Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)
MSA SC 3520-12499
Famously known in her lifetime as ‘The Bronze Muse,’ Frances Ellen Watkins Harper passionately strove for the human rights of American citizens during the nineteenth century through her literary expertise. The term ‘human rights’ was a much less used expression in at the time. Nevertheless, the concept of human rights was the dramatic center of debate for many activists and abolitionists of the era who fought for the civil liberties of all citizens. Harper’s uncle, William Watkins, had exposed her to abolitionism at an early age. This influenced her to commit herself to the anti-slavery cause in 1854 when the fugitive slave law prevented her from returning to her home state of Maryland as a free woman. With her passion for literature and abolitionism, she emphatically wrote and spoke out against racism, sexism, and classism in many works including poetry, lectures, short stories, and novels. Frances Harper’s eloquence and philanthropic activism reached thousands of United States citizens across the nation, especially while she was active with the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. She spoke and wrote in all types of venues and media against the inequalities that people faced, especially in the Northeast and in the Deep South. Among her peers, Harper was an extremely sought-after lecturer and collaborator. Many blacks and whites, men and women adored her eloquence and persistence, though she was unable to achieve this same acceptance for her entire race. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper persevered well into the twentieth century. Although her literature lost popularity, the women’s club movement and many newborn social organizations continued her well-pointed argument for equality far into the twentieth century where her legacy for human rights continues to influence the African American movement for equal rights today.
In 1825, Harper was born free in Baltimore, Maryland, a slave state.1 This ‘free’ characteristic directly shaped the rest of Harper’s life opportunities and choices, where she was able to relate to people from both an insider and outsider point of view in many of her conversations, lectures, and literature. As an insider, she was a black woman who felt spiritually connected to her race and their hardships. But, she was also an outsider because was an educated, free woman with access to a variety of white societies where the majority of African Americans were not accepted. Young Frances Ellen Watkins lost her mother in the first few years of her life. She lived with an aunt and attended her uncle’s academy for free black children, Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. Reverend William Watkins was the single most influential person in Harper's youth, exposing her to the value of education, the importance of spirituality, and the human right of freedom. Rev. Watkins was a highly influential free black man in Baltimore; his importance and dedication can be seen through his connections with the African Methodist Episcopal church, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, and the many black societies for abolitionism.2This distinct composed environment of intellectual free black men trying to gain rights and protesting slavery exposed young Harper to a racist social reality at an early age. As a young person, she expressed her thoughts about her environment in the form of poetry.
With the significant tools of experience, spirituality, and education on which to build her future, the teenaged Harper embraced self-education while she apprenticed with a bookseller in Baltimore, reading vast amounts of literature in her spare time.3 During her apprenticeship, she also continued to express herself with poetry. These poems were sporadically published in a few Negro periodicals and journals, leading to her first published collection in 1845, Forest Leaves. This poetic publication, at the young age of twenty, was not the first for black women; however, her first book experience was latent with social prose that roused her to continue her literary work.4 William Still, a famous Underground Railroad conductor, said of her first poetry, “…the effusions of her pen all savor of a highly moral and elevating tone.”5 Harper's poetic skill not only enlightened her audience on social disparities but also gave her the opportunity to reach a vast amount of people in a popular and well-received form of media.
Harper's literacy spearheaded her future. After her apprenticeship in Maryland, she moved to Ohio in 1850 where she taught and continued writing poetry.6 Her first position was at a new school for Negro children, Union Seminary school in Columbus, Ohio. The principal of Union Seminary was the famous John Brown, an avid abolitionist and familiar associate of Reverend William Watkins. Brown also afforded Harper opportunity; she was the first black woman to teach vocational education at his school.7 She taught domestic science, or homemaking proficiency, contributing her valuable sewing/seamstress skills. This was important during the era because many blacks were still taking domestic positions in northern white homes and this skill could potentially earn them a better job compared to those blacks without schooling. Nevertheless, although she remained thoroughly supportive of John Brown and his activities until his death, Harper found her skills misplaced at the school and chose to move to Little York, Pennsylvania in 1852 for another short-term teaching position.
