Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an African-American writer.

Born to free black parents in Baltimore, Maryland, Harper was orphaned when she was around three years old. She was raised by her uncle, Rev. William Watkins, who was a well-known teacher and activist. Until she was 13 years old, Harper attended the school he had founded in 1820, the William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, in Baltimore.

Unable to continue studying, she took a job as a domestic servant for a white family who owned a bookshop, but continued to educate herself by reading the books in the shop and writing, and also received training as a seamstress.

In 1839, while still in her teens, Harper started to publish essays in antislavery journals. At 20, she published her first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves (1845). This book was long assumed to have been lost, but, recently, in 2015, scholar Johanna Ortner did a fantastic job at recovering this collection in a forgotten archive.

In 1850, Harper moved to Ohio to become the first female teacher at a seminary near Columbus established by the A.M.E. Church. A year later, she accepted another teaching position in Pennsylvania. Around 1851, Harper became an active figure in the Underground Rail Road and helped slaves to make their way along to Canada. Around this time, she lived with William Still of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1853, she published her poem “Eliza Harris” in The Liberator, and became nationally known as an antislavery poet. In 1854, she published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, with a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, one of the most prominent abolitionists of the time. The book was a huge success, sold more than 10,000 copies, and was reprinted at least twenty times during its author’s lifetime.

That same year, in 1854, Harper began her career as a public speaker, and started to work for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society as a traveling lecturer. In 1857, she also started to work for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. She travelled throughout New England, southern Canada, Michigan and Ohio, delivering anti-slavery speeches and reciting her poetry, and became known as one of the most outspoken exponents of abolition, social justice, and civil rights at the time.

She was also a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines. In 1859, she published the short story “The Two Offers” in The Anglo-African Magazine. It is regarded as one of the first short stories published by an African American woman.

In 1860, she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children who owned a farm near Columbus, Ohio. They had a daughter, Mary Frances Harper, but Fenton died only a few years later, in 1864. Five months after his death, Harper moved to New England with her daughter, and resumed her public speaking career.

In May 1866, she delivered the famous speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together” at the National Women’s Rights Convention in New York, where she spoke for the incorporation of racial issues to the women’s suffrage movement: “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul (…). You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me(…) While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.

Harper worked to promote not only gender but also racial equality, and distanced herself from many white suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, criticizing the fact that they prioritized their campaign for women’s suffrage over that of the voting rights for African American men. Harper was a friend and mentor to various African American women writers, such as Mary Shadd Cary, Ida B. Wells, Victoria Earle Matthews, and Kate D. Chapman.

In 1869, Harper’s first novel, Minnie’s Sacrifice, was serialized in The Christian Recorder. That same year, she also published the blank verse epic Moses: A Story of the Nile. In 1872, she published the poetry collection Sketches of Southern Life, and, in 1873 she launched a newspaper column, “Fancy Etchings,” in The Christian Recorder. This same periodical serialized her novels Sowing and Reaping (1876) and Trial and Triumph (1888–1889). In 1892, Harper published her most popular novel, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), considered one of the most influential African American novels written by women in the nineteenth century. As an homage, Ida B. Wells took the pen name Iola when writing about race in the south. During the 1890s, Harper also published four more collections of poetry.

In 1896, Harper was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women, and served as its vice president in 1897. She was also active in the American Equal Rights Association, in the Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and in various Antislavery Societies, and took part of the first Congress of Colored Women in the United States.

Her daughter died in 1909, and, shortly thereafter, on February 22, 1911, Harper died of heart failure in Philadelphia, at the age of 85. She was the most widely read African American woman writer in the nineteenth century, and one of the most prominent abolitionists and women’s suffrage activists. She published numerous essays and speeches, almost a hundred poems, and four novels.

Books

  • Forest Leaves (1845, poetry)
  • Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854, poetry)
  • The Two Offers (1859, short story)
  • Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869, epic poem)
  • Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869, novel)
  • Poems (1871)
  • Sketches of Southern Life (1872, poetry)
  • Sowing and Reaping (1876–1877, novel)
  • Trial and Triumph (1888–1889, novel)
  • Light Beyond the Darkness (1890, poetry)
  • The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (1894-1895, poetry)
  • Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892, novel)
  • Poems (1896)
  • Idylls of the Bible (1901)
  • In Memoriam, Wm. McKinley (1901)
  • The Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper, ed. Maryemma Graham (1988)
  • A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, ed. Frances Smith Foster (1990)
  • Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels, ed. Frances Smith Foster (1994)

About her

  • Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911, by Melba Joyce Boyd (1994)
  • We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, by Shirley Wilson Logan (1999)
  • With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women, by Shirley Wilson Logan (1995)
  • Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women’s Writing 1850 – 1930,by Martha J. Cutter (1999)
  • Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-century African-American Literature,by John Ernest (1995)
  • The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, ed. Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, Jr (2017)
  • Toward An Intellectual History of Black Women, ed. Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage (2015)
  • Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, by Hazel Carby (1987)
  • Articulating Rights: Nineteenth-Century American Women on Race, Reform, and the State,by Alison M. Parker (2010)
  • Daughters of Africa, by Margaret Busby (1992)
  • Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century, by Claudia Tate (1996)
  • African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, by Emmanuel S. Nelson (2000)
  • Kindred Hands: Letters on Writing by British and American Women Authors, 1865-1935, ed. Jennifer Cognard-Black and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls (2006)
  • The Vintage Book of American Women Writers, by Elaine Showalter (2011)
  • ‘‘Doers of the Word’’: African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880), ed. Carla Peterson (1995)
  • Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892, by Frances Smith Foster (1993)
  • Afro-American Women Writers 1746–1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, by Ann Allen Shockley (1989)
  • The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, ed. Henry Louis Gates and Nellie Y. McKay (1996)
  • Encyclopedia of African American women writers, ed. Yolanda Williams Page (2007)
  • Classic African American women’s narratives, ed. William L. Andrews (2003)
  • “Sacred Land Regained: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and ‘The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth,’ A Lost Poem”, by Donald Yacavone, , Pennsylvania History vol. 62, no. 1, January 1995
  • Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage (2015)

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