A Woman to Know: Julia C. Collins

It was really dangerous for a black woman writer at this time to talk about passion and desire. — William Andrews

It was really dangerous for a black woman writer at this time to talk about passion and desire. — William Andrews

(image via Pennsylvania Center for the Book)

Julia wrote something very dangerous: she wrote a love story.

Julia grew up a free black woman in Pennsylvania, working as a teacher in Williamsport and alongside her stepfather as an abolitionist activist. She wrote numerous essays for the African Methodist Episcopal newspaper and in 1865 her editors there serialized her novel, “The Curse of the Caste.”

At the time, it was the first known novel by an African-American authoress. Julia’s book follows Claire, the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner’s son. When this “strangely, wildly and darkly beautiful” woman becomes a governess for the wealthy family, her resemblance to her employers causes a commotion. In the midst of this drama, she meets a visiting French count. The two fall in love and — depending on the ending you read — go on to live happily ever after.

When Julia wrote her book, it wasn’t just a first for black women writers; it was also a first for the romance genre. Previous works portrayed black women as unfaithful, lascivious villainesses, and few books allowed their mixed-race romances to end happily, as Julia had taken so much care to write. Historians say now that Julia’s work pushed boundaries for its depiction of a young black woman in love.

But as the newspaper noted when it first published Julia’s story, she would never get to see the book in print. She’d died the year before it hit newsstands, where it would go on to delight thousands of readers.

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