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|Born||Frances Ellen Watkins|
September 24, 1825
|Died||February 22, 1911 (aged 85)|
|Genre||Poetry, short story, essays|
|Notable works||Iola Leroy (1892)|
|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, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. The topics she wrote and spoke about include: "enslavement and abolitionism, human rights and dignity, women's rights and equality, racial and social justice, lynching and mob violence, voting rights, moral character, racial self-help and uplift, and multiracial cooperation for common good." She was active in social reform and was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which advocated the federal government taking a role in progressive reform. She is considered "the mother of African-American journalism."
Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at the age of 20, making her one of the first African-American published writers. At 67, she wrote her widely praised novel Iola Leroy (1892). 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, making literary history by being the first short story published by a black woman.
Harper founded, supported and held high office in several national progressive organizations. In 1883 she 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 aged 85 on February 22, 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote.
Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland, (which was then a slave state) the only child of free parents. Her parents, whose names are not known, died in 1828, making Watkins an orphan when she was three years old. She was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Rev. William Watkins, from whom she gets her last name.
Scholars debate whether Watkins should be considered a "northerner" or a "southerner." Some scholars label her as a northerner, due to her middle-class background and freeborn status, such as Hazel Carby, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Dorothy Sterling and Carla Peterson. Others, such as Henry L. Gates Jr. and Sherita L. Johnson argue that she is a "displaced Southerner."
Her uncle was the minister at the Sharp Street African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). She was educated at his Watkins Academy for Negro Youth where he also taught. As a civil rights activist and abolitionist, Rev. Watkins was a major influence on her life and work.
At 14, Frances found work as a seamstress. During her early twenties, she published poems and articles in the local newspaper and wrote her first volume of poetry, titled Forest Leaves, which up until today has been extant. At 25, the Watkins family fled Baltimore after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Frances settled in Ohio briefly, before moving to Pennsylvania to work with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Her writing career started with publishing pieces in antislavery journals in 1839. Her politics and writing, fictional or not, informed each other. Harper's writing career started long before she was married, 20 years to be exact, so several of her published words are under her maiden name, Watkins.
She published her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, or Autumn Leaves, in 1845 when she was 20 years old. A single copy of this volume, long lost, was recently rediscovered by scholar Johanna Ortner in Baltimore, of the Maryland Historical Society. Harper's 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, which made her the first Black woman to publish a short story. That same year Anglo-African Magazine published her essay "Our Greatest Want", in which she linked the oppression of African Americans to the oppression of the Hebrew people in Egypt. Anglo-African Magazine and the weekly Anglo-African newspaper were both Civil War-era periodicals that served as a forum for debate among abolitionists and scholars.
Harper published 80 poems. In her poem "The Slave Mother" she writes: "He is not hers, although she bore / For him a mother's pains; / He is not hers, although her blood / Is coursing through his veins! / He is not hers, for cruel hands / May rudely tear apart / The only wreath of household love / That binds her breaking heart." Throughout the two stanzas, Harper demonstrates the restricted relationship between an enslaved mother and her child, while including themes of family, motherhood, humanity and slavery.
She published Sketches of Southern Life in 1872. It detailed her experience touring the South and meeting newly freed Black people. In these poems she described the harsh living conditions faced by a black woman during slavery and reconstruction. After the Civil War she continued to fight for the rights of women, African Americans, and was involved in many other social causes. She uses the figure of an ex-slave, called Aunt Chloe, as a narrator in several of these.
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. 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. The novel follows a woman whose racial identity is ambiguous until it is disclosed by her father when he dies, resulting in her becoming enslaved.
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 (AME 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. After teaching for two years, she left to take a teaching position in Little York, Pennsylvania.
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. She settled in New Bedford, Maine, about which Harper wrote: "Dear old New England! It was there kindness encompassed my path; it was there kind voices made their music in my ear. The home of my childhood, the burial-place of my kindred, is not as dear to me as New England."
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. She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolitionism. Harper wrote to John Brown: "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."
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", for The Anti-Slavery Bugle. when she got very sick while on a lecturing tour. She often read her poetry at the public meetings, including "Bury Me in a Free Land".
In 1866, Harper gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including Black women. She stated:
"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 tried that in the case of the Negro...You white women speak here of rights. 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's commitment to equal rights also led her to help found the American Woman Suffrage Association and reject the racist comments of fellow suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who did not support the Fifteenth Amendment's aim of enfranchising black men without extending the right of suffrage to women.
During the Reconstruction Era, in 1870 she worked with the Freedmen's Bureau encouraging many freedmen in Mobile Alabama, to "get land, everyone that can" so they could vote and act independently once Congress passed the Fifteenth amendment. 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.
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." In her role as superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania WCTU, Harper facilitated both access and independent organizing for black women, promoting the collective action of all women as a matter of both justice and morality. "Activists like Harper and Frances 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". Harper was a friend and mentor to many other African American writers and journalists, including Mary Shadd Cary, Ida B. Wells, Victoria Earle Matthews, and Kate D. Chapman.
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-lynching law, defense of black rights, or abolition of the convict lease system. Together with Mary Church Terrell, Harper helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in 1894, and was elected vice president in 1897.
In 1860, Frances Harper married a widower named Fenton Harper. When he died four years later she was left with their daughter and his three children from a previous marriage. Harper died of heart failure on February 22, 1911, at the age of 86. Her funeral service was held at the Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. She was buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania next to her daughter, Mary, who had died two years before.
In addition, the following three novels were originally published in serial form in the Christian Recorder between 1868 and 1888:
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