Julia C. Collins
|Julia C. Collins|
|Died||November 25, 1865
|Notable works||Curse of Caste, or the Slave Bride|
|Spouse||Stephen C. Collins (a/k/a Simon C. Collins)|
|Children||Annie C. Collins (Mrs. John L. Caution)|
Julia C. Collins (c. 1842 – November 25, 1865), was an African-American schoolteacher in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, who in 1864 and 1865 contributed essays and other writings to The Christian Recorder, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Starting in January 1865, her novel, The Curse of Caste, or the Slave Bride was serialized in the pages of the Christian Recorder. The novel remains unfinished due to the untimely death of its author from consumption. In 2006, William L. Andrews of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Mitch Kachun of Western Michigan University collected Collins' writings and her unfinished novel and published them, with commentary and notes through Oxford University Press.
Life and literary work
Little is known about Julia Collins' life. Scholars believe she was born a free woman in the North, though her maiden name and birthdate are unknown. Only one African American woman named “Julia” appears in the 1860 Williamsport, Pennsylvania census, a seventeen year old Julia Green who was living with the family of Enoch Gilchrist, a black abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor. It’s plausible that the two Julias are the same person, but cannot be verified. A sign of an educated Northerner, Collins was well-read as she referenced Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and classical antiquity in her essays.
What is certainly known about Collins comes directly from references to her in the Christian Recorder, the weekly newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the April 16, 1854 issue of the Recorder, Enoch Gilchrist announced that Julia Collins was appointed as schoolteacher for the African American children in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. There was no school building open to African American children at that time. The school committee authorized a teacher’s salary, but the teacher had to provide the materials and space. The new school was likely located in the African American section near the Susquehanna River and the city's African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is not known where Collins lived before April 1864.
More is known about Collins’ husband, Stephen Carlisle Collins. Stephen was born a free man in Pennsylvania and lived in Williamsport. During the Civil War, he was an officer's servant before enlisting in the 6th United States Colored Infantry Regiment. For a period of time after the war, he operated a barber shop in Williamsport and served as commander of the Fribley Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization for Civil War soldiers. Barbering and school teaching were higher-status occupations for African Americans in the 19th-century, which meant the Collinses would have been respected and connected in the Williamsport community.
Julia Collins died on November 25, 1865. She only became a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on her deathbed. As reported in The Christian Recorder, she left “motherless children,” which leads to speculations that she was in her twenties when she died. These children have been identified as Sarah and Annie Collins. Since Stephen was previously married, the eldest daughter Sarah, born around 1858, was likely not Julia Collins’ natural daughter. Born around 1862, Annie was raised by her grandparents after her mother’s death. Annie worked as a domestic, married lumberer John L. Caution in 1884, and died suddenly in 1889.
The dramatic title Collins gave her novel, The Curse of Caste, (or The Slave Bride), is in keeping with the drama of the story she tells. Individual chapters of The Curse of Caste were published in the weekly Christian Recorder over a period of eight months in 1865. The story focuses on racial identity, interracial marriage, and the injustices of American slavery and racism. The story abruptly ends just as the plot reaches the climax and resolution, as Collins died of tuberculosis in November, leaving the novel unfinished. In 2006, Oxford University Press published the novel, including an introduction and two alternative endings written by the editors Mitch Kachun and William Andrews.
In addition to the novel, The Curse of Caste, Collins published six essays in the Christian Recorder over the course of ten months from April 19, 1864 to January 20, 1865. The essays are titled, “Mental Improvement,” “School Teaching,” “Intelligent Women,” “A Letter from Oswego: Originality of Ideas,” “Life is Earnest,” and “Memory and Imagination.” The first four essays are datelined Williamsport, Pennsylvania, while the fourth and fifth are datelined Oswego and Owego, New York. The essays convey a message of racial uplift and empowerment to the African American community.
Mitch Kachun, associate professor of history at Western Michigan University “rediscovered” The Curse of Caste while searching through the microfilm collection of the Christian Recorder. Along with colleague William L. Andrews, Katchun argues that the serialized novel is the first novel written by an African American woman. The pair argue that previous novels written by African American women, such as Our Nig (1859) by Harriet E. Wilson and Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), are basically autobiographical. During a presentation at Saginaw Valley State University, Kachun remarked how it's unusual that Collins’ characters are allowed to be married and (briefly) happy in a tumultuous America. Kachun speculated that “[Collins] is exploring what could be a happy ending, an empowering ending, in which marriage and civility are things that African American women can aspire to."
A few scholars argue that Kachun’s and Andrews’ statements are inaccurate and presumptuous. Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr., counters that many first novels are autobiographical fiction, and that Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson (which he brought to light in 1982) is the first novel by an African American woman. Gates also retorts that the book is not “rediscovered” as he published it in microfiche form in 1989 as part of “The Black Periodical Fiction Project.” At Gates’ request, Andrews and Kachun added a footnote in the book acknowledging this. Sven Birkerts, a New York Times book reviewer, argues that the “sketchily developed romance” novel is simply not “worthy of the canonically foundational ‘first novel by an African-American woman slot.’” He believes arguing the importance of this unfinished and editorially presumptuous novel takes away from the achievement of vital African American literary works.”
No matter the stances on the classification of The Curse of Caste, scholars believe the novel provides significant views on racial identity, interracial romance, hidden African ancestry, and gender ideologies. The story illuminates how racial prejudice persisted across generations and has the power to deprive people of trust social and emotional freedom. Veta Smith Tucker of the African American Review states that the lack of knowledge about Collins gives scholars great opportunity for discovery and calls the piecing together of facts “literary archeology.” Collins used the vehicle of the Christian Reader to share her voice with a broad audience, and Tucker hopes Collins’ messages of self-improvement, racial uplift, and gender ideologies resonate with people today.
- Collins, Julia C. "The Curse of Caste". Google Books. Oxford University Press. Retrieved October 2006. Check date values in:
- William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun, editors. The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) ISBN 978-0-19-530159-5
- Sieminski, Mary L. "Discovering Julia Collins". Literary and Cultural Heritage Map of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved 2016-01-04.
- Sieminski, Mary L. "Julia Collins: Williamsport essayist, teacher, and author". Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Retrieved February 20, 2013.
- Smith, Dinitia. "A slave story is rediscovered, and a dispute begins". New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved October 28, 2006.
- Kachun, Mitch. "Collins, Julia C.". African American National Biography. edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Retrieved April 12, 2010.
- "A Letter from Hollidaysburg Circuit," Christian Recorder, Dec. 23, 1865.
- Nathe, Margarite. "A first with no end". Endeavors. Endeavors Magazine. Retrieved July 2, 2009.
- Birkets, Sven. "Emancipation Days". New York Times. Sunday Book Review. Retrieved October 29, 2006.
- Tucker, Veta Smith (Winter 2006). "Introduction: Reclaiming Julia C. Collins, Forgotten 19th-Century African American Author". African American Review. 40 (4): 623–630.