Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins 1825–1911

views updated May 29 2018

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 18251911

Poet, writer, lecturer, activist

Privileged Upbringing Did Not Stave Off Loneliness

Lectured in Support of Antislavery Movement

Pioneering Use of Dialect and Folk Characters

Challenged Racism of Fellow Suffragettes

Selected writings


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was the most popular black poet of her day. She was known internationally during the mid-to late 1800s as a poet, writer, lecturer, abolitionist, and proponent of temperance and womens rights. Although she was a highly sought after speaker and a best-selling author, her works fell into obscurity after her death in 1911. In the introduction to her book A Brighter Coming Day, Harper scholar Frances S. Foster suggests that racism and sexismspecifically as they manifested themselves in attitudes toward the emancipation of blacks and the suffragette movement of the turn of the centurykept Harper out of Americas literary canon.

Frances Ellen Watkins was born to free parents in the slave city of Baltimore, Maryland, on September 24, 1825. By the time she was three both of her parents had died. She was subsequently taken in by an aunt and uncle active in the antislavery movement. Although living free among slaves was not easy, Harper was extremely privileged for her time. She attended the school founded by her uncle, the William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. The schools emphasis on bible studies, public speaking, and classic literature, as well as an encouragement of political leadership and social service work for its graduates strongly influenced the young girl.

Privileged Upbringing Did Not Stave Off Loneliness

Apparently, Harper was a lonely child. Foster quotes a letter Harper wrote to a friend in which she laments, Have I yearned for a mothers love? The grave was my robber. Before three years had scattered their blight around my path, death had won my mother from me. Would the strong arm of a brother have been welcome? I was my mothers only child. As a youth she was considered industrious and intelligent, often given to movements of quiet reflection. She was also profoundly affected by her schools abolitionist teachings.

When she was 14 years old it became necessary for Harper to seek employment. She had already established a reputation as a writer and scholar, and she had enjoyed an education as good or better than that of most women of the periodregardless of class or color. Nonetheless, the best job she could find was as a housekeeper, seamstress, and babysitter for a family

At a Glance

Born September 24,1825, in Baltimore, MD; died of a heart ailment, February 20, 1911; married Fenton Harper, 1860; children; Mary.

Began writing essays and poems in her early teens; worked as housekeeper, seamstress, and babysitter, c 1839; taught school in various cities, c. 185054; first lectured on abolitionism, 1854; published first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves, c. 1845; gained widespread recognition with Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, 1854; published first short story, The Two Offers/1859; published novel loia Leroy, 1892; superintendent of the Colored Branch of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Chapters of the Womans Christian Temperance Union, 187582; directed Northern United States Temperance Union, 188390. Lectured extensively on abolitionism, temperance, and equal rights for women and African Americans, 1854-c 1900.

who owned a bookstore. She spent her spare time reading in order to further her education. By that time she had written an essay and composed several poems.

In 1850 Harpers uncle closed his school and moved to Canada. Baltimore had become a dangerous place for free blacks, so Harper moved to Ohio, where she taught at the African Methodist Episcopals (AME) Union Seminary near Columbus. The seminary eventually became part of Wilberforce University. Harper was the first woman faculty member there; she taught what was then called domestic science, essentially housekeeping skills.

In 1852 Harper moved to Little York, Pennsylvania, to teach a class of what she called fifty-three untrained little urchins, according to Ann Shockley in Afro-American Women Writers.But she soon quit that miserable job. She found herself increasingly depressed due to a combination of outrage at slavery and longing for Baltimore. The latter was intensified in 1853 when it became impossible for her to return to the city of her youth. Maryland had passed a law forbidding free blacks from entering the stategoing back would have meant imprisonment or enslavement. For the next several years Harper moved frequently, devoting herself to the abolitionist cause. In 1853 she relocated to Philadelphia, where she lived with the family of William Still, whose house was the main stop on the Philadelphia portion of the Underground Railroad. The railroad was a secret network of hiding places where escaped slaves were aided in their escape to freedom in Canada.

Lectured in Support of Antislavery Movement

Harper spent much of her time traveling to antislavery offices in Philadelphia, Boston, and New Bedford, New Hampshire, learning the abolition movements theories and practices. She gave her first speech in 1854 in New Bedford. She was so incensed by the horrors of slavery that she became a permanent lecturer for the Maine Anti-slavery Society. Harper traveled throughout New England, southern Canada, and parts of the Midwest speaking on antislavery and civil rights. She would frequently give three lectures in a day. She was an excellent speaker, described as fiery yet dignified. Some people were so impressed, but still so stubborn in their racist convictions, that they insisted Harper could not be genuine. You would be amused, she wrote to a friend, as quoted in Hallie Q. Browns Homespun Heroines and other Women of Distinction, to hear some of the remarks which my lectures call forth. She is a man. She is not colored, she is white. She is painted.

