GHG - Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

  • 2008
  • Amistad Books/HarperCollins
  • Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, iBook
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Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend

Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the 2009 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Richard O. Hathaway Award from the Vermont Historical Society

Merging grand storytelling with meticulously researched history, Mr. and Mrs. Prince provides a detailed history of not only a pre-Civil War African American family in New England but also the challenges that faced African Americans in the North versus the slaves in the South.

Both were accomplished, given the period. Lucy Prince worked freely as an innkeeper and later went on to become the first published African American poet; Abijah Prince, her husband, was a veteran of the American Revolution and a resourceful and skilled entrepreneur. After they wed, they pursued what would become the cornerstone of the American Dream—having a family and owning property where they could live, grow, and prosper. However, after acquiring land in both Vermont and Massachusetts, they faced challenge upon challenge from those who sought to force them from their land. But instead of fleeing or giving up, they asserted their rights in court to fight for what was theirs, something they had done before and would do numerous times in the future.

Mr. and Mrs. Prince uncovers the lives of those who could have been forgotten.

Audio Excerpt

An excerpt from the audio edition of Mr. and Mrs. Prince.


This is an audio slideshow with background information and photographs from the research done for the book Mr. and Mrs. Prince.

Reviews and Praise for Mr. and Mrs. Prince

"Years of strenuous digging in the account books and personal papers of whites who knew the Princes have enabled Gerzina to present a moving... portrait of a striving family.... Instead of lamenting the limits of the evidence, the author spins a parallel story out of the dig for evidence....[T]he search is artfully woven into the story of the Princes' hard work. Gerzina and her husband, Anthony, had to learn archival research—a process that does not lack comedic qualities, or characters. When Gerzina seems about to turn herself into the heroine of the tale, she wisely steps back, admitting her jealousy of her spouse's discoveries. She confesses to hearing Abijah's ghost say, "Go tell our story," only to add that this is not a singular encounter in Guilford. Posed as a North Country initiation, this mysticism is surprisingly winning: it courts, then steps away from, sentimentality. Its very banality and ambiguity mimic the author's studied refusal to overstate, or own, the Princes' heroism. The drama of their lives, and of her discovery, is enough." David Waldstreicher for The New York Times

"'I fell in love with Lucy and Bijah from the moment I first heard of them," writes Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. There's nothing surprising about that. Readers will fall every bit as hard upon learning about the lives of Lucy and Abijah Prince. But readers have it easier. They won't need to embark on a seven-year odyssey to uncover the Princes' story. Gerzina has already done that for them. History and mystery mix in this tale to make Mr. and Mrs. Prince as absorbing as it is surprising and informative." Marjorie Kehe for The Christian Science Monitor

"Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina was two years into researching her newest book, detailing the lives of an influential 18th-century African-American married couple, when she uncovered a shameful part of her own past...In what first started as an effort to fulfill academic curiosity, Gerzina, a professor at Dartmouth College and the first black woman to chair an English department at an Ivy League school, found herself on a quest for redemption." Jason Millman for USA Today

"In early June of 1785, Lucy Terry Prince represented herself and her husband before the Vermont Governor's Council seeking protection from a group of men who had been harassing them and destroying their property...Not only was Mrs. Prince not a lawyer, but she was black, and further, a freed slave...She won her case, and the selectmen in her town of Guilford were ordered to protect the family and resolve the dispute...As Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina recounts in Mr. and Mrs. Prince, this legal victory was one of many striking events in the lives of a family now brought to light from the shadows of county courthouse records and local historical society annals." Michael Kenney for The Boston Globe

"Abijah and Lucy Prince defied all the conventions of their pre–Civil War era by buying themselves out of slavery and going on to become landowners and influential members of their communities in Vermont and Massachusetts. He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War; she was the first published African American poet; both were skilled entrepreneurs who faced down every challenge to their efforts. They stood up to those who tried to force them off their land, mounting court challenges and taking full advantage of their rights. Historian Gerzina intersperses their story—one of devotion and determination—with her own obvious love of genealogy and research. In the course of her work, aided by her husband, who became captivated and competitive in finding defining resources, Gerzina discovered a connection between her mixed-race family and the Princes. She is meticulous and joyous in this look at the Princes and the social and political landscape of enslaved and free black communities in New England." Vanessa Bush for Booklist

More praise for Mr. and Mrs. Prince

"A pure act of recovery, lifting up onto the table two original lives, remarkable because they stood so long invisible in plain sight." Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family and The Genetic Strand

"This book gives you that frisson of excitement that occurs only when you read something really, really good. It is, in its way, a suspense story, with a narrative that pulls you along like a leash around your neck, but it’s also much more than that, a journey of discovery so meticulously, artfully, and evocatively crafted that it immerses you completely. A book that both entertains and informs, which is indeed a rare combination." Jonathan Harr, author of The Lost Painting and A Civil Action

"Mr. and Mrs. Prince combines scholarly depth with the suspense of a great historical detective story. Gerzina reveals not only the intimate lives of two remarkable black Vermonters but also the larger world of a colonial New England, where slavery was embedded as deeply as it was in the South. Her fascinating story delivers a gallery of quietly heroic, vividly drawn personalities —black and white, slave and free—as they struggle to survive the threat of Indian attack, fatal illness, and the challenge of wringing a living from the stark and unyielding frontier landscape. We will never look at the history of New England in the same way again." Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan

"Mr. and Mrs. Prince is not only a work of impeccable scholarship, it is also a romance, an adventure, and a detective story. By involving us in the lives of the Princes, and in her own journey of discovery, Gretchen Gerzina insists that we complicate our understanding of American and African-American history¬ while enjoying ourselves in the process. This book instructs and delights." Mary Gordon, author of The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father