Frances Harper

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Frances Harper
Born Frances Ellen Watkins
September 24, 1825
Baltimore, Maryland
Died February 22, 1911(1911-02-22) (aged 85)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Genre Poetry, short story, essays
Notable works Iola Leroy
Spouse Fenton Harper (m. 1860)
Children Mary Frances Harper (1862–1908)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an African-American abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. She was active in social reform and was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which advocated the federal government taking a role in progressive reform. She is considered "the mother of African-American journalism."[1]

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at the age of 20, making her one of the first African-American published writers. At 67, she wrote her widely praised novel Iola Leroy. In 1850, she became the first woman to teach sewing at the Union Seminary. In 1851, alongside William Still, chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, she helped escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. She began her career as a public speaker and political activist after joining the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1853.

Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) became her biggest commercial success. Her short story "Two Offers" was published in the Anglo-African in 1859, making literary history by being the first short story published by a black woman.

Harper founded, supported and held high office in several national progressive organizations. In 1883 she became superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women's Christian Temperance Union. In 1894 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president.

Harper died on February 22, 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote.

Life and works

Early life and education

Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the only child of free parents.[2] Her parents, whose names are not known, died in 1828 making Watkins an orphan at three years old. She was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Rev. William Watkins, from whom she gets her last name.[1] Her uncle was the minister at the Sharp Street African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). She was educated at his Watkins Academy for Negro Youth where he also taught. As a a civil rights activist and abolitionist, Watkins was a major influence on her life and work.[3][4]

At 14, Frances found work as a seamstress. At 25, the Watkins' fled Baltimore after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Frances settled in Ohio briefly before moving to Pennsylvania to work with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.[1]

Writing career

Her writing career started with publishing pieces in antislavery journals in 1839.[5] Her politics and writing, fictional or not, informed each other. Harper's writing career started long before she was married, 20 years to be exact, so several of her published words are under her maiden name, Watkins.

Harper published her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, or Autumn Leaves,[1] in 1845 when she was 20 years old. A single copy of this volume, long lost, was recently rediscovered by scholar Johanna Ortner in Baltimore, of the Maryland Historical Society.[6] Her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), was extremely popular. Over the next few years, it was reprinted numerous times.

In 1859, her story "The Two Offers" was published in Anglo-African Magazine, which made her the first Black woman to publish a short story.[7] That same year Anglo-African Magazine published her essay, "Our Greatest Want", in which she linked the oppression of African-Americans to the oppression of the Hebrew people in Egypt.[8] Anglo-African Magazine and the weekly Anglo-African newspaper were both Civil War era periodicals that served as a forum for debate among abolitionists and scholars.[9]

Frances Harper published 80 poems. In the poem "The Slave Mother" Harper writes, "He is not hers, although she bore / For him a mother's pains; / He is not hers, although her blood / Is coursing through his veins! / He is not hers, for cruel hands / May rudely tear apart / The only wreath of household love / That binds her breaking heart." Throughout the two stanzas, Harper demonstrates the restricted relationship between an enslaved mother and her child, while including themes of family, motherhood, humanity and slavery.[10]

She published Sketches of Southern Life in 1872. It detailed her experience touring the South and meeting newly freed Black people. In these poems she described the harsh living conditions faced by a black woman during slavery and reconstruction. After the Civil War she continued to fight for the rights of women, African Americans, and was involved in many other social causes. She uses the figure of an ex-slave, called Aunt Chloe, as a narrator in several of these.[11]

She had three novels serialized in a Christian magazine from 1868 to 1888, but was better known for what was long considered her first novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), published as a book when she was 67. While using the conventions of the time, she dealt with serious social issues, including education for women, passing, miscegenation, abolition, reconstruction, temperance, and social responsibility. The novel follows a woman whose racial identity is ambiguous until it is disclosed by her father when he dies, resulting in her becoming enslaved.[5]

Teaching and public activism

In 1850, Watkins moved to Ohio, where she worked as the first female teacher at Union Seminary, established by the Ohio Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Union closed in 1863 when the AME Church diverted its funds to purchase Wilberforce University, the first black-owned and operated college. The school in Wilberforce was run by the Rev. John Mifflin Brown, later a bishop in the AME Church.[12]

In 1853, Watkins joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became a traveling lecturer for the group. In 1854, Watkins delivered her first anti-slavery speech on "Education and the Elevation of Colored Race". The success of this speech resulted in a two-year lecture tour in Maine for the Anti-Slavery Society. She continued to travel, lecturing throughout the East and Midwest from 1856 to 1860.