Here she reached an impasse in her life. She knew her literary potential and she knew what her race needed, a voice. The conditions of slavery were worsening and she saw firsthand that blacks, slave and free, were enormously disadvantaged. She wrote in a letter to a friend,
What would you do if you were in my place? Would you give up and go back and work at your trade (dress-making)? There are no people that need all the benefits resulting from a well-directed education more than we do. The condition of our people, the wants of our children, the welfare of our race demand the aid of every helping hand, the God-speed of every Christian heart. It is a work of time, a labor of patience, to become an effective school teacher; it should be a work of love in which they who engage should not abate heart or hope until it is done…I have written a lecture on education, and I am also writing a small book.8Harper was engrossed with what she could do to improve the conditions of her race, and it morally stressed her to decide where she could serve best. Harper thought she was serving in a productive role as a teacher, one of many feminized and socially acceptable professions for women. However, she was very familiar with abolitionism and knew that she could better apply her literary capacity to influence the social reform of slavery.
Not more than a year later, in 1853, her home state passed a law that drove Harper to her abolitionist commitment. Maryland passed a law preventing free blacks from returning to the state on the condition that they could be legally imprisoned as runaways and sold back into slavery. It was after she heard about a man who had returned to Maryland, lost his freedom, and died from exposure and abuse that she said, “Upon that grave I pledged myself to the Anti-Slavery cause.”9 With this pledge, Harper moved to Philadelphia, where she became associated with the famous William Still and his abolitionist network. Still was an extremely active abolitionist, who worked in every capacity to support the workings of the Underground Railroad during the Antebellum and the Civil War periods. During this realization and transition in her life, Harper changed her goals; she not only helped individuals, but she also began an active campaign to inform and reform the outlook and position of the nation against slavery and racism.
Harper prevailed in her literature and soon began lecturing independently for abolitionism, which included readings of the many poems and essays that she had prepared over the years. In 1854, Harper was recognized by her abolitionist peers as a “valuable acquisition to the cause” and was appointed to a position as a permanent lecturer with the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine.10 Still quoted one of her letters in which she said, “I spoke in Boston on Monday night…Well, I am but one, but can do something, and, God helping me, I will try.”11 For the next two years, Harper traveled extensively while lecturing alongside many famous white and black abolitionists including “William Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Wendell Phillips, John Greenleaf Whittier, and other well-known figures.”12 “Defying strictures against public speaking for women,” she commanded large audiences with her anti-slavery lectures and poetry, which in turn helped raise funds for the society and herself.13With a national polemical reputation, her new and inspiring role as a lecturer for abolitionism took her from her intimate work with the Underground Railroad; however, it did not keep her from her philanthropy for those desiring freedom from slavery and oppression. While traveling, she continued to donate much of her personal income to the Underground Railroad for many years because she truly felt obligated to serve in a grassroots manner as well as on a national level. She said in a letter, “I send you to-day two dollars for the Underground Railroad…May God speed the flight of the slave as he speeds through your Republic to gain his liberty in a monarchial land. I am still in the lecturing field…send me word what I can do for the fugitive.”14 In another letter, she commented on an attempted rescue and failure, “…if there is anything I can do for them in money or words, call upon me. This is a common cause…anything to be done to weaken our hateful chains or assert our manhood and womanhood, I have a right to do my share of the work.”15 Harper lived to reform the subjugation of America’s black citizens.
During this long polemical battle for citizen rights, Harper published two major antislavery works along with many other smaller texts in journals or periodicals. In 1854, Watkins published another volume of poems, Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects, a book that literarily marked her participation in the abolition movement. It not only included the famous poem Bury me in a Free Land but also reflected her views on motherhood, separation, and death associated with slavery.16 “The book sold more than ten thousand copies in the first three years after its publication, a phenomenal number at the time. Twenty editions were issued during the next twenty years.”17 In 1859, she also became the first African American woman to publish a short story, Two Offers, which was serialized in Anglo-African. The text acted not only as “a sermon on the important choices made by young people, women in particular” but as it also had the first glimpse of Watkins’ feminist voice on the actions and responsibilities of black women.18These publications alongside her public orations positioned Frances Watkins as a multi-faceted reformist; whereas, she had begun to take public issue with a variety of social impositions.
