’s daughter, Annie Collins Caution and her husband John Caution are buried in Wildwood Cemetery just outside Williamsport in a plot purchased by Annie’s father, Stephen Collins.
Why should Julia Collins be remembered?
Historical Markers are approved and erected by the state in honor of important people and events in Pennsylvania history. As the author of one of the first, if not the first, novel published by an African American woman, Julia Collins is a very important part of our local, state and national heritage and history.
The placement of the marker on the River Walk by the Susquehanna River is fitting—hundreds of walkers and joggers and bikers pass the marker every day. Julia and her family lived near the location of the marker and she had her schoolroom nearby, most likely in her home. The first African American church was on the same street. Mill Street, now gone from city maps, was a section of town alive with African American daily life.
While Pennsylvania has rightfully honored the lumber barons who made Williamsport the Lumber Capital of the world—the Peter Herdics and the J. Henry Cochrans and the James V. Browns who owned the mills and factories near here and built gracious homes on Millionaire’s Row—in honoring Julia, Pennsylvania also honors those who worked in the lumberyards and mills—black and white—women and men.
We honor those who taught the children of the workers, and especially Julia—who went home at night, and with her husband far away and her health strained, put her two small daughters to bed, and sat down to write essays that inspired her race, and a novel that would be one of the first, if not the first, novel published by an African American woman.
As researchers, local residents, and Collins’s living relatives, continue to explore the woman, her community, and her family, they do, in the words inscribed on the marker, “provide a glimpse into the rarely documented experiences of nineteenth-century African American women, their families, and their communities.”
Commissioner Wheeland’s comments at the dedication of the marker are particularly appropriate: “It is my wish, hope, and prayer that some day some young person will come across the marker, read it, reflect on his or her own life and forever be changed.”
Mary L. Sieminski. Mary L. Sieminski is a native of Williamsport with a strong interest in local history. She is a retired librarian and had been the director of the library at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, a Penn State affiliate, in Williamsport. For the past four years she has been the project manager for the Lycoming County Women’s History Collection, a grant funded online archive of source material related to local women’s history maintained by the Snowden Library of Lycoming College in Williamsport. Its collection is available at www.lycoming.edu/library/lcwhc.html.