Iola Leroy

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Frances E. W. Harper's 1892 novel, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, was in many ways the culmination of a remarkable career by an African American woman who was a poet, a novelist, and a noted speaker in the abolitionist, suffrage, and temperance movements. Iola Leroy, among the first novels by an African American woman, chronicles black experience during slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Harper's best-known novel provides a black perspective on a half century of American nineteenth-century history and projects an optimism for the future that, sadly, was not borne out by subsequent events in the 1890s and the first part of the twentieth century. Iola Leroy focuses on black identity, a concept central to this historical period and to African American literature. Her reworking and rebuttal of the "tragic mulatto" theme in African American literature was a conscious political move for her own time but also has important ramifications for the history of the African American novel.


Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Maryland in 1825, the daughter of a woman who was a freed slave; her father was most likely white, although records of her early life are quite sketchy. Her mother died when she was three, and Frances was raised by her aunt and educated in her uncle's school in Baltimore. She showed promise as a writer from her early years, and she is said to have published a volume of poems, Forest Leaves, by 1845, although no copy now exists. Her first extant volume of poetry is Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), which contained protests against slavery as well as some of her earliest poems in black dialect.

The Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, brought disruption to the Watkins family. Because even freed slaves were in danger by living in a slave state, William Watkins had to close his school and move to Canada, as did many other freed blacks. Frances Watkins instead moved to Ohio, where she was briefly the first female instructor at Columbus, Ohio's Union Seminary (later Wilberforce University). In 1853 she moved to Philadelphia, where she was active in the Underground Railroad while continuing to write poetry. By 1854 she began traveling in the North and Canada as a one of the first women anti-slavery orators. She took direct political action, staging a sit-in to protest Philadelphia's segregated streetcars in 1858 and solicited aid for John Brown after his failed raid on Harpers Ferry (1859). Watkins's fame as a writer and speaker grew, with publication in abolitionist papers such as William Lloyd Garrison's Liberatorand Douglass' Monthly. Her antislavery poems, such as "The Slave Mother—A Tale of Olivia" and "The Slave Auction," were widely read and reprinted as well as her Aunt Chloe poems, among the first black dialect poems by an African American. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects had sold ten thousand copies by 1857 and by 1871 had reached its twentieth edition. She is widely regarded as the most important African American poet of the nineteenth century before Paul Laurence Dunbar. Her 1859 short story "The Two Offers" is generally recognized as the first short story by an African American woman.

Watkins married Fenton Harper, a widower from Cincinnati, in 1860, and she spent the war years taking care of his household, his three children, and giving birth to a daughter. Fenton Harper died in 1864, leaving her in debt and with four children to raise alone. After the war, Frances E. W. Harper resumed her lecturing, this time traveling extensively in the South, continuing to write and publish and becoming active in the suffrage and temperance movements. She was one of the few African American members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.


The publication of Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted in 1892 was the culmination of what had already been a varied and accomplished career. In many ways, the novel is her crowning achievement and brings together the themes and concerns of her public and artistic life. In reaction to the popular but misguided Plantation School novelists, such as Thomas Nelson Page, who created a nostalgic and inaccurate picture of antebellum life, Harper wrote her own depiction of black life during slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Her characters, many drawn from real life, run the gamut of African American society, from slaves to freed blacks to mulattoes to the black intelligentsia and upper class.

The novel opens during the Civil War, with a scene of slaves who are intently keeping up with the war news but who transmit their knowledge to one another in code, "signifying" to one another that the news is favorable to their cause and thus hiding their knowledge from their white masters. Harper uses dialect effectively in these chapters, as she does intermittently throughout the novel, chiefly in the character of Aunt Linda, a cook and matriarch who espouses a number of Harper's political ideas in her dialect speeches. The novel includes flashbacks to the period before the war, then carries characters into the North after the war, where they encounter racism even in the supposedly enlightened states. The search for and the reunion of scattered family members drive the plot, although at several points in the novel plot is interrupted for long conversational debates between characters about pressing political issues, debates that often include bits of Harper's speeches on issues such as assimilation, emigration, education, and moral progress.

