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Researcher tries to unlock the identity of a slave-era author

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Stephanie English has spent at least two months in the microfilm room on the second floor of Carnegie Library in Oakland, looking for a woman who may not even exist.

Stephanie English of Swissvale checks the 1860 Federal Census of the state of New Jersey in the microfilm room of the Carnegie Library. She is trying to verify the existence if Hannah Crafts, a slave who is believed to have written a novel. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

The woman is Hannah Crafts, author of "The Bondwoman's Narrative," believed to be the first and only novel by a female African-American slave.

It's the story of a mulatto house slave who flees from her master and ends up a schoolteacher in New Jersey married to a Methodist minister. So nuanced and detailed is the story that some historians believe it could only have been written by someone who experienced slavery firsthand.

But little is known about Hannah Crafts, if that is even her real name.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates purchased the original manuscript in 2001 for $8,000, had it authenticated and edited it for publication last year. That's when English, perusing the shelves of Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill, found the book and a calling.

"The fact that it was a historical manuscript, that just captivated me right away," said English, who had done extensive genealogy and historical research while a student at Allegheny College in Meadville, Crawford County.

She checked out the book last November.

"I remember going through that one a lot faster than most of the other books. I couldn't put it down."

As soon as English finished the book, she wrote to Gates, outlining her historical research background and how he might find Crafts' true identity based on research he'd done up to that point.

"I thought that if my ideas sounded good to him that I'd get a letter from him in a month saying, 'Thank you for your ideas, we'll look into them,' " English said. "More than anything, I wanted them to try my ideas."

To her astonishment, Gates called a week after receiving the letter. He left a message on English's answering machine, offering her a job researching Crafts' identity. She eagerly accepted.

"It's fun. It's like detective work," said English, whose goal is to become a professional genealogist.

Gates, who could not be reached for comment, believes that parts of Crafts' story, including the fact that she married a minister and lived in New Jersey, may have been based on her life. English had some ideas on how to narrow the search.

Right now, between her two nanny jobs, she spends approximately 10 hours a week scrolling through the 1860 New Jersey census, looking for Methodist ministers and female schoolteachers. Because Hannah was a fair-skinned black woman, she may have been listed in the census as mulatto, black or white.

English, who started with Atlantic County, N.J., is now on Hudson County. She has gone through 10 of the 30 microfilm reels and has about 10 Crafts prospects.

Although Gates hired her to do the research, English has never actually spoken with the highly regarded scholar. He left a message on her answering machine, but English was never able to get in touch with him directly. She arranged her $12-an-hour research job through Gates' office.

Her work is being supervised by Hollis Robbins, a researcher who's helping Gates with a book of essays on the search for Hannah Crafts. Robbins also is working on her doctorate in English literature at Princeton University.

"Stephanie has just been invaluable in trying to go through the census data to see if we can try to find Hannah Crafts," Robbins said. "It's incredibly painstaking work and I'm so glad to have found somebody who likes doing it."

English, who graduated from Allegheny College last May with a bachelor's degree in English, spent four years as a research assistant with the Crawford County Historical Society. She eventually became head of research services there. During that time, English pored through the society's thousands of documents, newspaper clippings, church bulletins, photographs, ledgers, etc., to help people with their genealogical endeavors.

The 22-year-old researcher also worked as a docent at the Baldwin-Reynolds Museum in Meadville.

"She done all aspects of family history research," said the historical society's executive director, Laura Polo. "She's fabulous, highly motivated, passionate, really good at what she does."

While Gates has had the original manuscript examined and is convinced it's authentic, others are not so sure. In a column written for United Press International and reprinted by the National Review Online, John Bloom questions whether the author was really a fugitive slave.

He argues that the story could very well have been written by a white abolitionist because at least 10 other novels were published before the Civil War by white authors pretending to be black.

"There's nothing in the book that couldn't have been researched, imagined or observed by a white author," Bloom wrote.

Gates refutes those arguments in his introduction. He believes that only a former slave could have had such detailed knowledge of elements such as the slave caste system. He is further convinced by the way Crafts writes about her black characters, who are presented as people first rather than being defined by their race.

"There will always be an alternative viewpoint out there until we find the author," Robbins said. "We encourage all scholarly debate about the book because I think the quality of the novel speaks for itself."

Meanwhile, English will continue to scroll through the families of the 1860 New Jersey census, hoping to solve the mystery of Hannah Crafts. When might that happen?

"Well, if my genealogy work in Crawford County is any indication," she said, "I've learned to never answer that question."

Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.

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