Harpers poetry was often interspersed throughout her lectures. She also began publishing poems regularly in newspapers and magazines, gaining a national reputation in the process. She had published her first volume of poetry in Baltimore around 1845 when she was just 21 years old. Copies of this small collection, entitled Forest Leaves also published as Autumn Leaves have long since disappeared. The book that truly launched her literary career, however, was Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, printed in both Philadelphia and Boston in 1854. It contained a preface by well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The books success was prodigious; it sold over 10,000 copies in three years and was enlarged and reissued in 1857 and reprinted again in 1858, 1864, and 1871, making Harper the most popular black American poet of the time.

It is not surprising that Harper is most often referred to as an abolitionist poet, but her volumes of poetry actually contained works on a variety of topics, including religion, heroism, womens rights, black achievement, and temperance. Her poems also took the form of responses to contemporary writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens, new readings of bible stories, and commentaries on current events. In 1859 Harper became the first black American woman to publish a short story when The Two Offers was published in the Anglo-African.

Harper married Fenton Harper, a young widower with three children, on November 22, 1860, in Cincinnati. Savings from lectures and book sales allowed her to buy a farm outside of Columbus, where she and her husband set up house. They had one child together, a daughter named Mary. The responsibilities of married life and family allowed Harper little time to write or lecture, but she continued to speak out against the atrocities of slavery and published occasionally during the Civil War.

Fenton Harper died during the spring of 1864, which sent Frances immediately back out on the lecture circuit, where she began advocating equal rights for the newly emancipated slaves. In 1867 she financed her own speaking tour and from 1867 through 1871 she lectured daily throughout the North and war-torn South. She worked hard for the Reconstruction effort, espousing the necessity of racial uplift, moral reform, and womens rights. Among the titles of her speeches were Enlightened Motherhood, Racial Literature, and The Demands of the Colored Race in the Work of Reconstruction. As womens clubs became popular, Harper became a favorite speaker on the womens movement

Pioneering Use of Dialect and Folk Characters

During this period Harper tried her hand at her most experimental writing. In 1869 the Christian Recorder published her serialized novella, Minnies Sacrifice. That year she also published Moses: A Story of the Nile, an extended dramatic poem retelling the bible story of the Hebrews enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent exodus to the promised land. Still, many critics consider Harpers Sketches of Southern Life her most inventive and best literary piece. Published in 1872, it is comprised of a series of poems by Aunt Chloe telling stories of slavery and reconstruction. It is considered a pioneering effort in its use of African American dialect and folk characters. Harpers more innovative works did not replace her lyrical balladry, however; in 1871, while arranging for the twentieth edition of Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, Harper published Poems, her first new volume of verse in over ten years.

From 1875 to 1882 Harper served as superintendent of the Colored Branch of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Chapters of the Womans Christian Temperance Union. Although she had recently purchased a home in Philadelphia, she was rarely there as demands for her speech-making talents grew. Her daughter, Mary, who never married and was extremely close to her mother, often traveled with her.

Harper developed Sunday schools and YMCAs in the black community, as well as helping to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents and working for the security of the aged. In 1873 she wrote a series of pieces entitled Fancy Etchings for theChristian Reader, the characters in which discuss current events and various issues supported by Harper. From 1883 to 1890 she directed the Northern United States Temperance Union.

Challenged Racism of Fellow Suffragettes

Three years later Harper joined with colleagues Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Sarah J. Earley, and Hallie Q. Brown to charge the international gathering of women assembled at the Worlds Congress of Representative Women in Chicago with racism. The attitudes of celebrated suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and other white feminists who made racist remarks about black men was something black feminists would not tolerate. They had depended on the suffrage movement to represent black women as well, but they ultimately realized that they would be forced to organize separately. Harper became the vice-president of the group she helped to form, the National Association of Colored Women.

