Frances Harper

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Frances Harper
Fewharper.jpg
Born Frances Ellen Watkins
September 24, 1825
Baltimore, Maryland
Died February 22, 1911(1911-02-22) (aged 85)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Genres Poetry, short story, Essays
Notable work(s) Iola Leroy
Spouse(s) 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, poet and author.

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at age 20 and her first novel, the widely praised Iola Leroy, at age 67. 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 became her biggest commercial success. Her short story "Two Offers" was published in the Anglo-African in 1859. She published Sketches of Southern Life in 1872. It detailed her experience touring the South and meeting newly freed blacks. In these poems she talked about the harsh conditions many of them lived in. After the Civil War she continued to fight for the rights of women, African Americans, and many other social causes.

She helped or held high office in several national progressive organizations. In 1873 Harper 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. "Because of her many magazine articles, she was called the mother of African-American journalism. At the same time she also wrote for periodicals with a mainly white circulation."[1] Harper died February 22, 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote. Her funeral service was held at the Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. She was buried in Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter, who had died two years before.

Life and works[edit]

Early life and education[edit]

Frances Ellen Watkins was born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland. After her mother died when she was three years old in 1828, Watkins was orphaned. She was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Rev. William Watkins, who was a civil rights activist. She was educated at his Academy for Negro Youth. Watkins was a major influence on her life and work.[2][3] At fourteen, Frances found work as a seamstress.

Writing career[edit]

Frances Watkins had her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845 (it has been lost) when she was 20. 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. She continued to publish poetry and short stories.

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. Long considered the first novel by an African American, it is one of the earliest. (Discoveries of earlier works by Harriet E. Wilson and William Wells Brown have displaced her.) 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.

Teaching and public activism[edit]

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.[4]

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 a two-year lecture tour in Maine for the Anti-Slavery Society. She traveled, lecturing throughout the East and Midwest from 1856 to 1860.

Marriage and family[edit]

On November 22, 1860, in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the age of 35, she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children who was a native of Loudon County, Virginia.[5] They would have one daughter, Mary Frances (1862-1908), who would become a teacher. For a time Frances Harper withdrew from the lecture circuit. But after her husband's death on May 23, 1864,[6] she returned to her travels and lecturing.

Progressive causes[edit]

Frances Watkins Harper was a strong supporter of abolitionism, prohibition and woman's suffrage, progressive causes linked before and after the American Civil War. She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolitionism. She often read her poetry at the public meetings, including the extremely popular "Bury Me in a Free Land."

She was connected with national leaders in suffrage, and in 1866 gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women.

Harper was active in black organizations. From 1883 to 1890, she helped organize events and programs for the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, and was elected vice president in 1897.

Frances Harper died on February 22, 1911.

Works[edit]

  • 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:[7]

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

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Numerous African-American women's service clubs named themselves in her honor. Across the nation, in cities such as St. Louis, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh, F. E. W. Harper Leagues and Frances E. Harper Women's Christian Temperance Unions thrived well into the twentieth century.[8]
  • A women's honors dormitory named for her and Harriet Tubman at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, is commonly referred to as Harper-Tubman, or simply Harper.

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Grohsmeyer, Janeen. "Frances Harper". Unitarian Universalist Association. [dead link]
  2. ^ Hollis Robbins, Ed. "Introduction," Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted, Penguin Classics, 2010
  3. ^ "Frances Ellen Watkins". University of Minnesota. Retrieved April 26, 2014. 
  4. ^ "Editorial: The Late Bishop John M. Brown". African Methodist Episcopal Church Review 10 (1). July 1893. Retrieved April 26, 2014. 
  5. ^ "Fenton M. Harper, 'Ohio, Marriages, 1800-1958'". FamilySearch. Retrieved January 14, 2014. 
  6. ^ Fenton M Harper at Find a Grave
  7. ^ Frances Smith Foster, ed., Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper, 1994
  8. ^ 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. 

References[edit]

  • Frances Smith Foster, ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, 1990.
  • Frances Smith Foster, ed., Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper, 1994.
  • Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911. Wayne State University Press, 1995.
  • Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989. ISBN 0-452-00981-2
  • Maryemma Graham, ed., The Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper, 1988.
  • Hazel Carby, "Introduction to Iola Leroy. Beacon Press, 1987.
  • John Ernest, Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature, 1995

External links[edit]