Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (24 September, 1825 - 22 February, 1911) born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland, was an African American abolitionist and poet.
Her mother died three years later and she was looked after by relatives. She was educated at a school run by her uncle which was Waco High, Rev. William Watkins until the age of thirteen when she found work as a seamstress.
Her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, was published in 1845, the book was extremely popular and over the next few years went through 20 editions. In 1850, she started working in Columbus, Ohio as a schoolteacher. Three years later in 1853, she joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became a travelling lecturer for the group. She was also a strong supporter of prohibition and woman's suffrage. She often would read her poetry at these public meetings, including the extremely popular Bury Me in a Free Land.
Harper served as Superintendent of Colored Work in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and fought against the idea that alcohol abuse was a problem particular to African American men. (The Gilded Age, p. 114)
In 1892, she published a novel about a rescued black slave and the Reconstructed South, called Iola Leroy, one of the first books published by an African American. Later, she also wrote Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping and Trial and Triumph.
Harper was a strong supporter of women's suffrage and was a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins (1825–1911), novelist, poet, essayist, journalist, orator, and activist. Born free in the slave state of Maryland, Frances Ellen Watkins was orphaned at an early age. She attended the William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth in Baltimore, an institution noted for rigorous training in a classical curriculum of languages, biblica studies, and elocution, and for developing professiona and religious leaders of unusual personal integrity and political activity. Harper was an exemplary alumna. At age twenty-five, she moved to Columbus, Ohio, to become the first woman professor at the newly formed Union Seminary (later Wilberforce University). Exiled from Maryland by state laws that prohibited entry of free blacks into the state and frustrated by the increasing power of slaveholders, in 1853 Harper moved to Philadelphia, where she lived at an Underground Railroad station and devoted her life and literature to abolition and other social reform movements. Her literary production at that time included poems and essays such as “The Dying Christian”, “Ethiopia”, “Eliza Harris”, “Christianity”, and “Women's Rights”. Reportedly, she published a book, Forest Leaves, but no known copies have survived.
In 1854, Watkins accepted a position with the Maine Anti-Slavery Society thereby becoming one of the first professional woman orators in the United States. Traveling throughout New England, southern Canada, and the western states of Michigan and Ohio, Watkins earned accolades for highly articulate and “fiery” speeches that were “marked by dignity and composure” and delivered “without the slightest violation of good taste.” Her presentations often included recitations of original poetry and this, combined with regular publication in abolitionist periodicals, earned her a national reputation. Consequently, when she combined her poetry and essays into the 1854 volume Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, it merited dual publication in Boston and Philadelphia. By 1871, this book was in its twentieth edition. Though modern anthologists favor its antislavery poems such as “The Slave Mother—A Tale of Ohio”, “The Slave Auction”, and “Ethiopia”, the volume was, as its title indicates, “on Miscellaneous Subjects”, including religion, heroism, women's rights, African American history, and temperance. In an 1859 letter, Watkins outlined the philosophy that informed her writing throughout her sixty-eight-year professional career: “The nearer we ally ourselves to the wants and woes of humanity in the spirit of Christ,” she wrote, “the closer we get to the great heart of God; the nearer we stand by the beating of the pulse of universal love.”
While she earnestly tried to “teach men and women to love noble deeds by setting them to the music, of fitly spoken words,” Watkins understood that universal love realized through devotion to humanity required courage and sometimes decidedly aggressive behavior. In 1858, she protested the segregated streetcars of Philadelphia by staging a personal sit-in and in 1859, when John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry failed, she solicited aid for the captured revolutionaries and moved in with Mary Brown until after her husband's execution.
During the antebellum period, Frances Ellen Watkins regularly contributed to national and international abolitionist journals such as the Provincial Freeman, the Liberator, the National AntiSlavery Standard, and Frederick Douglass's Monthly. At the same time, she was active among the African American literati, publishing poems, letters, and essays regularly in African American periodicals such as the Christian Recorder, the Repository of Religion and Literature and of Science and Art, the Aliened American, and the Weekly Anglo African. Along with Martin R. Delany, Frederick Douglass, William C. Nell, Mary Shadd Cary, and Sarah M. Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins is listed as an editor and contributor to what is considered the earliest African American literary journal, the Anglo-African Magazine. It was there that in 1859 she published what is generally considered the first short story by an African American, “The Two Offers”.