After the Civil War ended in 1865 she moved south to teach newly freed black people during the Reconstruction. During this time she also gave many large public speeches.

Progressive causes

Mrs. F. E. W. Harper, 1902.

Frances Watkins Harper was a strong supporter of abolitionism, prohibition and woman's suffrage, progressive causes which were connected before and after the American Civil War.[11] She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolitionism. Harper wrote to John Brown, "I thank you that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race; I hope from your sad fate great good may arise to the cause of freedom."[13]

In 1858 she refused to give up her seat or ride in the "colored" section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia (100 years before Rosa Parks) and wrote one of her most famous poems, "Bury Me In A Free Land," when she got very sick while on a lecturing tour. She often read her poetry at the public meetings, including "Bury Me in a Free Land."

In 1866, Harper gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including Black women. She stated:

"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro...You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me...While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America."[12]

During the Reconstruction Era, she worked in the South to review and report on living conditions of freedmen.[11] This experience inspired her poems published in Sketches Of Southern Life (1872). She uses the figure of an ex-slave, called Aunt Chloe, as a narrator in several of these.[11]

Harper was active in the growing number of Black organizations and came to believe that Black reformers had to be able to set their own priorities. From 1883 to 1890, she helped organize events and programs for the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She had worked with members of the original WCTU, because "it was the most important women’s organization to push for expanding federal power."[14] "Activists like Harper and Frances Willard campaigned not only for racial and sexual equality but also for a new understanding of the federal government’s responsibility to protect rights, regulate morality, and promote social welfare".[14] Harper was a friend and mentor to many other African American writers and journalists, including Mary Shadd Cary, Ida B. Wells, Victoria Earle Matthews, and Kate D. Chapman.[15]

Harper was disappointed when Willard gave priority to white women's concerns, rather than support Black women's goals of gaining federal support for an anti-lynching law, defense of black rights, or abolition of the convict lease system.[14] Together with Mary Church Terrell, Harper helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in 1894, and was elected vice president in 1897.

Personal life

Frances Harper's home at 1006 Bainbridge St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Built ca. 1870. She lived here through her old age until her death in 1911.

In 1860, Frances Harper married a widower named Fenton Harper. When he died four years later she was left with their daughter and his children from a previous marriage. Harper died of heart failure on February 25, 1911 at age 86.[7] Her funeral service was held at the Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. She was buried in Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter, Mary, who had died two years before.  

Selected works

  • Forest Leaves, verse, 1845
  • Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, 1854
  • The Two Offers, 1859
  • Moses: A Story of the Nile, 1869
  • Sketches of Southern Life, 1872
  • Light Beyond the Darkness, 1890
  • The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems, 1894
  • Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, novel, 1892
  • Idylls of the Bible, 1901
  • In Memoriam, Wm. McKinley, 1901
  • Free Labor

In addition, the following three novels were originally published in serial form in the Christian Recorder between 1868 and 1888:[16]

