Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Fought for Human Rights
"The sale began-young girls were there, Defenseless in their wretchedness, Whose stifled sobs of deep despair Revealed their anguish and distress."
"The Slave Auction" Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Life challenged Free Black Frances Ellen Watkins Harper from the time of her birth in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 24, 1825, throwing her directly into the swirling currents of Nineteenth century slavery and women’s rights agitation and social reform. During her 86 years- she died on February 22, 1911- Frances championed abolition, civil rights, women’s rights, and temperance and lectured across America during a time when women rarely spoke in public. She helped organize and held office in several national advocacy organizations.
Besides her political activism, Frances found time to write poetry and fiction that articulated her belief in equality between genders, and enjoyed enough popularity to earn her the title of “Mother of African American Journalism.” Most of Frances Watkins Harper’s work connected and explored the issues of racism, classism, and sexism. She lived a life based on individual integrity and high moral purpose while expressing herself in terms that ordinary people could understand and appreciate.
Historians and biographers of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper often faced the challenge of conflicting sources in interpreting her story. Some sources say that her mother was born a slave while others say that both of her parents were Free Blacks. Free Blacks themselves foundered in rip current waters. The American Revolutionary War had crystallized the hopes of many black people for freedom and enslaved and free black men fought on both sides in the Revolution. The spirit of the Revolution carried the freedom for black people impetus forward and by 1800, all of the northern states had abolished slavery or passed legislation to gradually reduce it.
From 1790 to 1810, the population of Free Black people increased from 8 percent to 13.5 percent, with most Free Blacks living in the Mid-Atlantic States, New England and the Upper South. The rights of Free Blacks fluctuated with the rise in power of poor white men in the late 1820s and early 1830s. In 1832, like many other slave holding states sobered by the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia, Maryland passed laws to restrict Free Blacks. In November 1833, the Maryland State Colonization Society sponsored the first black settlers who sailed on the brig Ann for Cape Palmas, Liberia as part of the continuing efforts of the American Colonization Society to encourage black people to leave America for a home of their own.
William Watkins Creates an Academy for Free Blacks
These conditions for Free Blacks and slaves intimately affected the life of Frances Ellen Watkins. Her mother died in 1828 when she was just three years old, leaving her an orphan. Her uncle William J. Watkins and her aunt Henrietta took her into their family. In 1796, the father of William Watkins worked as a blacksmith on the south side of Bank Street according to The Baltimore Town and Fell’s Point Directory. His son William born about 1803, attended Bethel Charity School, founded in 1807 by Daniel Coker who was the first Methodist missionary to the British colony of Sierra Leone and a founder- organizer of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. When Daniel immigrated to Liberia in early 1820 with the American Colonization Society to establish a new country for black people, William Watson, then 19, took over the school.
Between 1820 and 1828, William Watson merged Coker’s school with the Watkins Academy and enrolled over fifty boys and girls yearly, with one source even fixing the number at 70 students a year. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper attended her Uncle William’s school, the Watkins Academy, until the age of thirteen and she became part of the Academy’s rigorous training in precise grammar and diction.
As well as operating the Watkins Academy, William Watkins served as a minister at the Sharp Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, wrote for newspapers, founded the Black Literary Society, and taught himself medicine. He nurtured Abolitionist beliefs and became an associate of Frederick Douglass in his Abolitionist work.
Frances Watkins, Poet
According to her Abolitionist friend William Still, Frances remained a student in her Uncle William’s academy until her thirteenth year, and absorbed many of his views on civil rights. Her education at the Watkins Academy and the political activism of her Uncle William shaped her thinking and later her writing. Around 1838, when she was thirteen, Frances she found work as a babysitter and seamstress for a Quaker family named Armstrong. The owner of a bookstore, Mr. Armstrong gave Frances free access to his books and he encouraged her to develop her love of writing. She continued to read and write and eventually she became a teacher.
After leaving school in 1839, Frances Ellen Watkins published her first poem in an abolitionist publication. In 1845, Frances published her first collection of poetry which she called Autumn Leaves and it was also was printed as Forest Leaves. Over the next few years her book became popular enough to go through 20 editions.
Since she wrote mostly in narrative verse with rhymed tetrameter and the ballad stanza, some critics said that the poetry of France Ellen Watkins resembled the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. Mostly simple and lyrical, her poems were emotionally charged, almost always contained a sermon and she inserted her own voice and feelings about her subjects that reflected contemporary society and met audience expectations. The first stanza of her poem, Grain of Sand, illustrates her style and message.
