9 Poems by Frances Watkins Harper, 19th-Century Author and Reformer

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911, also known as Frances E.W. Harper or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper) was an ardent suffragist, social reformer, and abolitionist in addition to her renown as a poet and author. Here, presenting a taste of her deeply thoughtful and moving work, is a selection of poems by Frances Watkins Harper. 

She wrote prolifically from the time she published her first collection of poetry in 1845, at the age of twenty. A freeborn African-American from Baltimore, Maryland, she dedicated her life to social causes, including abolition, women’s suffrage, and the quest for equality.

The dynamic Frances Harper became involved in anti-slavery societies in the early 1850s and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

As she began lecturing on the subjects that she was passionate about, her skills as a compelling public speaker were widely praised. Her 1854 collection Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects was one her most successful publications.Her heartbreaking poem “The Slave Mother” is arguably her best known.

Much later, the novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) was another critical and commercial success.

The eighty poems published during her lifetime along with her fiction and nonfiction works have earned her a place in American literature, though she deserves to be better known.

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The Slave Mother

Heard you that shriek? It rose
   So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
   Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
   The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
   That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
   Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
   Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,
   Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries 
   His trembling form to hide.

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.

His love has been a joyous light
   That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new,
   Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone
   Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
   Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,
   Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
   Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
    Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
   Is breaking in despair.

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Bury Me in a Free Land

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
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.

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The Slave Auction

The sale began—young girls were there,
   Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
   Revealed their anguish and distress.
And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
   And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
   While tyrants bartered them for gold.
And woman, with her love and truth—
   For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
   With anguish none may paint or tell.
And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
   The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
   Were gathered in that mournful band.
Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
   And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
   Whose loved are rudely torn away.
Ye may not know how desolate
   Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
   Will press the life-drops from the heart.

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Frances E. Watkins Harper

You might also enjoy:
6 Fascinating African-American Women Writers of the 19th Century

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Going East

She came from the East a fair, young bride, 
With a light and a bounding heart, 
To find in the distant West a home 
With her husband to make a start. 
He builded his cabin far away, 
Where the prairie flower bloomed wild; 
Her love made lighter all his toil, 
And joy and hope around him smiled. 
She plied her hands to life’s homely tasks, 
And helped to build his fortunes up; 
While joy and grief, like bitter and sweet, 
Were mingled and mixed in her cup. 
He sowed in his fields of golden grain, 
All the strength of his manly prime; 
Nor music of birds, nor brooks, nor bees, 
Was as sweet as the dollar’s chime. 
She toiled and waited through weary years 
For the fortune that came at length; 
But toil and care and hope deferred, 
Had stolen and wasted her strength. 
The cabin changed to a stately home, 
Rich carpets were hushing her tread; 
But light was fading from her eye, 
And the bloom from her cheek had fled. 
Slower and heavier grew her step, 
While his gold and his gains increased; 
But his proud domain had not the charm 
Of her humble home in the East. 
Within her eye was a restless light, 
And a yearning that never ceased, 
A longing to see the dear old home 
She had left in the distant East. 
A longing to clasp her mother’s hand, 
And nestle close to her heart, 
And to feel the heavy cares of life 
Like the sun-kissed shadows depart. 
Her husband was adding field to field, 
And new wealth to his golden store; 
And little thought the shadow of death 
Was entering in at his door. 
He had no line to sound the depths 
Of her tears repressed and unshed; 
Nor dreamed ‘mid plenty a human heart 
Could be starving, but not for bread. 
The hungry heart was stilled at last; 
Its restless, baffled yearning ceased. 
A lonely man sat by the bier 
Of a corpse that was going East. 