After marrying Fenton Harper in 1860, the duties of wife, mother, and homemaker slowed but did not stop her social and literary activity. During the Civil War, Frances Harper's lectures and writings carried such titles as “To the Cleveland Union Savers,” “Lincoln's Proclamation,” and “The Mission of War.” She was one of the first to go South to aid the freed slaves. Her husband died in 1864 and within months, Frances Harper was again on the lecture circuit. Between 1865 and 1870, she traveled in every southern state except Texas and Arkansas, lecturing to white, black, and integrated audiences on topics such as “The Claims of the Negro” and “The Work Before Us”; teaching the former slaves reading, writing, home management, and politics; and writing letters back to northern newspapers urging their moral and physical support for the Reconstruction of the United States.
Her newspaper contributions made her “the journalistic mother” of emerging writers such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, for whom she was a model and a mentor. Harper's influence was not confined to the postbellum era,, however. Her columns, “Fancy Etchings” and “Fancy Sketches,” with their ongoing conversations between Jenny and Aunt Jane about economic, artistic, and social issues prefigure Olivia Ward Bush-Banks's Aunt Viney and Langston Hughes's Simple series in the mid-twentieth century.
Harper's southern travels furnished material for more than newspaper columns that mirrored and guided African American culture of the Reconstruction era, however. Harper had a particular gift for combining social issues, Afro-Protestant theology, and literary innovations. Using the biblical Moses as a model, for example, Harper represented postbellum United States as a modern biblical narrative in her third book, a dramatic epic called Moses, a Story of the Nile (1868), and in her serialized novel Minnie's Sacrifice (1867–1868). In 1870, she published Sketches of Southern Life, a collection of poems that introduced the wit and wisdom of Aunt Chloe Fleet and helped shape the emerging interests in literary realism and local color by incorporating African American dialect, folk characters, and cultural experiences.
Frances Harper, like William Wells Brown and others, was a strong supporter of the temperance movement. Serialized in the Christian Recorder, her 1867 novel, Sowing and Reaping: A Temperance Story, was one of many stories, poems, and essays that she contributed to this crusade. Joining words and deeds, Frances Harper worked tirelessly in this effort and became one of the first African American women to hold national office in the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
During her career, Frances Harper published several other books, including the novel Trial and Triumph (1888) and three 1895 poetry collections: Atlanta Offering, Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems, and Poems. But, it is for Iola Leroy (1892) that she is best known. Harper wrote this tale of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction both in opposition to the inaccurate but increasingly popular plantation school novelists such as Thomas Nelson Page and in answer to the need for more books that would inspire and instruct African American students. Iola Leroy, a culmination of the themes and techniques that guided Harper's long career, focuses upon issues of race, gender, and class. Its characters represent the diversity of African American culture and heroic expression. Iola, Dr. Gresham, Robert Johnson, Aunt Linda, Dr. Latimer, Harry, Lucy, Marie, and the others are based, in part, upon actual people and many of their experiences are reincarnations and versions of those who appeared in earlier Harper poems, essays, and stories. As William Still predicted in his introduction to the first edition, Iola Leroy met “with warm congratulations from a goodly number” of readers. Today it is considered a “classic” among African American novels.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a prolific and popular writer who published in practically every genre. She appreciated beauty, she experimented with form and technique, and she enjoyed the accolades of a successful writing career. She believed, however, that literature was to be used to represent, to reprimand, and to revise the lives and aspirations of readers. She was a pragmatic, courageous, and lyrical writer whose major goal was to “make the songs for the people.” Frances Harper died on 20 February 1911.
Cordery, Stacey in The Gilded Age, Charles Calhoun, ed. Wilimgton, Delaware, Scholarly Resources, 1996, ISBN 0-8420-2500-6
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. Frances Smith Foster, ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, 1990. Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911, 1994. Frances Smith Foster, ed., Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper, 1994. John Ernest, Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature, 1995
- Wikipedia's article on Frances Harper
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