What’s the real story behind The Gilded Age’s Black heroine?

The Gilded Age’s Peggy Scott is a rare depiction of elite Black women in the 19th century. One prototype was writer Julia C. Collins.

HBO’s new series The Gilded Age may have ended its tumultuous first season on Monday night (with a second season already on deck), but there’s still plenty of history to delve into in the period piece, including the real-life inspirations behind its cast of characters. Alongside the real-life Astors and the Vanderbilt-inspired Russells, the show stands out for its novel depiction of Black elite society during the era, a little-known history seen through the eyes of prodigal daughter and aspiring writer Peggy Scott.

“I wanted very much to make The Gilded Age distinctively American,” Fellowes told the L.A. Times just after the series’ late-January premiere. “And I didn’t believe I could do that without having a Black narrative and a Black family alongside the others. It just didn’t feel right to, actually,” he continued.

Series writer Sonja Warfield, a Black woman, agreed, telling the Times: “I think the depiction of Black people in television and film, especially in that time period, is usually relegated to those stories about slavery…I have my own family stories of great-grandparents who had some money, one of whom started a school. I thought, ‘These are stories that haven’t been told.’ That’s what really piqued my interest.”

Credit: HBO/YouTube

Those aspirations were made manifest in the character of Scott (played by Denée Benton), an educated Black woman from an affluent Brooklyn-based family who aspires to be a writer less than twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Due to her activism and frank observations, the character has drawn natural comparisons to Ida B. Wells, a well-known pioneer in investigative journalism and journalistic activism. But while writers acknowledge Peggy as a composite of several Black women from the era, another inspiration for the role was Julia C. Collins, a Pennsylvania-based schoolteacher widely believed to be the first African American woman to author a novel: The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, published in 1865.

As reported by JStor:

…Peggy is a composite of several real-life women, and one in particular, Julia C. Collins, was a trailblazer. Her 1865 novel, The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, is often cited as the first written by an African American woman…The novel was written soon after the Emancipation Proclamation. As historians Randall M. Miller and Erica Armstrong Dunbar (who serves as an advisor on The Gilded Age), wrote, “emancipation was never a moment and was always part of a movement.” It was a freedom movement, a struggle for full rights afforded to any other citizen.

Credit: JStor

Sadly, Collins died before finishing the novel, but as JStor further explains, her pedigree and writing confirmed her as part of “a select group of 19th-century educated free Black women.” This status also gave her access to resources and institutional knowledge that would’ve been denied her only a generation or two before, but as literature scholar Veta Smith Tucker posits, Collins was nonetheless revolutionary, as her writing “narrates her faith in a future when African Americans held equal rights of citizens.” As show creator Fellowes points out in HBO’s explainer of the Black elite of that era, that promise was potentially greater during Reconstruction than in the next century’s Harlem Renaissance and civil rights movement. Accordingly, Tucker argues, “Collins’s status as a literary ancestor and her role as a literary pioneer must be considered.”

Arguably, the storyline of Peggy Scott—and by association, that of her mother, Dorothy (played by Audra McDonald) is one of the biggest cliffhangers of the first season and one we can’t wait to revisit in season two. In the meantime, Collins’ novel was reissued in 2006 and is still available to historians and curious researchers alike.

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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