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Lines to a Friend


The golden rays of sunset fall on a snow-clad hill,
As standing by my window I gaze there long and still.
I see a roof and a chimney, and some tall elms standing near,
While the winds that sway their branches bring voices to my ear.
They tell of a darkened hearth-stone, that once shone bright and gay,
And of old familiar faces that have sadly passed away;
How a stranger on the threshold with careless aspect stands,
And gazes on the acres that have passed into his hands.
I shudder, as these voices, so fraught with mournful woe,
Steal on my spirit’s hearing, in cadence sad and low,
And think I will not hear them–but, ah! who can control
The gloomy thoughts that enter and brood upon the soul?
So, turning from my window, while darkness deepens round,
And the wailing winds sweep onward with yet more piteous sound,
I feel within my bosom far wilder whirlwinds start,
And sweep the cloudy heaven that bends above my heart.
I have no power to quell them; so let them rage and roar,
The sooner will their raging and fury all be o’er;
I’ve seen Atlantic’s billows ‘neath tempests fiercely swell,
But O, the calm succeeding, I have no words to tell!
I think of you, and wonder if you are happy now;
Floats there no shade of sorrow at times across your brow?
When daily tasks are ended, and thought is free to roam,
Doth it not bear you swiftly back to that dear old home?
And then, with wizard fingers, doth Memory open fast
A thrilling panorama of all the changeful past!
Where blending light and shadow skip airy o’er the scene,
Painting in vivid contrast what is and what has been.
And say, does not your mother remember yet with tears
The spot where calm and peaceful have lapsed so many years?
O, would some kindly spirit might give us all to know
How much a tender parent will for a child forego!
We prized your worth while with us; but now you’re gone from sight,
We feel ‘how blessings brighten while they are taking flight.’
O, don’t forget the homestead upon the pleasant hill;
Nor yet the love-lit home you have in all our memories still!
Come, often come to visit the haunts your childhood knew!
We pledge you earnest welcome, unbought, unfeigned and true.
And when before your vision new hopes and pleasure rise,
Turn sometimes with a sunny thought toward your native skies! 

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My Mother’s Kiss

My mother’s kiss, my mother’s kiss,
I feel its impress now;
As in the bright and happy days
She pressed it on my brow.
You say it is a fancied thing
Within my memory fraught;
To me it has a sacred place —
The treasure house of thought.
Again, I feel her fingers glide
Amid my clustering hair;
I see the love-light in her eyes,
When all my life was fair.
Again, I hear her gentle voice
In warning or in love.
How precious was the faith that taught
My soul of things above.
The music of her voice is stilled,
Her lips are paled in death.
As precious pearls I’ll clasp her words
Until my latest breath.
The world has scattered round my path
Honor and wealth and fame;
But naught so precious as the thoughts
That gather round her name.
And friends have placed upon my brow
The laurels of renown;
But she first taught me how to wear
My manhood as a crown.
My hair is silvered o’er with age,
I’m longing to depart;
To clasp again my mother’s hand,
And be a child at heart.
To roam with her the glory-land
Where saints and angels greet;
To cast our crowns with songs of love
At our Redeemer’s feet. 

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Iola Leroy by Frances Watkins Harper

Read books by Frances Watkins Harper online
Frances Watkins Harper page on Amazon
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The Reunion

Well, one morning real early
I was going down the street,
And I heard a stranger asking
For Missis Chloe Fleet.
There was something in his voice
That made me feel quite shaky.
And when I looked right in his face,
Who should it be but Jakey!
I grasped him tight, and took him home –
What gladness filled my cup!
And I laughed, and just rolled over,
And laughed, and just give up.
‘Where have you been? O Jakey, dear!
Why didn’t you come before?
Oh! when you children went away
My heart was awful sore.’
‘Why, mammy, I’ve been on your hunt
Since ever I’ve been free,
And I have heard from brother Ben, –
He’s down in Tennessee.
‘He wrote me that he had a wife,’
‘And children?’ ‘Yes, he’s three.’
‘You married, too?’ ‘Oh, no, indeed,
I thought I’d first get free.’
‘Then, Jakey, you will stay with me,
And comfort my poor heart;
Old Mistus got no power now
To tear us both apart.
‘I’m richer now than Mistus,
Because I have got my son;
And Mister Thomas he is dead,
And she’s nary one.
‘You must write to brother Benny
That he must come this fall,
And we’ll make the cabin bigger,
And that will hold us all.
‘Tell him I want to see ’em all
Before my life do cease:
And then, like good old Simeon,
I hope to die in peace.

