Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Search of William J. Wilson

By Allegra Castro

My entire research project has been inspired by an author I discovered inadvertently when working on an assignment on the publication of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s short story “The Two Offers” in the Anglo-African Magazine. While perusing the contents of the magazine, I read “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859) by Ethiop, the pseudonym of William J. Wilson. I was impressed with the satirical content and technique in “Afric-American Picture Gallery” and wanted to find more satirical writings by this nineteenth-century black author.

My search for Wilson’s writings has posed a number of challenges. First, Wilson did not publish books, which I think is one reason why he has received limited scholarly attention. To my knowledge, with the exception of one essay published in an anthology called Autographs for Freedom (1854), Wilson’s writings survive in archived periodicals. Second, locating his work requires knowledge of and access to these periodicals.

A couple of summers ago, I met a librarian from Brooklyn, and I told her that the author I was researching was also a teacher and principal in one of Brooklyn’s “colored” public schools. Using her librarian research skills and savvy, she found another sample of his writing under the headline “Mr. Wilson’s Explanation” in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1863). My initial excitement ignited by this discovery was quickly tempered by the content of Wilson’s published letter to the Board of Education.

In the letter, Wilson addresses accusations made against him including the decline in enrollment at Colored Public School No. 1. In his defense, Wilson explains that the drop in enrollment began in the summer of 1862 when children attending the school were physically harassed and the school building had its windows smashed. In the column adjacent to Wilson’s letter was a committee’s report to the Board that included the recommendation that “the appointment of white teachers would be advisable.”

Wilson was both an educator and a satirist. I am mindful that behind the satirist was the individual who devoted himself to the empowerment of black people and his satire reflects this mission. Although satire may be delivered by means of wit and humor, Wilson’s satire was both serious and earnest and was just one of the numerous ways he took action to support and defend the interests and rights of black people in the United States.

Allegra Castro writes about nineteenth-century African American literatures, African American satire, and nineteenth-century black intellectual thought. She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective.

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