Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Recognized as one of the first African American women to have published a novel, Julia C. Collins is an enigma. Little information is available about her life. Her maiden name and the date and place of her birth are all unknown. Her education is a mystery. One record that does exist appeared after her marriage to S. (Stephen or Simon) C. Collins of Williamsport, Lycoming County, indicating that she was a schoolteacher in the area for some period of time.

Collins’ writings – several essays and a serial novel, The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride – were published in the nationally distributed African American newspaper The Christian Recorder in 1864-65. Thirty-one chapters of The Curse of Caste were published weekly, but Collins contracted tuberculosis and died on November 25, 1865, before finishing it.

Title panel for The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride by Julia C. Collins. Oxford University Press

Title panel for The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride by Julia C. Collins. Oxford University Press

The novel was about the life of a light-skinned slave woman who falls in love with a southern gentleman, the son of a plantation owner. Although passing for white, the woman reveals her true race to the man but he marries her anyway. The couple flees north after the man’s father disinherits him. Later, the man returns to the South and attempts to reconcile with his father while his pregnant wife dies in childbirth in their Connecticut home. The man learns of his wife’s death and is deceived into thinking that the baby also died. The last surviving chapters focus on the daughter in adulthood and the possibility of a reunion with her father. These complicated events, quite controversial at the time, made for a very dramatic story. Readers were disappointed when the novel they had been following weekly was never concluded.

Collins’ essays addressed themes of black education, morality and uplift at a critical time in African American history. Her works also bring to light little known information about the life and mores of middle class African Americans in the 19th century. The themes in her novel – interracial romance, hidden African ancestry and ambiguous racial identity – present a unique vision of race relations during the era of emancipation. In a time when even white women were often restricted from expressing their views in public and only a small percentage of African Americans were literate, Collins’ accomplishments were extraordinary.

The historical marker for Julia C. Collins was erected in Williamsport in June 2010.

 

Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.