Oscar Wilde’s Foray into Civil Rights


In 1882, Oscar Wilde toured America. One story from his journey indicates that the flippant 19th century superstar had more than one modern view of the world.

The typical education of Oscar Wilde sums up so succinctly that the Power Point writes itself: “Irish Childhood”, “Literary Genius”, “Victorian Celebrity”, “Scandal”, “Trial”, “Hard Labor”, “Penniless Death”. Wilde’s story is well-known, well-hashed, and well-mourned. Even he wrote, in his haunting apology, De Profundis, “ I had disgraced [my family’s name] eternally. I had made it a low by-word among low people…The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease.” Oscar Wilde insights of himself make an excellent summary of what students learn about the great playwright.

Wilde in America

In 1882, The New York Times reported updates on Wilde’s lectures of America. Much like David Sedaris today, Wilde had standing room only when he gave readings and spoke at universities. The Times records the typical reaction of fans meeting a beloved celebrity, noting disdainfully that“students frequently applauded passages which required no notice whatsoever.” Wilde focused his speech on the importance of incorporating nature and beauty into art, saying, “there is nothing in flowers or foliage too humble or insignificant.” The article, “Oscar Wilde in New Haven”, reads like a Victorian TMZ.com, and the series following Wilde provides fascinating reading for his fanbase of today.

Wilde in the American South

On July 9, 1882, The New York Times picked up a news story originally published by Georgia’s Atlanta Constitution. The original article, “Oscar Wilde and his Negro Valet”, shows the casual language that modern readers, of course, find shockingly racist, and the story is easily retold in today’s conventionally acceptable terms of conversation.

Wilde’s agent purchased three first class tickets and three sleeping car tickets for a train from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. When Mr. Thweatt, an employee of the train, discovered that one set of tickets was to be used by Wilde’s black servant, he offered to refund the ticket. The New York Times states that, “Mr. Wilde and his servant both declined to change the programme they had marked out.” Later, Wilde objected to Mr. Thweatt’s interference and “persisted” in allowing his servant to enjoy first class seating.

Wilde’s Legacy

The story does not have an especially admirable ending; there is certainly no remarkable Rosa Parks moment. The porter of the train appears and warns of a threatening “mob” that will gather when the train reaches Jonesboro, and Mr. Wilde and his servant unhappily relented and exchanged the ticket. There is far more to Oscar Wilde’s sense of loyalty than readers generally learn from a quick introduction in an English anthology, and perhaps history owes Wilde a bit more than a reputation for clever wording and scandalous trials.