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Thomas P. Detter

(c. 1826)


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(c. 1826-?), journalist, short story writer, minister, and politician.

While details of Thomas Detter's early life are sketchy, it appears he was born in Maryland and educated in Washington, D.C., public schools. According to his father's will, he was to have been apprenticed as a shoemaker until his twenty-first birthday. Detter emigrated to San Francisco, California, in 1852, one of many African Americans lured by the economic prospects of gold and silver mining and the greater freedom of the western frontier. He quickly established himself as a community leader, becoming the Sacramento County delegate to the first Colored Citizens of the State of California Convention; serving on the State Executive Committee of that and other civil rights organizations; and campaigning in California, Nevada, Washington, and the Idaho Territory for public education, voting rights, and the admission of testimony by African Americans in court cases. Along with poet James Monroe Whitfield, Detter was one of the first African Americans to serve on a jury in Nevada. By 1864, Thomas Detter was known as “one of the old wheelhorses” of the western civil rights movement.

In 1871, when he published Nellie Brown, or The Jealous Wife with Other Sketches, Thomas Detter was about forty years old and living in the isolated frontier settlement of Elko, Nevada. Detter was not, however, an unknown writer; his reputation as a correspondent for the San Francisco Elevator and the Pacific Appeal had been established for more than a decade. Detter wrote commentaries on national and local social and political issues. He was an outspoken abolitionist and a fervent supporter of Reconstruction. His newspaper columns often included eulogies for local community leaders and writers, as well as for national figures such as Charles Sumner and Jeremiah B. Sanderson. Perhaps his most unusual contributions were the essays he published about the status and prospects of new gold or silver mines and his descriptions of towns that cropped up in response to the expansion of railroads. Detter traveled extensively throughout the Pacific Northwest, living in various mining camps and frontier settlements, plying his trade as a barber, selling his patented cough syrups and hair restoratives, and writing articles designed to encourage African Americans to relocate to these newly established towns and territories. His newspaper reports generally focused on the grand natural beauty and the economic opportunities of the expanding territories while emphasizing the abundant rewards that African Americans of courage, persistence, and optimism could achieve.

Detter's only known separately published volume, Nellie Brown, or The Jealous Wife with Other Sketches, includes fiction and essays set in antebellum Virginia and Maryland, Louisiana and Cuba, Idaho and California. Published in San Francisco and distributed throughout the western United States, Nellie Brown is among our earliest examples of the African American literary tradition on the western frontier. The title story, “Nellie Brown, or The Jealous Wife” is a novella about the misadventures that occur when greed inspires gossip and emotions overcome logic. It is one of the early examples of “divorce fiction” that was developing in nineteenth-century American literature and as such represents a singular innovation in the African American literary tradition. “The Octoroon Slave of Cuba” is an unusual alternative to the tragic mulatto themes of such works as William Wells Brown's Clotel and Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends. “Uncle Joe” is an adaptation of the African American trickster tale that resembles the later work of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Detter's essays are candidly opinionated but insightful and useful. Whether he was evaluating the impact of the “Central Pacific Railroad,” predicting the future prospects of “Idaho City,” or relating the painful folly of racial discrimination during “My Trip to Baltimore,” Detter wrote to inspire and to inform his readers. Like his contemporaries Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Frederick Douglass, Martin R. Delany, and others, Thomas Detter was an activist writer, an innovator in African American fiction, and a pioneer of the African American press.

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Subjects: Literature.


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