Grain of Sand
“Do you see this grain of sand
Lying loosely in my hand?
Do you know to me it brought
Just a simple loving thought?
When one gazes night by night
On the glorious stars of light,
Oh how little seems the span
Measured round the life of man…”
Francis Watkins, Teacher and Underground Railroad Conductor
In September 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making it more difficult for Free Blacks to avoid being sold into slavery and slaves to escape to safe havens in the north. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required a federal marshal or other official to arrest a suspected runaway slave based on a sworn testimony of ownership or pay a fine of $1,000 dollars - $28,000 in modern money. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were awarded a bonus or promotion.
The suspected slave could not demand a jury trial or testify for him or herself which allowed many Free Blacks to be conscripted into slavery since they had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations. Any person aiding a runaway slave with food or shelter could be imprisoned for six months and pay a $1,000 fine.
By 1850, conditions had deteriorated for Free Blacks in the slave state of Maryland, forcing William Watkins to close his school and escape with some of his family to Canada. In 1850, Frances Ellen Watkins, then 25, moved to Ohio, a free state, on her own and accepted a job teaching domestic science at Union Seminary in Columbus. The African Methodist Episcopal Church operated Union Seminary as a work-study school which later merged into Wilberforce University. As the first woman faculty member, Frances taught sewing between 1850-1852, although many people resented that fact that she was a woman and black as well.
In 1852, Frances took a teaching job in Little York, Pennsylvania, living in an Underground Railroad Station where the journey of slaves toward freedom continued across her doorstep. While she taught there, she despaired at the sufferings of her people under the slave laws and she found herself more deeply in tune with the abolition movement. Although she knew in her heart that educating black children was more important than anything else, her intellect told her that she had to be involved in something more than teaching in rural Pennsylvania. While Frances pondered what to do next, events in Maryland helped her decide which direction to take.
In 1853, the state of Maryland passed a law decreeing that any free person of color entering the state would be arrested and sold in slavery. Frances heard about a young man who accidentally crossed into Maryland and a Georgia slaveholder bought him. He escaped, but slave catchers recaptured him and sent him back to Georgia, where he eventually died. Frances wrote to a friend that she pledged herself to the Anti-Slavery cause on the grave of the young man and she joined the American Anti-Slavery Society.
The intensity of the abolitionist movement and the tightening of slave laws in the Southern and Border States drew Frances further into the abolitionist movement. In 1854, she delivered a public lecture on “The Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race,” as well as several other lectures and soon the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine hired her to be a full time traveling lecturer. She drew large audiences, included her own prose and poetry in her speeches, and addressed issues of racism, feminism, and classism.
Although New Englanders had long disapproved of women speaking in public, times were changing and audiences of all genders and colors flocked to hear the eloquent woman of color with the musical voice, logical arguments, and poetic language. From 1854 to 1856, she constantly traveled lecturing on abolitionism in New England, the Midwest, and California, preaching social, political, and moral reform.
Frances Watkins published many of her essays that she had written for the New York City Antislavery Society, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and other abolitionist organizations. She continued to publish her poetry in poetry magazines and newspapers.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin stirred and inspired Frances, and in 1854, she published a book of her poems, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. With abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison contributing a preface, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects sold several thousand copies and went through at least twenty editions. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects contained her most famous abolitionist poem “Bury Me in a Free Land,” and it secured her literary reputation.
Bury Me in a Free Land
…”I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in land of slaves.”
Frances Watkins Moves to Philadelphia
Stories of Free Blacks in Philadelphia and America’s founding fit together as tightly as the stripes on the American flag. Building on its central location and labor opportunities, Philadelphia grew into a city of social and economic prominence, attracting both immigrants and working class people. In March 1780, Philadelphia passed the ground breaking Gradual Abolition Act, the first to establish a timeline for abolishing slavery and the slave trade in Pennsylvania and in North America. In 1787, Free Black clergymen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones established the Free African Society to provide emergency relief for widows, the unemployed and poor. Before the Civil War, Philadelphia had the largest Free Black population in the North and Free Blacks established St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church and Mother Bethel AME Church in 1794, the first independent African American churches.
