Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dot gov

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.


Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


photo Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born in Baltimore, was the only child of free Black parents. She was an abolitionist, orator, poet, and novelist. At the age of four, her mother died and she was raised by an aunt. She attended a school run by her uncle, who was an abolitionist, until she was fourteen. From 1839 to 1849, she continued to educate herself while working as a housekeeper and seamstress in the home of a Baltimore bookstore owner. It was during the period of 1850 to 1852 when, moved by the plight of fugitive slaves, she pledged her life's service to the causes of abolitionism and racial justice.

Harper published the first of nine books of poetry in Boston in 1854. After her first lecture, "The Elevation and Education of Our People," she became a lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. During the subsequent six years, she toured eight states speaking, reading her poetry and delivering her message of civil rights for all people.

From 1860 to 1864, Harper gave up the lecture circuit. She settled on a farm in Ohio, devoting her time to being a wife and mother. Following her husband's death in 1864, she and her daughter returned to Philadelphia so she could resume her public speaking career. She traveled throughout the South, speaking on education, civil rights, temperance, domestic reform, and the need to bring an end to the practice of lynching.

In 1871, she made Philadelphia her permanent home. Harper devoted her time to writing and lecturing on social and moral issues of nationwide concern. Harper was the first Black woman to publish a novel, Iola Leroy: or Shadow Uplifted (1893). She was also the first Black woman to publish a short story, The Two Offers (1859). A student fellowship at the Center for Maryland Women in Politics (Women's Studies Program, University of Maryland) is named in her honor.

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 1987.

View Maryland State Archives BiographyBack to Top