  • Minnie's Sacrifice
  • Sowing and Reaping
  • Trial and Triumph

Legacy and honors


  1. ^ a b c d Jackson, Tricia Williams (2016). Women in Black History: Stories of Courage, Faith, and Resilience. Revell. pp. 58–65.
  2. ^ Margaret Busby, "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper", in Daughters of Africa, 1992, p. 81.
  3. ^ Hollis Robbins, Ed. "Introduction," Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted, Penguin Classics, 2010
  4. ^ "Frances Ellen Watkins". University of Minnesota. Retrieved April 26, 2014.
  5. ^ a b Showalter, Elaine (2011). The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. Vintage Books. pp. 176–183.
  6. ^ Penguin Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers, ed. Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 2017. p. 283
  7. ^ a b Editors. "Frances E.W. Harper Biography". The website. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  8. ^ Riggs, Marcia Y (1997). Can I Get A Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology. Orbis Books.
  9. ^ Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. "Anglo-African, The". Retrieved 8 Nov 2018.
  10. ^ Poetry for students. Volume 44 : presenting analysis, context and criticism on commonly studied poetry. Constantakis, Sara,. Detroit, Mich.: Gale. 2013. ISBN 9781414492780. OCLC 842240078.
  11. ^ a b c d Hine, C. D., C. W. Hine, & S. Harrold (2011). The African American Odyssey. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  12. ^ a b "Editorial: The Late Bishop John M. Brown". African Methodist Episcopal Church Review. 10 (1). July 1893. Retrieved April 26, 2014.
  13. ^ DuBois, Ellen Carol; Dumenil, Lynn (2012). Through Women's Eyes: An American History with Documents (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martin's. p. 282. ISBN 978-0-312-67603-2.
  14. ^ a b c When Harper and her daughter settled in Philadelphia in 1870, she joined the First Unitarian Church. Corinne T. Field, "'Articulating Rights: Nineteenth-Century American Women on Race, Reform, and the State' (review)", The Journal of the Civil War Era, Volume 2, Number 3, September 2012, pp. 465-467 | 10.1353/cwe.2012.0065, accessed 29 September 2014.
  15. ^ Foster, Frances Smith, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) in Cognard-Black, Jennifer, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, eds. Kindred Hands: Letters on Writing by British and American Women Authors, 1865-1935. University of Iowa Press, 2006. p43
  16. ^ Frances Smith Foster, ed., Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper, 1994
  17. ^ Gates, Henry Louis; McKay, Nellie Y. (1996). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 491. ISBN 978-0-393-04001-2.
  18. ^ Keyes, Allison (2017). ""In This Quiet Space for Contemplation, a Fountain Rains Down Calming Waters"". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 10, 2018.
  19. ^ "Ava Duvernay's 'August 28' Delves Into Just How Monumental That Date Is To Black History In America". Retrieved 2018-08-30.


Further reading

  • Parker, Alison M. (2010). Articulating Rights: Nineteenth-Century American Women on Race, Reform, and the State, Northern Illinois University Press, 97-138.
  • Parker, Alison M. (2012). Susan B. Anthony and the Struggle for Equal Rights, University of Rochester Press,145-171.
  • "The Politics of Hybridity in Frances Harper's Iola Leroy", Martha J Cutter, Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing 1850 - 1930, University Press of Mississippi/Jackson, 1999, 141 - 160.
  • "Unsolved Mysteries and Emerging Histories: Frances E. Harper's Iola Leroy", John Ernest, Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-century African-American Literature, University Press of Mississippi/Jackson, 1995, 180 - 207.
  • Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989.
  • Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911. Wayne State University Press, 1995.
  • Frances Smith Foster, ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, 1990.
  • "Frances E. W. Harper and the Politics of Intellectual Maturity", Corinne T. Field in Toward An Intellectual History of Black Women edited by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage, The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2015, 110 - 126.
  • Hazel Carby, "Introduction" to Iola Leroy. Beacon Press, 1987.
  • Maryemma Graham, ed., The Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper, 1988.
  • John Ernest, Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature, 1995

External links

  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Enlightened Motherhood: An Address/by Mrs. Frances E. W. Harper; before the Brooklyn Literary Society, November 15th, 1892. Published 1892.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Idylls of the Bible. Philadelphia, 1901.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Light Beyond the Darkness. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry, 189-?
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. Boston: J.B. Yerrinton & Son, Printers, 1854.
  • Works by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Frances Harper at Internet Archive
  • Works by Frances Harper at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, "Free Labor", Wisconsin Curriculum guidelines
  • NEH's EDSITEment lesson Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's Learning to Read
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