In November 1860, she married Fenton Harper, a widower with children, who moved her to Ohio with his family. At this time in her life, she withdrew from the public sphere but continued to write at home on the many social issues that perplexed the nation. While married, the new Mrs. Harper gave birth to Mary Harper in 1862, her only child. Mr. Harper died soon after in May 1864, thereby leaving Frances Watkins Harper a single mother and widow. This circumstance forced Harper to seek employment in order to make a living for herself and her daughter. The fate of Mr. Harper’s other children is unknown. Relying on her education, spirituality, and previous lecturing and abolitionist work, Harper set out with her daughter at the end of the Civil War, to independently aid and lecture across the northeast and “the Ku Klux Klan-ridden south during reconstruction.”19
In the late 1860s, the nation saw the ratification of three amendments to the U.S. Constitution granting civil liberties to America’s enslaved and free African American citizens. However, freedwomen were still subjugated by race and sex, compelling Harper's ambition for racial uplift throughout the remainder of her life. The 13th Amendment granted freedom from slavery (1865), the 14th Amendment granted civil liberties and protection by law of those liberties (1868), and the 15th Amendment granted black male suffrage (1870). These amendments are what Harper and the abolitionists had been trying to achieve for over fifty years. However, the 15th Amendment did not mention gender; it merely sanctioned the vote to any citizen on the basis of race, color, or previous servitude. This last amendment split white and black women on the issue of women’s suffrage, with some women desiring universal suffrage for black men and all women, while many black women sided with their race and did not want to dismantle the efforts of the black male suffrage movement. While Harper often worked with white society to gain social reform, she always sided with her race. She reasoned “that black males must have the right to vote and that the plight of the black woman was more related to their race than their gender.”20 Racial uplift remained the primary focus of Harper’s agenda for social reform as it was clear to her that racism and classism destroyed opportunities for black citizens.
The Reconstruction era, of the late 1860s and into the early 1870s, was quite a busy time for Harper; she not only helped many of the freedmen and women throughout the South but also published new literature and participated in the newly established women’s movement as well. Still said of her efforts after the war, “We have spoken of Mrs. Harper as a laborer, battling for our freedom under slavery and the war. She is equally earnest in laboring for equality before the law—education, and a higher manhood, especially in the south, among the Freedmen.”21 With the end of slavery, Harper found that she again transitioned toward a new cause, egalitarianism; however, she focused much of her attention toward black women in the South. Harper felt strongly that black women were a key element to racial uplift. She began addressing them more often while she simultaneously collaborated with white women’s groups in the temperance and women’s club movement. She wrote in a letter from Georgia,
I am now going to have a private meeting with the women of this place if they will come out. I am going to talk to them about their daughters, and about things connected with the welfare of the race. Now is the time for our women to begin to try to lift up their heads and plant the roots of progress under the hearthstone.22Harper reached out to black women and mothers, “visiting thirteen southern states lecturing for racial uplift, moral reform, and women’s rights across the south; she addressed many Sunday schools, women’s groups, and mixed audiences, whoever would listen on topics such as 'The Demands of the Colored Race in the Work of Reconstruction,' 'Enlightened Motherhood,' and 'Racial Literature.'”23 With Harper’s new commitment to egalitarian reform, she continued her philanthropy, writing, and lecturing during Reconstruction for the benefit of her race and women, especially “equality before the law, education, and manhood rights.”24
During this decade, Harper also continued to publish a few more literary innovations that included Minnie's Sacrifice (1869), the first of three short novellas serialized in The Christian Recorder, and Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869) a lengthy poem on the return of Moses and his leadership. William Still said that “Moses has been used to entertain audiences with evening readings in various parts of the country.”25 An article cited her talents as, “She is a lady of much talent, and always speaks well, particularly when her subject relates to the condition of her own people, in whose welfare, before and since the war, she has taken the deepest interest…with a natural eloquence that is very moving.”26 Also, another prolifically written poem on reconstruction was Sketches of Southern Life (1872), which included numerous nuances that appealed to a broad audience as well as upheld her anti-racism point of view. Sketches was unique in that “Harper refrain[ed] from dialect as a political act to break down reading [classist, sexist, or racist] communities…and sought to portray African Americans without reverting to racial stereotypes.”27 She dramatized the values of literacy, self-sufficiency, and responsible citizenship that she advocated to freemen and women in her lectures.”28, 29
From the late 1870s, Harper’s advocacy for women translated into her membership with the temperance movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and eventually as co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which spearheaded the black women’s club movement. In 1873, Harper became the Superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and served as its vice president from 1895-1911. From 1883-1890, she directed the Northern United States Temperance Union. Her associations with the temperance unions correlated with the issues that she saw were a problem for all women, despite their race. The temperance unions were not Harper’s first connections with women’s societies. Her alliance with women’s rights causes had begun earlier when she had spoken in 1866 at the National Women’s Rights Convention, where she had called for the rights of all women, including black women.30 Harper had become closely associated with many white northern women’s societies and had started collaborating with women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton, among many others.