Still, though the Fifteenth Amendment, which would allow blacks the right to vote, did not include women, Harper pushed to have it passed. When forced to choose, she felt that rights for black Americans were more important than rights for women and that if any black person could progress, she would encourage the effort. Harper insisted in her lectures that the burdens of one group were the burdens of all. In a poem entitled The Burdens of All she wrote, The burdens will always be heavy/The sunshine fade into night/Till mercy and justice shall cement/The black, the brown and the white. Neither an advocate of assimilation nor of separatism, Harper championed the value of education in achieving change and did not condone violence.

In 1892 Harper published her only novel; she was just the second African American woman to boast such an accomplishment, lola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted tells the story of a young woman growing up in post-Civil War America, when women were subjugated and African Americans were restricted and abused despite their freedom. Publishers Weekly called it a classic of 19th century African-American womens fiction. The book was well received and reached a wide audience. But Iola Leroy would be Harpers last long literary project (most volumes published later were rearrangements of already published work with some previously uncollected writings added). Toward the end of her life Harper was often ill; she therefore traveled and published less frequently. Mary Harper died in 1909. Constant offers of help were forwarded, but Harper had always been independent and would remain so. She died of a heart ailment on February 20, 1911, at the age of 87.

In Library Journals review of Frances Fosters A Brighter Coming Day, Veronica Mitchell noted that Harper was the most popular African-American poet of her time; the first paid black abolitionist lecturer and short story writer; the first to experiment with dialect in the speech of her characters to express the sensibilities of the oppressed; and the first to develop heroic black characters. In 1994 Foster edited Minnies Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper (though the three titular works are generally considered novellas, not novels). Metro Times Literary Quarterly contributor Kierna Mayo Dawsey called the trio buried treasures, remarking on Fosters tremendous contribution in searching for and reprinting Harpers works.

Dawsey pointed out that [Harpers] accomplishments as a writer and speaker dedicated to abolition, womens rights and religion earned her national recognition, but ironically did not prevent a significant portion of her work from being lost and forgotten upon her death. It wasnt until the end of the twentieth century, when the contributions of Africa American women to the literary canon began to be studied in earnest that Harpers rightful place among major writers of the nineteenth century commenced to reassert itself. Frances E. W. Harper would have been considered exemplary in any century, but to accomplish what she did during a time when both blacks and women were institutionally oppressed is truly remarkable.

Selected writings

Forest Leaves (also published as Autumn Leaves), c.1845.

Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, 1854.

The Two Offers, 1859.

Moses: A Story of the Nile, 1869.

Minnies Sacrifice, 1869.

Poems, 1871.

Sketches of Southern Life, 1872.

Fancy Etchings, 1873.

Fancy Sketches, 1874.

Sowing and Reaping: A Temperance Story, 187677 (serialized).

Trial and Triumph, 1888-89 (serialized). The Womans Christian Temperance Union and the Colored Woman, 1888.

lola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, 1892.

The Sparrows Fall and Other Poems, c. 1894.

Atlanta Offering: Poems, 1895.

Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems, c. 1895. Poems, 1900.

Light beyond the Darkness.



Baym, Nina, Womans Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America 1820-1870, Cor nell University Press, 1978.

A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, edited by Frances Smith Foster,Feminist Press, 1990.

Brown, Hallie Q., Homespun Heroines and Other

Women of Distinction, Aldine Publishing Co., 1926,pp. 97103.

Carby, Hazel, in the introduction tolola Leroy, edited by Deborah E. McDowell, Beacon Press, 1987, pp. 120.

Carby, Hazel, in the introduction Womanhood: TheEmer gence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, 1987.

Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present, edited by Arthur P. Davis and J. Saun ders Redding, Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Christian, Barbara, Black Woman Novelists: The De velopment of a Tradition, 1892-1976, 1980.

Foster, Frances Smith, in the introduction iolola Leroy, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Oxford University Press, 1988.

Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 18601960, edited by Mary Helen Washington, 1988.

Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.

Lerner, Gerda, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, 1973.

Montgomery, J. W., A Comparative Analysis of the Rhetoric of Two Negro Women Orators Sojourner Truth and F. E. W. Harper, 1968.

Redding, J. Saunders, To Make a Poet Black, 1939.

Robinson, W. H. .Early Black American Poets, 1971.

Sherman, Joan R. .Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, 2nd edition, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 6274.

Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 17461933, G. K. Hall, 1988, pp. 5661.

Sillen, S., Women against Slavery, 1955.

Still, William G., in the introduction to the second edition of loia Leroy, Garigues Brothers, 1892.

Still, William G., The Underground Railroad, 1872. Williams, Kenny J., They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1970.