By the 1830s, Free Blacks had established a thriving community of well educated and successful black people in Philadelphia, as well as helping to found organizations like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Philadelphia contributed a strong link in the chain that made up a network of Free Blacks in cities like New York, New England and Baltimore. Newspapers like Freedom’s Journal and the Colored American served as Philadelphia voices of the Abolition Movement.
In 1855, Frances Ellen Watkins moved to Philadelphia and joined William Still, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in helping escaped slaves travel the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. The leaders of the Philadelphia Underground Railroad refused to appoint Frances an agent because of her gender, but she collected donations and forged friendships with Frederick Douglass, William Still, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Frances met many fugitives at the home of William Still, the busiest station on the Underground Railroad, and she heard hundreds of heartrending stories.
Reading between the lines of her letters, it is obvious that Francis often sent money to William Still for the Vigilance Committee and the fugitives. She wrote one letter to William Still who must have counseled her to keep some of her earnings for herself, assuring him of her ability and willingness to contribute to freeing her people. She believed that helping humanity was a sacred calling and a blessing.
In support of a movement called Free Produce that encouraged people to boycott all products tired to slave labor, Francis Ellen Watkins asked, “Oh, could slavery exist long if it did not sit on a commercial throne?” She argued that as long as people constantly demanded rice from the swamps, cotton from the plantations, and sugar from the mills their moral influence against slavery would be weakened and their testimony diluted.
Believing that blacks could and should help themselves, Frances encouraged blacks to create schools, newspapers and churches dedicated to bettering themselves and each other. She believed that anti-slavery work had the important goal of teaching black people to build their own souls, intellect, and character.
Frances Ellen Watkins Writes to John and Mary Brown
Frances Ellen Watkins punctuated the years before the war of words between the North and South erupted into a shooting war with her own writing. In the September-October issue of 1859, her story, The Two Offers, appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine, earning her the distinction of publishing the first short story by an African-American. The Two Offers is a sermon in the guise of fiction that traces the choices of two young women and the impact the choices made on their lives. In her story, Frances Ellen Watkins argued that marriage should not be the only option for a woman.…She believed that “a woman’s conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties.”
Her abolition work continued to occupy Frances Watkins. Passionate Abolitionist John Brown, one of her more famous friends and twenty of his followers led an unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, from October 16-18, 1859. Colonel Robert E. Lee led Federal troops in capturing Brown and his men and John Brown was tried and hanged on December 2 1859. Frances Watkins consoled Mary Brown during her husband’s trial and execution and she smuggled a letter into John Brown’s prison cell. In her letter she said, “In the name of the young girls old from the warm clasp of a mother’s arms to the clutches of a libertine or profligate- in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations- I thank you, that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race.”
Frances Watkins Marries and Helps Fight the Civil War
Possibly relegating her ideas about marriage expressed in her story “Two Offers,” to the back of her mind, Frances Watkins married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children in 1860. They moved to a farm in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Frances retired from public life, although she never stopped writing and supporting various social reforms. In 1862, their daughter Mary and the Emancipation Proclamation were born.
On September 22 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation stating that he would order the emancipation of all slaves in any state or section of a state that did not end their rebellion against the Union by January 1, 1863. None of the Confederate States complied and Lincoln’s executive order signed and issued on January 1 1863, took effect. White Southerners were outraged at the Proclamation, because they foresaw a race war. It also angered some Northern Democrats, energized anti-slavery forces, and weakened the Confederacy’s chances of gaining European support. It gave blacks and free blacks in both Southern and Northern States new hope and encouraged many slaves to escape their masters and make their way to Union lines and freedom.
The Emancipation Proclamation shifted the focus of the Civil War. Slavery had been a major issue leading to the war, but at the beginning of the War, President Lincoln’s mission was to keep the Union together. The Proclamation made freeing the slaves the major goal of the Union war effort and was another step towards outlawing slavery and conferring full citizenship on ex-slaves.
After the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, churches and other organizations demanded Frances Harper as a speaker. When Fenton Harper died on May 23, 1864, Frances financed a return lecture tour and took her daughter Mary with her. She began full time touring again, lecturing and publishing poetry in a variety of antislavery publications and speaking to large audiences advocating education for freed slaves and aiding in the work of reconstruction.