Harper's connection with women’s rights groups and temperance place her as one the few African American women in the women’s club movement of the 1870s and 1880s. As an articulate and professional orator, she found herself rallying for the ambitious objectives of all women. As a black woman appealing for women’s rights, she defended her position with the movement, “She pointed out the duality of their position [black women] as slaves and as women with vulnerabilities not shared by black males and white females…Harper spoke not as an African American and not as a woman but always as an African American woman who recognized that for most Americans race was the key definer of her existence…committed to the equality of black people and women it was imperative that she represent both causes.”31 Regardless of the women’s club movement intention, white women did not acknowledge nor appeal for the rights of black women, who were hoping that the faction was an inclusive movement. Therefore, as a popular and eloquent, political activist, Harper again sided with her race. Harper joined six black female colleagues in 1893 and charged the international gathering of women at the World’s Congress of Representative women in Chicago with indifference to the needs and concerns of black American women. They realized that if black American women were to achieve sexual emancipation, they would have to organize themselves.32At this point, Harper helped co-found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 for black American women’s voices while she remained publicly active with the larger women’s club movement. More importantly, she supported and lectured with Ida Wells-Barnett in her anti-lynching activism across the south; Harper never shied from protecting the rights of her race. As an integrationist, reformist, and philanthropist Harper remained a leader in the many women’s organizations in which she participated. Without a doubt, her reputation preceded her wherever she went. In high demand for her experience and eloquence, she never lacked respect for her political activism.
During the later part of the nineteenth century, Harper published her famous novel Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted (1892), which was a fictional preamble to a better life for black American citizens. “Harper’s novel addressed many of the intricacies surrounding slavery, the wartime south, emancipation, and Reconstruction; it was also a historical discussion of the role and social responsibility of educated, privileged African Americans.”33 In this historical novel, she spoke from a feminist point of view and projected African American women as sufferers, survivors, and participants in their future, an innovative concept in African American women’s literature. Carolyn Karcher said, “One reason that women writers found the social novel more congenial than the romance is that it allowed them to delineate the problems [including social criticism] they and their sisters faced in actual life and to identify resources on which their readers, as well as their heroines, might draw in the struggle for self-fulfillment.”34 This novel was quite radical in its time; however, compared to white male canonical literature, it remains a definitive social historical contribution to African American women’s literature that has gone unrecognized because the race and sex of the author.
As the white and black women’s club movements gained momentum at the turn of the century, Harper retreated to Philadelphia, her home since 1870, where she continued to participate in the women's movement and reformist organizations but in a much less aggressive role. Some of the organizations that she continued to participate in were the WCTU, the Universal Peace Union, NACW, National Association of Colored Educators, and support for women’s suffrage groups.35 Though Harper was still highly respected by society and her colleagues, she lectured less often and became more destitute as her finances were strained from less public activity. Her literature lost popularity as her pacifist approach waned into the twentieth century. “Harper’s leadership as the most prominent African American female reformer was eclipsed by the rise of a new leadership, which was mostly younger, well-educated, articulate, attractive, and extremely impatient with their white counterparts…the new leadership had a new organization (NACW) which provided a forum and base of support for their programs and ideas."36 Harper’s reduced popularity is sometimes associated with her opposition to the theories of Booker T. Washington, who advocated for African American vocational uplift, whereas she supported W.E.B. Du Bois' position for African American political rights.
Harper’s daughter remained with her throughout her life; Mary never married and was known to be a “Sunday school teacher, lecturer, and volunteer social worker while accompanying her mother.”37 Outliving her daughter by two years, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in Philadelphia on February 20, 1911 and was buried with her daughter at Eden Cemetery in the John Brown section on February 24, 1911. In her lifetime, Harper fought for the ‘human rights’ of American citizens; self-educated after the age of thirteen, she filled many roles and expressed many points of view in her battle for civil liberties including abolitionist, feminist, polemic, poet/author/novelist, philanthropist, orator, Underground Railroad activist, mother/wife, and black female role model. In conclusion, Harper’s significant literary and political contribution across multiple eras left her with an abundance of remarkable experiences that she articulates in her innovative and benevolent American literature.