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Dark-Browed Martha

When the frost-king clothed the forests
In a flood of gorgeous dyes,
Death called little dark-browed Martha
To her mansion in the skies.
‘Twas a calm October Sabbath
When the bell with solemn sound
Knelled her to her quiet slumbers
Low down in the darksome ground.
Far away, where sun and summer
Reign in glory all the year,
Was the land she left behind her,
To her simple heart so dear.
There a mother and a brother,
Meeting oft at close of day,
Spoke in tender, tearful whispers
Of the loved one far away.
‘I am thinking,’ said the mother,
‘How much Martha’ll get to know,
And how smart and bright ’twill make her,
Travellin’ round the country so.
‘Spect she’ll be a mighty lady,
Shinin’ jewels in her ears;
But I hope she won’t forget us,–
Dat is what dis poor heart fears.’
”Deed she won’t,’ then spoke the brother,
‘Martha’ll love us just as well
As before she parted from us, —
Trust me, mammy, I can tell.’
Then he passed a hand in silence
O’er his damp and swarthy brow,
Brushed a tear from off the eyelid,—
‘O that she were with us now!’
‘Pshaw! don’t cry, Lem,’ said the mother,
‘There’s no need of that at all;
Massa said he’d bring her to us
When the nuts began to fall.
The pecans will soon be rattling
From the tall plantation trees,
She’ll be here to help us pick them,
Brisk and merry as you please.’
Thus they talked, while she they waited
From the earth had passed away;
Walked no more in pleasant places,
Saw no more the light of day;
Knew no more of toilsome labor,
Spiteful threats or angry blows;
For the Heavenly One had called her
Early from a life of woes.
Folded we the tiny fingers
On the cold, unmoving breast;
Robed her in a decent garment,
For her long and dreamless rest;
And when o’er the tranquil Sabbath
Evening’s rays began to fall,
Followed her with heavy footsteps
To the home that waits us all.
As we paused beside the churchyard,
Where the tall green maples rise,
Strangers came and viewed the sleeper,
With sad wonder in their eyes;
While my thoughts flew to that mother,
And that brother far away:
How they’d weep and wail, if conscious
This was Martha’s burial day!
When the coffin had been lowered
Carefully into the ground,
And the heavy sods fell on it
With a cold and hollow sound,
Thought I, as we hastened homewards,
By the day’s expiring light,
Martha never slept so sweetly
As she’ll sleep this Sabbath night. 

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The Night of Death

Twas a night of dreadful horror,
Death was sweeping through the land
And the wings of dark destruction
Were outstretched from strand to strand
Strong men’s hearts grew faint with terror,
As the tempest and the waves
Wrecked their homes and swept them downward,
Suddenly to yawning graves.
‘Mid the wastes of ruined households,
And the tempest’s wild alarms,
Stood a terror-stricken mother
With a child within her arms.
Other children huddled ’round her,
Each one nestling in her heart; 
Swift in thought and swift in action, 
She at least from one must part. 
Then she said unto her daughter, 
“Strive to save one child from death.”
“Which one?” said the anxious daughter, 
As she stood with bated breath. 
Oh! the anguish of that mother; 
What despair was in her eye! 
All her little ones were precious; 
Which one should she leave to die? 
Then outspake the brother Bennie: 
“I will take the little one.” 
“No,” exclaimed the anxious mother; 
“No, my child, it can’t be done.” 
“See! my boy, the waves are rising, 
Save yourself and leave the child!” 
“I will trust in Christ,” he answered; 
Grasped the little one and smiled. 
Through the roar of wind and waters 
Ever and anon she cried; 
But throughout the night of terror 
Never Bennie’s voice replied. 
But above the waves’ wild surging 
He had found a safe retreat, 
As if God had sent an angel, 
Just to guide his wandering feet. 
When the storm had spent its fury, 
And the sea gave up its dead 
She was mourning for her loved ones, 
Lost amid that night of dread. 
While her head was bowed in anguish, 
On her ear there fell a voice, 
Bringing surcease to her sorrow, 
Bidding all her heart rejoice. 
“Didn’t I tell you true?” said Bennie, 
And his eyes were full of light, 
“When I told you God would help me 
Through the dark and dreadful night?” 
And he placed the little darling 
Safe within his mother’s arms, 
Feeling Christ had been his guardian, 
‘Mid the dangers and alarms. 
Oh! for faith so firm and precious, 
In the darkest, saddest night, 
Till life’s gloom-encircled shadows 
Fade in everlasting light. 
And upon the mount of vision 
We our loved and lost shall greet, 
With earth’s wildest storms behind us, 
And its cares beneath our feet. 

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