American Visions, October 1994, p. 38.

Boston Globe, August 30, 1994, p. 34.

Library Journal, March 15, 1990, p. 90.

Metro Times Literary Quarterly, February 15, 1995, p. 6.

New Literary History, Winter 1987.

New York Times Book Review, September 23, 1990,p. 38.

Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography,January 1989.

Publishers Weekly, May 16, 1994, p. 52.

Joanna Rubiner

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

views updated May 21 2018

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

African American writer, lecturer, abolitionist, and women's rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was a notable voice in social reform in the nineteenth century. She captivated black and white audiences alike with dramatic recitations of her antislavery and social reform verse.

Dubbed the "Bronze Muse" in honor of her skills as both a writer and lecturer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is regarded as one of the most extraordinarily accomplished African American women of the nineteenth century. She was, for example, a respected poet whose ten volumes of verse sold well enough to provide her with a modest income. In 1859, she became the first black woman to publish a short story. And her only novel, Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted (1892), was the first book by a black writer to depict the life of African Americans in the Reconstruction-era South. (Many colleges and universities across the United States still feature it as part of their women's studies and black literature courses.) But it was as a lecturer that Harper had her greatest impact, beginning in the antebellum period as an antislavery activist and ending up as a crusader for women's rights and moral reform.

Harper was born of free parents in September of 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised there by an aunt and uncle after being orphaned at an early age. She attended a private school run by her uncle until she was 13, when she went to work as a housekeeper for a family that owned a bookstore. Harper's employer encouraged her to spend her free time reading and writing, and before long the young woman was composing her first poems and essays. Her first book, Forest Leaves (also known as Autumn Leaves), a compilation of poetry and prose, was published about 1845.

After leaving Maryland in 1850, Harper taught school for a while in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was in Pennsylvania that she became active in the Underground Railroad. She also launched her career as an antislavery lecturer during this period, traveling extensively throughout New England, New York, Ohio, and eastern Canada to speak as often as three or four times a day. On May 13, 1857, for example, she addressed the New York Antislavery Society. In an excerpt of what is believed to be the only surviving example of one of Harper's antislavery lectures, as quoted from Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers, 1635-1935, Harper called for an end to slavery: "A hundred thousand newborn babes are annually added to the victims of slavery; twenty thousand lives are annually sacrificed on the plantations of the South. Such a sight should send a thrill of horror through the nerves of civilization and impel the heart of humanity to lofty deeds. So it might, if men had not found out a fearful alchemy by which this blood can be transformed into gold. Instead of listening to the cry of agony, they listen to the ring of dollars and stoop down to pick up the coin."

The 1850s proved to be a productive time for Harper, and in addition to her public speaking engagements, she also published several volumes of poetry. In much of her writing, Harper argued for social change and in support of her beliefs. One of her most critically acclaimed works, the abolitionist poem "Bury Me in a Free Land, " was published in 1854 in her popular book Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. This collection saw print in over 20 editions. "Mrs. Harper's verse is frankly propagandist, a metrical extension of her life dedicated to the welfare of others, " commented Joan R. Sherman in Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century. "She believed in art for humanity's sake."

In 1860, Harper married Fenton Harper, a farmer, and briefly retired from public speaking. The couple had one daughter, Mary. After her husband's death in 1864, Harper returned to the lecture circuit. She also published what many critics believed to be her best work, Moses: A Story of the Nile, a collection of poems and an essay, under the name Mrs. F.E.W. Harper around this time. An extended biblical allegory written in blank verse and lacking overt racial references, Moses tells the story of the Hebrew patriarch by focusing on his self-sacrifice and leadership skills. "The poem's elevated diction, concrete imagery, and formal meter harmoniously blend to magnify the noble adventure of Moses' life and the mysterious grandeur of his death, " judged Sherman in Invisible Poets. "Mrs. Harper maintains the pace of her long narrative and its tone of reverent admiration with scarcely a pause for moralizing. Moses is Mrs. Harper's most original poem and one of considerable power."