National Association of Colored Women (NACW) (Vice President 1897) 1896-
Underground Railroad 1854-1965
Anti-Slavery Society of Maine 1854-1856
Anti-Slavery Society of Pennsylvania
Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) (Superintendent of the Department of Colored Work 1883, elected to Executive Committe and Board of Superintendents)*
Northern United States Temperance Union (Director 1883-1890)
Women's International Temperance Society
American Association of Education of Colored Youth (Director 1894)
African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.)-Lifetime member
Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW)
Universal Peace Union
American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA)
International Council of Women (ICW)
National Council of Women (NCW)
First Unitarian Church 1870-1911
*Recognized in 1922 for life-long services, name placed in memory on
Red Letter Calendar
National Anti-Slavery Standard
A.M.E. Church Review
Frederick Douglass' Paper
New National Era
English Womn's Review
Large collection of letters appear in William Still's Underground Railroad publication.
Letters, speeches, and writings are listed in the index to The Black Abolitionist Papers, ed. C. Peter Ripley (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1986
1. Original freedman’s bank acct slip with mother’s
name. Return to text
2. Leroy Graham, Baltimore: The Nineteenth Century Black Capital, Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. Return to text
3. Differing sources suggest that this family may have been Quakers by the name of Armstrong. Return to text
4. Phyllis Wheatley was the first published African American female poet in 1773. Return to text
5. William Still, "The Underground Railroad. A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, etc." Located at the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, MD, 756. Return to text
6. Union Seminary School in Columbus, Ohio was initially an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and it became Wilberforce Academy, today’s Wilberforce University in Ohio. Return to text
7. "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper", Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com (Accessed May 1, 2007). Return to text
8. Still, 757. Return to text
9. Still, 758. Return to text
10. "France Ellen Watkins Harper, 1825-1911," New York Public Library-Digital Schomberg African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/digs-b/wwm97253/@Generic__BookTextView/2094#X, (Accessed July 18, 2008), 99. Return to text
11. Still, 759. Return to text
12. Bettye Collier-Thomas and Ann D. Gordon, “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Abolitionist and Feminist Reformer 1825-1911,” in African American Women and The Vote, 1837-1965, Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. (available at net-library) Return to text
13. Carolyn Karcher, “Reconceiving Nineteenth-Century American Literature: The Challenge of Women Writers, American Literature, vol. 66(4) December, 1994, 788. Return to text
14. Still, 761. Return to text
15. Still, 761. Return to text
16. “Frances E. W. Harper,” Britannica Biography Collection, ebscohost/Masterfile Premier (accessed July 12, 2007). Return to text
17. Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson, “Resistance Becomes Rebellion,” in A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America, New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Return to text
18. Janeen Grohsmeyer, "Frances Harper," Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/francesharper.html (Accessed July 16, 2007). Return to text
19. Karcher, 788. Return to text
20. Collier-Thomas and Gordon, 50. Return to text
21. Still, 767. Return to text
22. Still, 772. Return to text
23. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com (Accessed May 1, 2007). Return to text
24. "France Ellen Watkins Harper, 1825-1911," New York Public Library-Digital Schomberg African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, 102. Return to text
25. Still, 779. Return to text
26. Still, 779. Return to text
27. Elizabeth Petrino, “We are a Rising People: Frances Harper’s Radical Views on Class and Racial Equality in Sketches of Southern Life, American Transcendental Quarterly: 19th Century American Literature and Culture, Kingston: University of Rhode Island, vol. 19(2) June 2005, 133. Return to text
28. Petrino, 136. Return to text
29. Critiques for many of Harper’s texts including the above mentioned are available either online or on most databases, a list of authors is located in the sources panel of Mrs. Harper’s biographical page. Link to biography sources page, http://www.msa.md.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/012400/012499/html/12499sources.html. Return to text
30. “Not in a Land of Slaves; Suffragist: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper…,” The Baltimore Sun, February 6, 1999. Return to text
31. Collier-Thomas and Gordon, 49. Return to text
32. Six colleagues include Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julie Cooper, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Sarah J. Earley, and Hallie Q. Brown. “Frances E. W. Harper,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com (Accessed May 1, 2007). Return to text
33. Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, “Black Women Historians from the late 19th Century to the Dawning of the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of African American History, 2004 89(3): 241-261. Return to text
34. Karcher, 783. Return to text
35. Collier-Thomas and Gordon, 62. Return to text
36. Collier-Thomas and Gordon, 60. Return to text
37. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com (Accessed May 1, 2007). Return to text
38. Collier-Thomas and Gordon, 63. Return to text
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