Frances Watkins Harper, 19th-Century Author and Reformer
By Nava Atlas | On January 22, 2019 | Updated August 19, 2022 | Comments (2)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911), also known as Frances Watkins Harper, combined her talents as a writer, poet, and public speaker with a deep commitment to abolition and social reform.
She sustained a long and prolific publishing career at a time when it was rare for women, particularly women of color, to have a voice. She used that voice in powerful ways, and as a result, she’s been referred to as “the mother of African-American journalism.”
The 1854 collection Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) was possibly her most successful, having gone through many editions. “The Two Offers” was the first published short story by an African-American woman. And Iola Leroy (1892) was one of the first novels by a black woman to be published.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances Ellen Watkins was the only child of free African American parents. Orphaned at age three, she was raised by Henrietta and Reverend William Watkins, her maternal aunt and uncle. Under their care, she attended the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by Reverend Watkins, an active abolitionist. Quite likely, he was an inspiration for Frances’s later work.
At age 14, she went to work as a domestic and seamstress for a Quaker family, in whose home she had access to a wide array of literature.
Abolitionist, poet, essayist, and speaker
Frances launched her writing endeavors in the late 1830s, publishing essays in antislavery journals. Autumn Leaves, her first collection of poems, was published in 1845 when she was just twenty. This foray into print made her one of the first published African-American writers.
A great shift came in 1850 when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress. The new law made free blacks vulnerable to capture. Frances was compelled to move from Maryland to Ohio for her safety. The following year, she began helping escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, joining forces with William Still of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. At the same time, she continued to write regularly for anti-slavery newspapers.
After joining the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1853, Frances embarked on another significant phase of her career as sought-after lecturer. As an effective orator, she spoke out against slavery, the subjugation of women, and other injustices.
A prolific pen dedicated to equality and justice
Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, first published in 1854, would go on to become one of Frances’s most successful titles, going through at least twenty printings. In her writings and speeches, she argued for equality and justice. Her poetry, fiction, essays, and speeches intertwined as a body of work that sought justice and truth.
In 1858, one hundred years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Frances Watkins refused to give up her seat in the white section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia. This incident inspired one of her most enduring poems, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” first published in The Anti-Slavery Bugle.
Among her other literary achievements was the publication of the 1859 short story “The Two Offers” (which you can read in full here). Its publication in Anglo-African Magazine, as noted in the introduction to this biography, made it the first short story published by an African-American woman.
In A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter writes of “The Two Offers” that it “contrasted the decision of two cousins, Laura and Janette, about whether to marry simply for the sake of avoiding spinsterhood, or to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose.”
Civil War years and beyond
In 1860, Frances married a widower named Fenton Harper, a farmer, and briefly retired from public speaking. The couple had one daughter, Mary. When her husband died four years later in 1864, Frances, now using the surname Harper, returned to the lecture circuit. She was left with their daughter and his three children from a previous marriage.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Frances moved South and worked as a teacher for newly-freed black people. In her encounters with them, she learned firsthand of the hardships they endured during Reconstruction and expressed their stories through poems. These were eventually collected in her book Sketches of Southern Life (1872). She created a fictional ex-slave named Aunt Chloe to serve as a narrator in some of these touching works.
A famous poem, “The Slave Mother”
In her lifetime, Harper published 80 poems. “The Slave Mother” is one of her most famous, telling of the heart-wrenching separation of enslaved children from their mothers:
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.
Read the rest of “The Slave Mother” and several others in this selection of poems by Frances Watkins Harper.
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8 Poems by Frances Watkins Harper, 19th Century Author and Reformer
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Iola Leroy: A trailblazing novel
The well-received novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) was one of the first published full-length novels by an African-American writer. Though it follows the conventional formula for sentimental women’s literature of the late 19th century, Frances wouldn’t have been content with writing a mere romance — the story weaves in themes of social justice, temperance, abolition, education, passing, and mixed marriage.
Through the character of Iola Leroy, a beautiful young mixed-race woman, Frances Harper illuminates hardships endured during the Civil War Years, including being the target of lecherous sexual predators. In the end, the story becomes an illustration of what was called “racial uplift.”
The legacy of Frances Watkins Harper
Post-Civil War, Frances became more involved with women’s suffrage. Race issues were still her foremost concern, though, as she continued to witness the rise of lynching and the horrendous living conditions of former slaves.
Harper was active in several organizations, not only founding some of them, but holding office. One was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, on whose behalf she lectured in support of prohibition. She was a co-founder and Vice President of the National Association of Colored Women. She was also a devoted member of the Unitarian Church.
Frances Harper moved to 1006 Bainbridge Street in Philadelphia around 1870 and lived there until her death in 1911. She died of heart failure at the age of 85. She is buried in Eden Cemetery next to her daughter Mary, who had died two in 1909.
In an editorial following her death, W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Crisis: “It is … for her attempts to forward literature among colored people, that Frances Harper deserves to be remembered … She was, above all, sincere. She took her writing soberly and earnestly; she gave her life to it.”
An excerpt from Harper’s poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” is on a wall of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Contemplative Court. It reads: “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 a land of slaves.”
In Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History, Eugene B. Redmond wrote:
“Up until the Civil War, Mrs. Harper’s favorite themes were slavery, its harshness, and the hypocrisies of America. She is careful to place graphic details where they will get the greatest result, especially when the poems are read aloud … Critics generally agree that Mrs. Harper’s poetry is not original or brilliant. But she is exciting and comes through with powerful flashes of imagery and statement.”
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More about Frances Watkins Harper
On this site
- 8 Poems by Frances Watkins Harper, 19th Century Author and Reformer
- Inspiring Speeches by Frances Watkins Harper
Frances Watkins Harper’s output was vast when taking into account essays, reportage, and speech transcripts. She even wrote three serialized novels that were printed in magazines before the publication of Iola Leroy, the only one of her novels published as a full book. The following selection lists only the works published in book form:
- Forest Leaves (1845)
- Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)
- “The Two Offers “– short story (1859)
- Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869)
- Sketches of Southern Life (1872)
- Light Beyond the Darkness, 1890
- The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems (1894)
- The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (1894)
- Atlanta Offering (1895)
- Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892)
- Idylls of the Bible (1901)
Surprisingly, there has never been a full-scale biography of Frances Watkins Harper, her life and work are referenced in the following books, among them:
- Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860 by Shirley J. Yee, 1992
- Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers by Judith Anderson, 1984
- Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, Gerda Lerner, editor, 1972
- Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life, Loewenberg and Bogin, editors, 1976
- Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History by Eugene B. Redmond, 1976.
Read and listen online
- Listen to Frances E.W. Harper’s works on Librivox
- Read Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s books on Project Gutenberg