Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African American abolitionist and poet. Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at twenty and her first novel, the widely praised Iola Leroy, at age 67.
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. She was educated at the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by her uncle Rev. William Watkins, who was a civil rights activist. He was a major influence on her life and work. At fourteen, she found work as a seamstress.
Frances Watkins had her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845 (it has been lost). Her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, published in 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, the first short story to be published by an African American.
She continued with her writing and continued to publish poetry after becoming a political activist. In 1892 she published Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. One of the first novels by an African-American woman, it sold well and was reviewed widely. As the critic Terry Novak notes, she combined interests in the role of Christian women with "the color line, miscegenation, abolition, reconstruction, education, social responsibility," and women's suffrage.
Teaching and Public Activism
In 1850, Watkins moved to Ohio, where she worked as the first woman teacher at Union Seminary, established by the Ohio Conference of the AME Church. (Union closed in 1863 when the AME Church diverted its funds to purchase Wilberforce University, the first black-owned and operate college.) The school in Wilberforce was run by the Rev. John Brown (not the same as the abolitionist).
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 a two-year lecture tour in Maine for the Anti-Slavery Society. She traveled, lecturing throughout the East and Midwest from 1856 to 1860.
Marriage and Family
At the age of 35, in 1860 she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. They had a daughter together in 1862. For a time Frances Harper withdrew from the lecture circuit. But, after her husband died in 1864, she returned to her travels and lecturing.
Frances Watkins Harper was a strong supporter of abolition, prohibition and woman's suffrage, progressive causes linked before and after the American Civil War. She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolition. She often read her poetry at the public meetings, including the extremely popular "Bury Me in a Free Land".
She was connected with national leaders in suffrage, and in 1866 gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women.
Harper was very involved in black organizations. From 1883 to 1890, she helped organize activities for the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. continuing with political activism, she helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, and was elected vice president in 1897.
Frances Harper died on February 22, 1911.
Legacy and Honors
African-American women's service clubs named themselves 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. There is also a female honors dormitory named in her honor at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland, commonly referred to as Harper- Tubman, or simply Harper.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Works:
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
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