William J. Wilson

William J. Wilson's signature

Wilson's signature. 

William J. Wilson, "A Leaf from my Scrapbook," Autographs for Freedom, ed. Julia Griffith, 1854. Image courtesy HathiTrust.

A prolific writer and caustic social commentator, William J. Wilson (b.1818) lived most of his adult life in Brooklyn, NY. Census records indicate Wilson was born in New Jersey and emigrated to Brooklyn sometime before 1850, where he worked as a school teacher.1 By the end of the Civil War Wilson had moved again, this time to Washington D.C., where he held several positions over the years in the financial sector.2 Unsurprisingly, not much is known about Wilson’s private life except that his wife, Mary, was likely born around 1820 and his daughter, Ann, around 1845.3 The Wilsons all worked as teachers and were among the few Black residents of Brooklyn to teach in the South. William J. Wilson taught freed individuals there for three years, while his Mary Wilson and Anna Wilson taught for four and five years respectively.4

In Brooklyn, Wilson worked closely with J. W. C. Pennington and Junius C. Morel to oppose the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and colonizationists. They formed a committee called the Committee of Thirteen, which believed that “the actual goal of colonization was to remove the only consistently antislavery population from the nation.”5 A seat on this committee, as well as his published works, ensured Wilson a spot in the 1855 Convention. Although Wilson did not have a grand role in the Convention, he was on the committee that chose the delegate that would be invited to the Convention.Wilson was also acquainted with Henry Highland Garnet; both men gave speeches at the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at Cooper Union in New York. Wilson firmly believed that emancipation was the inevitable outcome of the Civil War.

Wilson was also a key writer of the opening speech of the 1855 National Colored Convention, held in Philadelphia. The speech urged the African American community to pursue education in trade in order to better the condition of both free and enslaved African Americans.4 This was not the only document Wilson crafted that supported the pursuit of education and trade. Examining Wilson’s contributions to print culture reveals that he often crafted similar documents, using an energetic writing style, which paired unflinching social and economic commentary with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. From about 1851-1855, Wilson was a regular correspondent for the Frederick Douglass Paper under the pseudonym “Ethiop." In his communications he spoke out against colonization, calling it a “distemper long prevalent among the whites."5 

“Ethiop” also encouraged his readers to seize economic opportunities and expressed frustration with the economic stagnation of the African American community in New York. He criticized those who invested more in appearances than in real estate or business ventures. He bantered, though seriously, with another correspondent, Communipaw, who was actually James McCune Smith.6 Their identities were an open secret among Douglass’ readership.7 Julia Griffith published Wilson's "A Leaf from my Scrapbook" in Autographs for Freedom in 1854. In 1859 he published "Afric-American Portrait Gallery," a prose tour of a fictionalized gallery that depicts the history of Blacks in America. 

Between 1860 and 1865, the Wilsons moved to Washington DC. There, Wilson worked as a cashier at the Freedman’s Savings Bank and National Savings Bank.8 It is no surprise then that Wilson was part of the Committee on Publication at the 1869 National Colored Convention in Washington DC. His daughter, Anna Wilson, also lived in the same city and married Thomas Smith Boston. Boston worked as assistant cashier at the Freedman’s Savings Bank.9 It is highly likely that William J. Wilson helped his son-in-law get this position. Anna Wilson, like her father, worked as a teacher.

What little scholarship there is on William J. Wilson mostly focuses on his "Afric-American Portrait Gallery," his critique of colonization, and the sarcastic tone he employs to make those and other critiques9. As the critical appreciation for Wilson’s work has only begun to blossom in the twenty-first century, there is ample room for further study. Ivy G. Wilson has written exclusively on William J. Wilson in her chapter “The Colored Museum” in Specters of Democracy. Other scholars, including Craig Steven Wilder and Mia Bay, examine certain articles or essays by Wilson in order to study the larger African American print culture and debates therein.


Jessica D. Conrad, English 634, Spring 2013. Taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.

With Research Contributions from Cristina Garbalosa, Taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.

Edited by Carolyne King, English 641, Spring 2016. Taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.

Edited and Revised by Samantha de Vera


[1] "United States Census, 1850," Ancestry Library Edition, accessed 15 Mar 2013.

[2]  "Washington City Directory, 1867," Ancestry Library Edition, accessed 15 Mar 2013.

[3] United States Census, 1850," Ancestry Library Edition, accessed 15 Mar 2013.

[4] Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, (Salem, NJ: National Standard Office, 1856):3-5, Link.

[5] Ethiop, “From Our Brooklyn Correspondent,” Frederick Douglass Paper, 25 Dec. 1851, accessed 15 Mar 2013.

[6] See for instance, Communipaw, “Letter from Communipaw," Frederick Douglass Paper, 12 Feb. 1852, accessed 15 Mar 2013.

[7] Peterson, Carla, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, (New Haven: Yale UP, 2011): 217-218.

[8] "Washington, District of Columbia, City Directory, 1867," Ancestry Library Edition, accessed 30 June 2017.

[9] “Washington, District of Columbia, City Directory, 1874,” Ancestry Library Edition, accessed 30 June 2017.

[10] “1880 United States Federal Census, Washington, District of Columbia,” “U.S. City Directories, Chicago, Illinois, 1878,” and “Chicago City Directory 1889.” Ancestry Library Edition, accessed 30 June 2017.

 [11] See Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind (2000); Carla Peterson, Black Gotham (2011); Craig Steven Wilder, A Covenant with Color (2000); and Ivy G. Wilson, Specters of Democracy (2011).





Ethiop 1

"From our Brooklyn Correspondence." Frederick Douglass' Paper, 18 Feb. 1853. From Accessible Archives © 2016 Accessible Archives Inc.

Writing as Ethiop, Wilson compares nations to predators: "England, France, United States, Hayti—Tiger, Hyena, Wolf, Lion." Wilson's letter is reminiscent of fables as he criticizes not just nations, but also individuals. His biting assessment is vivid and clear, and he targets individuals who impeded the antislavery cause in the political arena. Among those whom he attacks is Daniel Webster, a senator who strongly supported the Fugitive Slave Law. 

Ethiop 2

"From our Brooklyn Correspondence." Frederick Douglass' Paper, 18 Feb. 1853. From Accessible Archives © 2016 Accessible Archives Inc.

DEAR DOUGLASS: - When I last wrote you the intensity of the

"Dear Douglass." Frederick Douglass' Paper, 18 Feb. 1853. From Accessible Archives © 2016 Accessible Archives Inc.

In another published letter in Frederick Douglass' Paper, Wilson asserts that while Black slaves are forced to toil, there are white slaves who willingly debase and degrade themselves just for money. Wilson shares the common belief that slavery ruins the moral fibre of whites as their love for money overcomes their principles.