Frances Harper

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Frances Harper
BornFrances Ellen Watkins
September 24, 1825
Baltimore, Maryland
DiedFebruary 22, 1911(1911-02-22) (aged 85)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
GenrePoetry, short story, essays
Notable worksIola Leroy
SpouseFenton Harper (m. 1860)
ChildrenMary Frances Harper (1862–1908)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an African-American abolitionist, suffragist, poet and author. She was also active in other types of social reform and was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which advocated the federal government taking a role in progressive reform.

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at the age of 20 and her widely praised novel Iola Leroy at the age of 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 (1854) 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 Black people. In these poems she described the harsh living conditions of many. After the Civil War she continued to fight for the rights of women, African Americans, and was involved in many other social causes.

Harper helped or 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. 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 in Baltimore, Maryland, the only child of free parents.[1] 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 and abolitionist. She was educated at his Academy for Negro Youth. Watkins was a major influence on her life and work.[2][3] At 14, Frances found work as a seamstress.

Writing career[edit]

Her writing career started with publishing pieces in antislavery journals in 1839.[4] Her politics and writing, whether fictional writing or not, informed each other.

Frances Watkins had her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845 when she was 20. A single copy of this volume, long lost, was recently rediscovered by scholar Johanna Ortner in Baltimore, in the Maryland Historical Society.[5] 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, making her the first Black woman to publish a short story.[6] She continued to publish poetry and short stories.

Frances Harper published 80 poems, in which one that she wrote was titled "The Slave Mother." In the poem Harper says, "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.[7]

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.[4]

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.[8]

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.

Progressive causes[edit]

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.[9][page needed]. She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolitionism. An example of her support of the abolition cause, 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."[10] She often read her poetry at the public meetings, including the extremely popular "Bury Me in a Free Land."

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. Her short story "The Two Offers" became the first short story to be published by a Black woman.

In 1866, Harper gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including Black women. During the Reconstruction Era, she worked in the South to review and report on living conditions of freedmen.[9] 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.[9]

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."[11] "Activists like Harper and 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".[11] 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.[12]

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.[11] Together with Mary Church Terrell, Harper helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in 1894, and was elected vice president in 1897.

Frances Harper died on February 25, 1911.

Selected 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:[13]

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

Legacy and honors[edit]


  1. ^ Margaret Busby, "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper", in Daughters of Africa, 1992, p. 81.
  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. ^ a b Showalter, Elaine (2011). The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. Vintage Books. pp. 176–183.
  5. ^ Penguin Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers, ed. Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 2017. p. 283
  6. ^ Editors. "Frances E.W. Harper Biography". The website. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  7. ^ Poetry for students. Volume 44 : presenting analysis, context and criticism on commonly studied poetry. Constantakis, Sara,. Detroit, Mich.: Gale. 2013. ISBN 9781414492780. OCLC 842240078.
  8. ^ "Editorial: The Late Bishop John M. Brown". African Methodist Episcopal Church Review. 10 (1). July 1893. Retrieved April 26, 2014.
  9. ^ a b c Hine, C. D., C. W. Hine, & S. Harrold (2011). The African American Odyssey. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ Frances Smith Foster, ed., Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper, 1994
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ a b Keyes, Allison (2017). ""In This Quiet Space for Contemplation, a Fountain Rains Down Calming Waters"". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 10, 2018.
  16. ^ Davis, Rachaell (September 22, 2016). "Why Is August 28 So Special To Black People? Ava DuVernay Reveals All In New NMAAHC Film". Essence.
  17. ^ "Ava Duvernay's 'August 28' Delves Into Just How Monumental That Date Is To Black History In America". Retrieved 2018-08-30.


  • 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

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.

External links[edit]