Lee Marriner, Associated Press
Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. talks about his research on Harriet Wilson, an indentured servant whose book was published in 1859.

MILFORD, N.H. — In the mid-1800s, a black woman wrote a novel about a black girl who was beaten and tortured by her white masters in Milford. Scholars believe Harriet Wilson's book was autobiographical, but for more than a century, her story was more or less forgotten.

Scholars say Wilson was not a slave but an indentured servant, who nevertheless suffered abuses at the hands of the cruel whites she served. Desperate to earn enough money to support herself and her 7-year-old son, Wilson published "Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of a Free Black," in Boston in 1859.

It is believed to be the first novel to be published in English by a black woman.

Today, 20 years after it was rediscovered, the novel regularly is taught in college literature classes and is in "The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature," edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor of African-American studies, and Nellie Y. McKay, a professor of African American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Abandoned as a child by her white mother and black father, Wilson's character, Frado, was sent to live with the Bellmont family when she was 6. The mistress of the house and her daughter Mary beat the young girl, tied her up, even jammed splints into her mouth. She was released at age 18, weak and sickly from years of hard labor.

Frado is referred to simply as "Nig" at times in the 140-age book, even by some of the whites who befriend her.

Scholars say the novel adds to the growing body of knowledge about slavery in New England, which was widespread in the 18th century and lasted into the 19th century. But historians and other Wilson enthusiasts say there is much they still do not know about the author's life.

Thought to be Harriet E. Adams before she married Thomas Wilson in 1851, the author apparently lived at the Nehemia Hayward family farm in Milford during the 1840 census, historian Barbara White said. In the 1850 census, she is listed as a 22-year-old black woman living with the Boyles family.

She gave birth to a son in May or June of 1852. Wilson ended her book with pleas to readers to purchase her novel so she could support herself and her son, who died as a young boy shortly after the novel was published.

Today, mentioning the name Harriet Wilson in Milford or the rest of the state is likely to draw a blank stare or perhaps a faint glimmer of recognition. But a group of women has formed the Harriet Wilson Project to change that. Members spend hours in basements exploring old files and wandering through cemeteries searching for her grave.

Their goal is simple.

"We want to raise awareness for her and her work. We want her to be publicly and officially recognized in the town and the state of New Hampshire," says JerriAnne Boggis, 44, project director. "And we want her book in the New Hampshire public schools."

The book is on optional reading lists in some New Hampshire schools but is not required reading.

The project's efforts are beginning to register a small impact: Selectmen approved a request in February to erect a bronze monument in a Milford park to celebrate Wilson.