Hopkins, Pauline E. (1859–1930)

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Hopkins, Pauline E. (1859–1930)

African-American writer, editor, and playwright. Name variations: (pseudonym) Sarah A. Allen. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1859; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 13, 1930; never married; no children.

A prolific 19th-century African-American writer, Pauline Hopkins was largely overlooked until four of her novels, including the best-known Contending Forces, were reprinted as part of the Schomburg Library's "Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers" series. Not only was Hopkins the author of novels, short stories, and a series of biographical sketches, but she also served as editor of The Colored American, the first black magazine established in the 20th century and the main forum for her own work. Hopkins was also an actress and singer of note.

Little is known of Hopkins' early life, aside from her birth in Portland, Maine, in 1859. Her literary career began at age 15, when she won a $10 prize for her essay "The Evils of Intemperance and Their Remedies." Ann Allen Shockley , who wrote an article about the writer for Phylon in 1972 and was instrumental in bringing her to light, claimed that Hopkins' greatest desire was to become a playwright. Indeed, she emerged in 1879 as the author and leading cast member in a musical drama, Slaves' Escape: or the Under-ground Railroad, which was first performed in Boston on July 5, 1880, by the Hopkins' Colored Troubadors, a group that may have included her mother and stepfather. The troupe played a number of venues in the Boston area. One performance given at Arcanum Hall in Allston, Massachusetts, in 1882, attested to Hopkins' talent as a singer, listing her in the program as "Boston's favorite Colored Soprano."

Hopkins' first novel, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, was published in 1900, around the same time that she began her association with The Colored American. Jane Campbell considers the novel "a fascinating, feminist historical romance" and contends that it "equalled or outranked the novels of Hopkins' male contemporaries—Charles Chesnutt, W.E.B. DuBois, and Sutton Griggs." The novel, her most popular, was followed by Hagar's Daughter, Winona, and Of One Blood, all of which were serialized within the pages of The Colored American. Hopkins also wrote short stories for the magazine, some of which were criticized for their interracial themes. Less controversial was a series of some 21 biographical sketches, including portraits of such prominent African-Americans as William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman , and Lewis Hayden.

In 1904, suffering a period of ill health, Hopkins left The Colored American, although there is evidence that she may have been forced out by new management. From 1904 to 1905, she wrote for another early 20th-century magazine, Voice of the Negro. One of her articles focused on the construction of the New York City subway.

In 1905, Hopkins' career began to decline, though she contributed several articles to New Era Magazine. She lived in obscurity after 1916 and died on August 13, 1930, at the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Relief Hospital after being badly burned in a house fire.


Campbell, Jane. "Pauline Hopkins," in Belles Lettres. Summer 1992.

Journal of Women's History. Fall 92, p. 190.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Barbara Morgan Melrose, Massachusetts

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