Frances Watkins Fights for Civil Rights
During the Reconstruction years Frances initiated the fight for equality, education, and civil rights, traveling through the South under dangerous circumstances. Alone and fearless, she ventured onto plantations, into the cabins of the freedmen, into churches, meetings, and even to the South Carolina Legislature which seated blacks at the time. She became increasingly vocal on feminist issues including votes for women and she formed firm friendships with leaders in the feminist movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Unlike Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Frances Harper supported the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which gave the vote to black men but not to women. Frances felt that with the constant danger of lynching, the black community needed a political voice to gain further legal and civil rights and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment would afford blacks the political voice they needed.
In 1866, Frances Watkins Harper spoke passionately and persuasively at the National Women’s Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for everyone. In her campaigning for women’s rights, she appealed to women to use their time and talents to achieve “high and lofty goals.”
Eventually, her campaigning for women’s rights led to her election as Vice-President of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896.
In 1870, Frances Watkins Harper and her daughter Mary moved to Philadelphia, where Frances continued to write and take an active part in local issues. She worked with several churches in the black community of north Philadelphia near her home and taught Sunday school at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Both Unitarians and Methodists claimed Frances Watkins Harper as a church member and she did not want to choose between the two churches. She had been raised in the AME Church and her roots and loyalty to her people ran deep. She had first worked with the Unitarians in the Abolition movement and in the Underground Railroad. Her friend Peter H. Clark, a noted abolitionist and educator had become a Unitarian in 1868, and in 1870 Frances Harper joined the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.
Since Frances Harper had published Forest Leaves in 1845, she had forged personal and professional contacts in both black and white communities, but she lived in a racist society even though the Civil War had been fought only five years before. Perhaps she thought the Unitarian Church would be the place for the races to meet and advance her social agenda.
Frances Watkins Harper - The “Mother of African American Journalism”
During the next three decades, Frances Watkins Harper continued to write in her popular and easy to read style and published many articles in magazines with a mainly white circulation. In 1872, she published a book of poems called Sketches of Southern Life that tell the story of Reconstruction through the voice of Aunt Chloe, a wise and elderly former slave. Her serialized novel, Sowing and Reaping, in the Christian Recorder of 1876-1877, expanded on the theme of The Two Offers. In 1888-1889, she published Trial and Triumph, in which she presented her program for progress through personal development, altruism, equality, and racial pride.
In 1892, Frances Watkins Harper published her best known novel Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, the story of a freeborn young mulatta woman striving to overcome the personal hardships of separation from her mother and searching for employment as well as the racist boundaries of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Writing from a feminist viewpoint, Francis Harper portrayed African American women as sufferers, survivors, and shapers of their own destinies. In 1894, she published The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems.
Continuing to agitate for black rights, Frances Harper supported and lectured with Ida Wells-Barnett in her anti-lynching activism across the south. She remained a bulwark of integration, reform, and philanthropy in the organizations she had joined and her experience and eloquence kept her in high demand as a speaker. After the Civil War, Frances continued her social activism as well as her writing. In 1873, she became Superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She was a member of the Universal Peace Union, the American Equal Rights Association and the American Women’s Suffrage Association, working with the branch of the women’s movement that advocated racial and women’s equality.
In 1893, a group of women gathered as the World’s Congress of Representative Women connected with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Fannie Barrier Williams and Frances Watkins Harper joined other women charging the organizers of the group with excluding black women. In an address to the Columbian Exposition that she called “Women’s Political Future”, Frances deplored the exclusion of black women from the suffrage movement. Frances and other black women formed the National Association of Colored Women, and she served as its vice president from 1895-1911.
Frances Watkins Harper Lives in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
As the twentieth century dawned, Frances Harper took a less aggressive role in the women’s movement and reformist organizations, although she continued to participate in them including the WCTU, the Universal Peace Union, the NACW, and the women’s suffrage groups. Although her colleagues and society highly respected her, Frances lectured less frequently, and her writing became less popular. Her finances suffered and her leadership position suffered as well as a younger, better educated, more articulate and impatient generation assumed leadership roles. Some scholars say that her opposition to Booker T. Washington’s ideas of black vocational uplift contributed to Frances’ loss of leadership. She supported the position of W.E.B. Du Bois who advocated black political rights.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in Philadelphia on February 20, 1911, just nine years before women won the right to vote. Her funeral service took place at the Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia and she was buried in Eden Cemetery in the John Brown Section on February 24. 1911. Her daughter Mary, who had died two years before, rested next to her. Mary had never married and earned a reputation as a Sunday school teacher, lecturer, and volunteer social worker while she lived and traveled with her mother.
