A decade ago, Dr. Henry Louis Gates published The Bondswoman’s Narrative, a novel from the 1850s by a writer named Hannah Crafts. The manuscript, which Gates bought at an auction, was allegedly written by a former slave and became known as the first novel authored by a Black woman. While the book became a best seller, it sparked interest about Hannah Crafts’ real identity.
Despite the book detailing the life of a house servant, many questioned whether it was written by a former slave, or even a Black woman, at all. But new research by Gregg Hecimovich, a professor at Winthrop University, has uncovered the novel’s true author: Hannah Bond.
Hannah Bond lived on a North Carolina plantation owned by John Hill Wheeler in the 19th century. Around 1857, Bond escaped to New York by disguising herself as a boy. She later settled in New Jersey where she married and became a schoolteacher.
Gregg Hecimovich, the chairman of the English department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., has uncovered previously unknown details about Bond’s life that have shed light on how the novel was possibly written. The heavy influences of Dickens, for instance, particularly from “Bleak House,” can be explained by Bond’s onetime servitude on a plantation that routinely kept boarders from a nearby girls’ school; the curriculum there required the girls to recite passages of “Bleak House” from memory. Bond, secretly forming her own novel, could have listened while they studied, or spirited away a copy to read.
The research also shows that Bond may have been given a man’s suit by a member of the Wheeler family who was sympathetic to her desire to flee.
Professor Hecimovich, 44, said that he has verified the writer’s identity through wills, diaries, handwritten almanacs and public records. He intends to publish his full findings in a book, tentatively titled “The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts.”
…The book, whose language borrows from 19th-century Gothic novels, traces the story of its narrator, who endures life as a slave on a North Carolina plantation and, aided by her light complexion, successfully escapes to the North.
That tale closely mirrors the story of Bond. Enslaved on a plantation in Murfreesboro, N.C., Bond is believed to have been a self-educated woman who worked as a maid to the mistress of the house, Ellen Wheeler, assisting her with errands and personal duties, like styling her hair.
Several scholars, including Dr. Gates, have hailed Professor Hecimovich’s achievement.
“Words cannot express how meaningful this is to African-American literary studies,” Gates said in an interview. “It revolutionizes our understanding of the canon of black women’s literature.”