Celebrated writer and public speaker, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper stands out as one of the key figures of the nineteenth-century movement for human rights.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was among the most significant African American public intellectuals of the nineteenth-century. A popular lecturer for abolition, suffrage, and civil rights reform, she was also the first African American to publish a short story in the United States and the most popular African American poet before Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Early Years of Frances Ellen Watkins
Born Frances Ellen Watkins in 1825, Harper’s free parents died, leaving her an orphan at the age of three. She was raised and educated by her uncle, the abolitionist educator William Watkins. His academy in Baltimore for African American youth boasted rigorous academic standards and a broad curriculum that formed the foundation of Harper’s future success as a literary figure and public lecturer.
Abolition and Racial Equality
Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, William Watkins was forced to sell his school in Maryland and emmigrate to Canada. At that time, Frances Watkins accepted a teaching position at Union Seminary, an African American school in Ohio. She held a second teaching position in Pennsylvania only briefly before she found herself cut off from family still living in Maryland by a law forbidding free African Americans from northern states from entering its borders. The penalty for violating the law was enslavement. Her disgust with this law moved her to devote her life to the abolitionist cause.
As an agent of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, Frances Ellen Watkins gave 33 abolitionist lectures in 21 towns and cities between September and October of 1854. In 1857, a lecture tour in the Mid-Atlantic States and Ohio for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society further secured her reputation as one of the most successful African American orators of the century and as one of the only black women to successfully address all-white and integrated audiences.
She adopted a free produce position and refused to purchase goods produced by slave labor, a radical minority position even among abolitionists. In 1859, in an open letter to John Brown following his unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, she praised his efforts as those of a martyr for racial justice. This letter, read by tens of thousands of people, coupled with her decision to stay with Mrs. Brown during the two weeks prior to John Brown’s execution further elevated Watkins’ reputation as among the most celebrated and dedicated civil rights activists of her time.
In 1860 she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. Using money earned from her writing, she purchased a farm in Ohio and began housekeeping. Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1862. Fenton died in 1864 and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper lost her home and most of her possessions to pay for her husband’s debt.
In 1867, the recently widowed Harper embarked on a dangerous lecture tour of the South to support the efforts of Reconstruction. There she confronted poverty, violence, ignorance and the ever-present threat of lynching. Harper confused many in her audiences who could not accept that a black woman could be capable of such confidence, intelligence, and eloquence. Some claimed that she could not be a real woman while others declared that she must be a white woman painted to look black.
Suffrage and Women’s Rights
Harper held memberships in the National Woman Suffrage Association, American Association for the Education of Colored Youth, and the John Brown Association of Women. She also served as vice president of the National Council of Negro Women, and was one of the few African American women to find acceptance in leadership positions in white-dominated organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Council of Women, and the American Woman Suffrage Association.
Characteristically courageous and uncompromising, Harper took white suffragists to task for their racism. In a speech before the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City, Harper encouraged white women to confront their own racism as they demanded more freedom for themselves. “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, 86).
Literary Career Of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Harper’s success as a social reformer was supported by her immense popularity as an essayist, novelist, and author of best-selling books of poetry. Her first poetry book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), included the extremely popular poem, “Bury Me In a Free Land”. Five years later she wrote “The Two Offers,” the first short story to be published by an African American author. Her novel, Iola Leroy (1892), the story of a biracial woman who chose her African American heritage over a comfortable life in white society, is still a classic of African American literature.
To some degree, Iola Leroy reflects Harper’s own choices. Although well-educated and successful, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper chose controversy over comfort and dedicated her literary talents to activism. As a writer, social reformer, and public speaker, Harper remained steadfast in her support for the rights of the downtrodden. “It may be that God himself has written upon my heart and brain a commission to use time, talent, and energy in the cause of freedom” (Still, 158).
- Bassard, Katherine Clay. “Private Interpretations: The Defense of Slavery, Nineteenth-Century Hermeneutics, and the Poetry of Frances E. W. Harper.” 110-140. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost
- Cott, Nancy, ed. No Small Courage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. “We Are All Bound Up Together.” Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches (January 2004): 83-86. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost
- Foster, Frances Smith. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist Press, 1990.
- Novak, Terry. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” African American Authors, 1745-1945: Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. 213-19.
- Still, William. The Underground Rail Road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.