Although Frances Ellen Watkins Harper enjoyed literary fame during her lifetime, literary critics did not always praise her after her death. W.E.B. Du Bois who revered Henry James, said of Frances: “She was not a great singer, but she had some sense of song; she was not a great writer but she wrote much worth reading.” Some black male writers criticized Frances because they felt her mixed race protagonists were not black enough.
During the twentieth century, the poetry and stories of Frances Watkins Harper languished unread and forgotten on dusty library shelves and symbolically, her gravestone in Eden cemetery toppled and tall grass covered it. Twenty- first century black women and feminists and general readers have rediscovered Frances Harper. Critics and scholars value the work of Frances Watkins Harper for its historical importance and its competent and readable writing style. Readers appreciate her straightforward writing style and storytelling skill.
In 1992, African-American Unitarian Universalists commemorated the 100th anniversary of Iola Leroy by installing a new headstone on the grave of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to replace the old one which had endured the inroads of time. The legacy of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper has also endures and speaks as eloquently and honestly as it did during her lifetime.
Books by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Forest Leaves (1845)
Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1857)
Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869); 2d edition (1870)
Achan's Sin (1870,1879)
Sketches of Southern Life (1872, 1873, 1887, 1888)
Light Beyond the Darkness (1890, 1899)
Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892)
The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (ca. 1894)
Atlanta Offering Poems (1895)
Poems (1895, 1898, 1900)
Poems (1895, 1896, 1898, 1900)
Moses: A Story of the Nile (1889)
Idylls of the Bible (1901)
In Memoriam, Wm. McKinley (1901)
Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper (1988)
A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (1990)
Minnie's Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels (1994)
The Sparrow's Fall and Other Poems (n.d. )
Books about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Berlant, Lauren. "Cultural Struggle and Literary History: African-American Women's Writing.” Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature 88.1 (1990): 57-64.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Diggs, Marylynne. "Surveying the Intersection: Pathology, Secrecy, and the Discourses of Racial and Sexual Identity. " in Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. New York: Haworth, 1993: 1-19.
Elkins, M. "Beyond the Conventions-A Look at Frances E.W. Harper. " American Literary Realism (Winter 1990).
Ernest, John. "From Mysteries to Histories: Cultural Pedagogy in Frances E.W. Harper's Iola Leroy.” American Literature 64.3 (1992): 497-513.
Foster, Frances Smith. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (edited and introduction by Foster) New York: Feminist Press. 1990.
Hill, Patricia Liggins. "Let Me Make the Songs for the People: A Study of Frances Watkins Harper's Poetry.” Black American Literature Forum, 15 (1981): 60-65.
Peterson, Carla L. 'Doers of the Word': African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Riggins, Linda N. "The Works of Frances E.W. Harper.” Black World (Dec. 1972): 30-36.
Young, Elizabeth. "Warring Fictions: Iola Leroy and the Color of Gender.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 64.2 (1992): 273-297.
http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap5/harper.html biography and career
http://www.paquestforfreedom.com/frances-harper university of Pennsylvania-biography and career
http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/harper.htm literary works
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6651217 Frances Harper – Find a Grave
http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5316/ Speech-A Heritage of Scorn- Harper Urges a Color Blind Cause
http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/frances-ellen-watkins-harper/ women’s history museum
http://abacus.bates.edu/~cnero/rhetoric/Frances_Ellen_Watkins.pdf Liberty for Slaves – Frances Ellen Watkins
http://www.uuwhs.org/pubharper.php A Reading on the Life of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper
The two offers – 1859- http://www.historytools.org/sources/Harper-Two-Offers.pdf
http://archive.vod.umd.edu/civil/harper1893int.htm Frances Ellen Watkins – Women’s Political Future – May 20, 1893.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper - http://www.uuevansville.org/sermons/Frances%20Ellen%20Watkins%20Harper.htm
Minnie’s Sacrifice – by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper http://www.fullbooks.com/Minnie-s-Sacrifice1.html
Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers - http://hsp.org/history-online/digital-history-projects/pennsylvania-abolition-society-papers
http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/012400/012499/html/12499bio.html biography at Maryland Archives