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Frances Harper

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Frances Harper

Frances Harper
Born Frances Ellen Watkins
September 24, 1825
Baltimore, Maryland
Died February 22, 1911(1911-02-22) (aged 85)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Genre Poetry, short story, Essays
Notable works Iola Leroy
Spouse Fenton Harper (m. 1860)
Children Mary Frances Harper (1862-1908)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an African-American abolitionist, poet and author. She was also active in other types of social reform and was a member of the Women'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 age 20 and her widely praised Iola Leroy, at age 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 blacks. 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 many other social causes.

She helped or held high office in several national progressive organizations. In 1873 Harper 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 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 1
    • Early life and education 1.1
    • Writing career 1.2
    • Teaching and public activism 1.3
    • Marriage and family 1.4
    • Progressive causes 1.5
  • Works 2
  • Legacy and honors 3
  • Citations 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Life and works

Early life and education

Frances Ellen Watkins was born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland. 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. She was educated at his Academy for Negro Youth. Watkins was a major influence on her life and work.[1][2] At fourteen, Frances found work as a seamstress.

Writing career

Frances Watkins had her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845 when she was 20. 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. She continued to publish poetry and short stories.

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. At one time considered the first novel by an African American, it is one of the earliest. (Discoveries of earlier works by Harriet E. Wilson and William Wells Brown have displaced Harper's work.) 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.

Teaching and public activism

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.[3]

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.

Marriage and family

On November 22, 1860, in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the age of 35, Watkins married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children who was a native of Loudoun County, Virginia.[4] They had one daughter together, Mary Frances (1862-1908), who became a teacher. For a time Frances Harper withdrew from the lecture circuit. But after her husband's death on May 23, 1864, she returned to her travels and lecturing.

Progressive causes

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.[5]. 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 (abolitionist), "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."[6] 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 an African American.

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.[5] 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.[5]

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."[7] "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".[7]

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-National Association of Colored Women in 1894, and was elected vice president in 1897.

Frances Harper died on February 22, 1911.


  • 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:[8]

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

Legacy and honors

  • Numerous African-American women's service clubs are named in her honor. Across the nation, in cities such as St. Louis, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh, F. E. W. Harper Leagues and Frances E. Harper Women's Christian Temperance Unions thrived well into the twentieth century.[9]
  • A women's honors dormitory named for her and Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, is commonly referred to as Harper-Tubman, or simply Harper.


  1. ^ Hollis Robbins, Ed. "Introduction," Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted, Penguin Classics, 2010
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c Hine, C.D., Hine, C.W., & Harrold, S. (2011). The African American Odyssey. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b c 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
  8. ^ Frances Smith Foster, ed., Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper, 1994
  9. ^


  • 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

  • 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.

External links

  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Enlighten Motherhood: An Address/by Mrs. Frances E.W. Harper; before the Brooklyn Literary Society, November 15th, 1892. Published 1892.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Idylls of the Bible. Philadelphia, 1901.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Light Beyond the Darkness. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry, 189-?
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. Boston: J.B. Yerrinton & Son, Printers, 1854.
  • Works by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Frances Harper at Internet Archive
  • Works by Frances Harper at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, "Free Labor", Wisconsin Curriculum guidelines
  • NEH's EDSITEment lesson Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's Learning to Read
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