Iola Leroy

First published in 1892, this stirring novel by writer and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper tells the story of the young daughter of a wealthy Mississippi planter who travels to the North to attend school, only to be sold into slavery in the South when it is discovered that she has Negro blood. After she is freed by the Union army, she works to reunify her family and embrace her heritage, committing herself to improving the conditions for blacks in America.

In her groundbreaking Introduction, Hollis Robbins examines Iola Leroy not solely as an example of the “tragic mulatta” genre but more importunely as a sociological novel that grapples with problems of community, society, and the social contract in post–Reconstruction America. African Americans had experienced centuries of enforced bondage and limited freedom of association; what voluntary bonds should they now form? Should they give precedence to ties of social class or profession or to bonds of kin? Are traditional relationships among family members similar to contracts between individuals or contracts between individuals and the government? Shifting forward and backward in time and following characters as they move from South to North and back again, Iola Leroy complicates the standard sociological category of Gemeinschaft in its depiction of emancipated slaves.