The purpose of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s talk at Charlotte's McGlohon Theatre Monday night was to preview his upcoming PBS series, "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross." But before Gates launched into stories of African-American history, he made a point to recognize one audience member -- Winthrop English Department Chairman Gregg Hecimovich.
Two weeks ago, Hecimovich made national headlines when he announced he has discovered the identity of the author believed to be the first African-American woman to write a novel. The news was especially exciting for Gates, a renowned scholar of African-American history, because Gates owns the 1850s-era manuscript.
In 2001, Gates came across the work in a catalog, which described it as a "301-page handwritten manuscript purportedly written by female fugitive slave." He bought it at an auction for $8,500. After its authenticity was verified, "The Bondwoman's Narrative" was published in 2002 and became a bestseller.
Though it was signed by "Hannah Crafts," scholars doubted that was the author's real name. Hecimovich, by digging through public records and archives and conducting interviews, finally tracked down the woman's true identity.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported Hecimovich's discovery on its front page. The woman, Hannah Bond, had been a slave on a North Carolina plantation owned by John Hill Wheeler.
On Monday night, at Gates' urging, Hecimovich stood from his seat near the front while the audience applauded. "This is why I do what I do," Gates said, "to work with a pure, honest scholar like this boy right here."
Gates's new series, by the way, looks fabulous. It premieres on PBS stations on Oct. 22.