After the American Civil War, Harper continued to lecture on behalf of the women's movement and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Her top priority, however, was the race issue; while on a lengthy tour across the South during the late 1860s and early 1870s, she saw firsthand that former slaves endured conditions nearly as intolerable as those that had existed before the war. (And as lynchings and other forms of racial intimidation became more commonplace, the lives of Southern blacks took on an increased sense of desperation.) Consequently, like many of her fellow black activists, she felt that securing rights for women could wait until African Americans were guaranteed certain basic freedoms. Harper addressed this very topic on February 23, 1891, at a meeting of the National Council of Women. Her remarks were originally published in 1891 in Transactions and later reprinted in Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings. In her introduction, Harper declared: "I deem it a privilege to present the negro, not as a mere dependent asking for northern sympathy or southern compassion, but as a member of the body politic who has a claim upon the nation for justice, simple justice, which is the right of every race, upon the government for protection, which is the rightful claim of every citizen, and upon our common Christianity for the best influences which can be exerted for peace on earth and goodwill to man."

In the same speech, Harper appealed to women of all colors to work towards social equality: "[T]here are some rights more precious than the rights of property or the claims of superior intelligence: they are the rights of life and liberty, and to these the poorest and humblest man has just as much right as the richest and most influential man in the country. Ignorance and poverty are conditions which men outgrow. Since the sealed volume was opened by the crimson hand of war, in spite of entailed ignorance, poverty, opposition, and a heritage of scorn, schools have sprung like wells in the desert dust. It has been estimated that about two millions have learned to read…. Millions of dollars have flowed into the pockets of the race, and freed people have not only been able to provide for themselves, but reach out their hands to impoverished owners."

At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Harper delivered a speech entitled "Women's Political Future." In this presentation, she reiterated her belief in the ability of women to exert a strong moral force for social change. Her address was published in May Wright Sewall's 1894 book entitled The World's Congress of Representative Women. "The tendency of the present age, with its restlessness, religious upheavals, failures, blunders, and crimes, is toward broader freedom, an increase of knowledge, the emancipation of thought, and a recognition of the brotherhood of man; in this movement woman, as the companion of man, must be a sharer, " declared Harper. "So close is the bond between man and woman that you can not raise one without lifting the other. The world can not move without woman's sharing in the movement, and to help give a right impetus to that movement is woman's highest privilege."

Harper also presented her ideas on suffrage in this speech, favoring an educated voter of either sex over the then-current system of only men being allowed to vote in the United States: "I do not believe in unrestricted and universal suffrage for either men or women. I believe in moral and educational tests. I do not believe that the most ignorant and brutal man is better prepared to add value to the strength and durability of the government than the most cultured, upright, and intelligent woman. I do not think that willful ignorance should swamp earnest intelligence at the ballot box, nor that educated wickedness, violence, and fraud should cancel the votes of honest men. The unsteady hands of a drunkard can not cast the ballot of a freeman. The hands of lynchers are too red with blood to determine the political character of the government for even four short years. The ballot in the hands of woman means power added to influence. How well she will use that power I can not foretell. Great evils stare us in the face that need to be throttled by the combined power of an upright manhood and an enlightened womanhood; and I know that no nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment and happiness if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered. China compressed the feet of her women and thereby retarded the steps of her men. The elements of a nation's weakness must ever be found at the hearthstone."

Harper continued to write and lecture for social reform until her death on February 22, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Among the notable posts she held during her life included director of the American Association of Education of Colored Youth, executive member of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union, and founding member and vice-president of the National Association of Colored Women. Eugene B. Redmond, discussing Harper's writing in Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History, noted: "Up until the Civil War, Mrs. Harper's favorite themes were slavery, its harshness, and the hypocrisies of America. She is careful to place graphic details where they will get the greatest result, especially when the poems are read aloud." He continued: "Critics generally agree that Mrs. Harper's poetry is not original or brilliant. But she is exciting and comes through with powerful flashes of imagery and statement." W.E.B. DuBois, writing an editorial for Crisis after Harper's death, opined: "It is, however, for her attempts to forward literature among colored people, that Frances Harper deserves to be remembered. She was not a great singer, but she had some sense of song; she was not a great writer, but [what] she wrote [was] worth reading. She was, above all, sincere. She took her writing soberly and earnestly; she gave her life to it."

Further Reading

Anderson, Judith, Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers, 1635-1935, Kendall/Hunt, 1984.

Foner, Philip S., editor, The Voice of Black America: Major Speeches by Negroes in the United States, 1797-1971, Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Lerner, Gerda, editor, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, Pantheon Books, 1972.

Loewenberg, Bert James, and Ruth Bogin, editors, Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Redmond, Eugene B., Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History, Anchor/Doubleday, 1976.

Sewall, May Wright, editor, The World's Congress of Representative Women, Rand, McNally, 1894.

Sherman, Joan R., Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Crisis, April 1911.

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