In the late 1800s, a group of formerly enslaved people embarked on a year-long journey from the Deep South to the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where they built a community called the Kingdom of the Happy Land. The group was led by Reverend William Montgomery and his wife, Louella—the only known Black woman in U.S. history to rule as queen in America.
Award-winning author Vanessa Miller unveils this hidden piece of history and tells the inspiring, true story of Louella Montgomery in her latest novel, The American Queen. “This story is told quite frequently locally in Henderson County, [North Carolina], but it’s never been told nationally,” she tells ESSENCE.
Set between 1865 and 1889, The American Queen weaves together themes of love, hope, faith and resilience. After the end of the Civil War brings about both freedom and tragedy, Louella marries Reverend William and insists on leaving the Montgomery plantation to find a promised land that she’s envisioned in her dreams. The couple and a growing group of formerly enslaved people travel from Mississippi to the border of North and South Carolina, where they are able to purchase land and build an “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” community that has sustained itself for decades by way of farming and selling produce.
Miller first learned about the Kingdom of the Happy Land a few years ago from a fellow bestselling writer. “I hadn’t thought about writing historical fiction at the time, but one of the people I reached out to for an endorsement on the first book I wrote when I came back to traditional publishing was Lisa Wingate,” Miller explained.
“One of her Facebook friends had mentioned the story of the Kingdom of the Happy Land to her. And she said, ‘Well, Vanessa, you live in North Carolina. You might be interested in this. Do your research and see what you think,’” Miller continued. “I began to research about Queen Louella, King William, King Robert, and I was mesmerized.”
Among the many challenges that Miller faced while writing The American Queen is researching and finding enough information to piece together important facts. Oftentimes, stories of Black people aren’t always found in public records or data, and Black stories are continually excluded from history books.
“A lot of our information is hard to find because we weren’t necessarily considered humans,” Miller tells ESSENCE. “I had to really dig deeper and write in a whole different perspective. I had to understand the language of that century, because I’m used to writing contemporary. It was months and months of researching this.”
“I’m one who loves research; history was one of my favorite subjects in high school and college. But when I had to research to write a historical [novel], that became a whole ‘nother matter,” she said with a laugh. “It was just a bigger experience than anything I’ve had to do before in my writing. And I would say I became a better writer for it.”
As part of her research, Miller even visited the area where the Kingdom of the Happy Land once existed. She spoke with residents who live in the nearby communities and are familiar with the local history. “I can’t put into exact words how I felt when I stood on that land,” she recalled. “It brought tears to my eyes, because I’m still amazed that these people had the audacity to not only own all of this land, but to call themselves king and queen. I’m just totally amazed by them.”
Miller’s poetic, straightforward writing style brings Queen Louella and the Happy Landers to life. Though rife with moments of sadness and struggle, The American Queen is an inspiring recount of an important part of history that needs to be told and shared with the world.
“They wanted a place where they could live with dignity,” she said about the people of the Happy Land. “Writing the story, I felt like I got to know Queen Louella so well, and her motivations and the things that made her who she was.”
Miller will embark on a book tour from the end of January into March. The tour will take place mostly in the South, which she said is intentional. “That was my goal because they left Mississippi and traveled through Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina to get to their promised land in the Appalachian Mountains,” she explained. “I wanted it to be a Southern tour in the landscape of how the king and queen traveled.”
For Miller, who has primarily written contemporary women’s fiction throughout her 20-plus-year career, The American Queen is her first historical fiction novel. She hopes the book is widely distributed, and that people are inspired by this incredible true story about a kingdom that was once ruled by a Black woman.
“My hope is that dreams that may have been deferred become realized as people read the story of a woman who had a dream for her people, and went out and accomplished it,” Miller tells ESSENCE. “[This story] is for Black women everywhere to understand that you can rise up and become what you are called to be. You don’t have to take the back seat in any part of your life. I hope we get so much word of mouth going on about The American Queen, that so many people read this book and they become inspired by the audacity of Queen Louella.”