The central concern of the novel is identity, especially the choices of light-skinned blacks as they are confronted with and ultimately reject the opportunity to "pass" as white. The title character, Iola Leroy, is the daughter of a white slaveholder and a slave mother who raise their children as white within slave-holding Louisiana. She is very white-skinned, with long, straight hair and blue eyes. Iola learns her true racial identity after returning from her education in a white northern school to find her father dead of yellow fever and her mother, herself, and her siblings returned to the status of slaves. In a pattern that will be repeated by three more mixed-race characters in the novel, Iola refuses marriage to Dr. Gresham, a white northern physician who loves her and wants her to pass in white society. This central theme of the novel marks Harper's opposition to the idea of the tragic mulatto, a theme that would dominate African American fiction in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Like the sentimental heroine of much nineteenth-century fiction, the "tragic mulatto," or more accurately "tragic mulatta," since these characters were more often women, was used as a device to evoke sympathy in a white reading audience. Harper introduces a character who would fit this stereotype, but she refuses to use Iola for these purposes. Harper instead focuses on "racial uplift," an argument that blacks should sacrifice personal happiness for the betterment of their race. In this highly didactic and sentimental novel, the characters engage in dialogues on the central political concerns of racial progress, suffrage for blacks and for women, temperance, and Christian charity. In some ways, Harper's stance can be likened to the assimilationist sentiments that Booker T. Washington was to espouse in his Atlanta Exposition speech of 1895; the choice of her characters to choose their black heritage over their white appearance is much like Washington's "as separate as the fingers" accommodationist position. In an article on the mulatto and miscegenation in nineteenth-century fiction, William L. Andrews writes of the effect of Harper's mulatto characters:

The mulatto thus represents a conservative attitude toward social and political agitation for entry into the white man's world, an attitude anticipating Booker T. Washington's position. Far from being a threat to the body politic, his particular disavowal of passing, miscegenation, and other forms of "social equality" shows him to be racially orthodox on the central issue which so many Americans worried about. (P. 17)

Harper, however, was not writing to placate white readers; as she says in an afterword to the novel, she wrote her story to "awaken in the hearts of our countrymen a stronger sense of justice and a more Christlike humility in behalf of those whom the fortunes of war threw, homeless, ignorant and poor, upon the threshold of a new era" (p. 282).

Harper believed that the early 1890s marked an opportunity for the forces of suffrage, temperance, and racial equality to bring about lasting social change in race, class, and gender. Her note of optimism continues in her afterword:

Nor will it be in vain if it inspire the children upon whose brows God has poured the chrism of that new era to determine that they will embrace every opportunity, develop every faculty, and use every power God has given them to rise in the scale of character and condition, and to add their quota of good citizenship to the best welfare of the nation. P. 282)

Her hopeful didactic message flew in the face of a decade that was instead to bring the codification of Jim Crow discrimination in the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) as well as the disenfranchisement of black men and the rise of violence against blacks, culminating in widespread lynching. Instead of a hopeful new age, the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century ushered in a bleak period for African Americans, a time that has been called the nadir of black experience. Her novel, written primarily for black audiences, sold well enough to have at least four reprintings, but of course it failed to achieve its desired political goals. Harper died in 1911, her most famous novel soon to go out of print, its author more or less lost in shifting literary trends for most of the twentieth century.

Harper makes her purpose clear in her afterword to the novel.

From threads of fact and fiction I have woven a story whose mission will not be in vain if it awaken in the hearts of our countrymen a stronger sense of justice and a more Christlike humility in behalf of those whom the fortunes of war threw, homeless, ignorant and poor, upon the threshold of a new era. Nor will it be in vain if it inspire the children upon whose brows God has poured the chrism of that new era to determine that they will embrace every opportunity, develop every faculty, and use every power God has given them to rise in the scale of character and condition, and to add their quota of good citizenship to the best welfare of the nation.

Frances E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, p. 282.


In large part because of its didactic, sentimental, domestic thrust, Iola Leroy moved to the background of African American literary history, especially while it was dominated by male writers who emphasized realism and naturalism and had a harder political edge. Harper's work did not regain critical attention until the convergence of the feminist movement and the Black Arts movement of the 1970s brought about a search to recover lost or overlooked literature by African Americans, especially African American women. The republication of Iola Leroy in 1971 eventually brought renewed critical attention to an important early novel by an African American woman and to a pioneer in African American literature. Her work paved the way for subsequent writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, and the renewed critical attention paid to domestic, sentimental fiction as well as politically driven art has raised the novel in critical estimation. A novel that was lost for much of the twentieth century is now seen as an important step in the development of African American fiction, especially fiction by African American women.

See alsoBlacks; Civil Rights; Miscegenation; Race Novels


Primary Work

Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted. 1892. New York: AMS Press, 1971.

Secondary Works

Andrews, William L. "Miscegenation in the Late Nineteenth-Century American Novel." Southern Humanities Review 17 (1979): 13–24.

Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877–1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1989.

Foster, Frances Smith, ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1990.

John Bird