Frances Harper

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Frances Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 - February 22, 1911), born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland, was an African-American abolitionist and poet.

Her mother died when she was three years old and she was raised and educated by an aunt and uncle who instilled in her strong Christian ethics and a strong abolitionist consciousness.

She was a contemporary of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Harriet Tubman, all who worked in the abolitionist cause, if not the Underground Railroad itself. Also contemporaries were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who worked in the women's suffrage movement.

An eloquent writer and speaker, she used these talents to further the above causes, as well as that of the Christian Temperance Movement and the National Association of Colored Women (which she helped found). She worked as well in her local community to feed the poor and guide those caught up in juvenile delinquency.

Her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845, was hugely popular. Iola Leroy, originally published in 1892, was republished in 1988, as Harper was "re-discovered" by civil rights and women's rights groups.

Frances Watkins Harper's passion was liberty and equality, as attested to in this address to the New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1857:

"Could we trace the record of every human heart, the aspirations of every immortal soul, perhaps we would find no man so imbruted and degraded that we could not trace the word liberty either written in living characters upon the soul or hidden away in some book or corner of the heart. The law of liberty is the law of God, and is the antecedent to all human legislation. It existed in the mind of Deity when He hung the first world upon its orbit and gave it liberty to gather light from the central sun." [1]

Personal Life

Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825 to free parents. When she was three years old her mother died, leaving her to be raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle was the abolitionist William Watkins, father of William J. Watkins, who would become an associate of Frederick Douglass. She received her education at her uncle's Academy for Negro Youth and absorbed many of his views on civil rights. The family attended the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.

At the age of 14, Frances found a job as a domestic. Her employers, a Quaker family, gave her access to their library, encouraging her literary aspirations. Her poems appeared in newspapers, and in 1845 a collection of them was printed as Autumn Leaves (also published as Forest Leaves).

Frances was educated not only formally in her uncle's school, but also through her exposure to his abolitionist views, their family's participation in their church, and the Quaker and other literature made available to her through her employment.

Frances Watkins married Fenton Harper in 1860 and moved to Ohio. Harper was a widower with three children. Together they had a daughter, Mary, who was born in 1862. Frances was widowed four years after her marriage, when her daughter was only two years old.

Harper died on February 22, 1911, nine years before women secured the right to vote—which she had fought for—was written into law. Her funeral service was held at the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. She was buried in Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter, who had died two years before.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

An April 24, 1851 poster warning colored people in Boston about policemen acting as slave catchers.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was a U.S. Federal law which required the return of runaway slaves. It sought to force the authorities in free states to return fugitive slaves to their masters. In practice, however, the law was rarely enforced.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by the U.S. Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 and was passed due to the weakness of the original 1793 law. The new law held law enforcement officers liable to a fine of $1,000 for failure to enforce. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.

In fact the Fugitive Slave Law brought the issue home to anti-slavery citizens in the North, since it made them and their institutions responsible for enforcing slavery. Even moderate abolitionists were now faced with the immediate choice of defying what they believed an unjust law or breaking with their own consciences and beliefs.

Two splinter groups of Methodism, the Wesleyan Church in 1843 and the Free Methodists in 1860, along with many like-minded Quakers, maintained some of the "stations" of the Underground Railroad. Most of which were maintained by African Americans.

Other opponents, such as African American leader Harriet Tubman, simply treated the law as just another complication in their activities. America's neighbor to the north, Canada, became the main destination for runaway slaves, though only a few hundred runaways actually made it to that nation in the 1850s.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, General Benjamin Butler justified refusing to return runaway slaves in accordance to this law because the Union and the Confederacy were at war; the slaves could be confiscated and set free as contraband of war.

When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, the conditions for free blacks in the slave state of Maryland began to deteriorate. The Watkins family fled Baltimore and Frances moved on her own to Ohio, where she taught at Union Seminary.

She moved on to Pennsylvania in 1851. There, with William Still, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, she helped escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada.

John Brown

Frances Watkins met the abolitionist John Brown while working at the Union Seminary where he had been principal at the time of her employment. Brown led the unsuccessful uprising at Harper's Ferry in October 1859, during which two of his own sons died. Brown was taken prisoner and tried, being charged with murdering four whites and a black, with conspiring with slaves to rebel, and with treason against the state of Virginia. Brown was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2.

Throughout his trial and subsequent execution, Watkins stood by his wife's side, giving support and encouragement. A letter smuggled into Brown's cell from Watkins said, "In the name of the young girl sold 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,—thank you, that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race." [2]

Further Causes

Following the Civil War, Frances Watkins Harper began touring the South speaking to large audiences, during which she encouraged education for freed slaves and aid in reconstruction.

Harper had become acquainted with the Unitarian Church before the war through their abolitionist stance and support of the Underground Railroad. When she and her daughter settled in Philadelphia in 1870, she joined the First Unitarian Church.

Harper soon turned her energy to women's rights, speaking out for the empowerment of women. She worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to secure women's right to vote.

Fourteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were important post-Civil War amendments intended to secure rights for former slaves. The Thirteenth banned slavery, while the Fifteenth banned race-based voting qualifications. The Fourteenth Amendment provided a broad definition of national citizenship, overturning the Dred Scott case, which excluded African Americans.

Harper's contemporaries, Anthony and Stanton, staunch proponents of women's right to vote, broke with their abolitionist backgrounds. Though both were prior abolitionists, they viewed the securing of the black mans' right to vote as a move that would negate a woman's vote. The two lobbied strongly against ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. [3]

Recognizing the ever-present danger of lynching, Harper supported the Fourteenth Amendment, reasoning that the African-American community needed an immediate political voice. With that would come the possibility of securing further legal and civil rights.

The Temperance Union

In 1873, Frances Harper 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 from 1895 through 1911. Along with Ida Wells, Harper wrote and lectured against lynching. She was also a member of the Universal Peace Union.

Harper was also involved in social concerns at the local level. She worked with a number of churches in the black community of north Philadelphia near her home; feeding the poor, fighting juvenile delinquency, and teaching Sunday School at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.

Writing and Lecturing

Even in the midst of her many activities, Harper wrote. She came to be known as the "Mother of African-American journalism" due to her extensive writing and frequently published works. She also wrote for periodicals with a mainly white circulation. Her personal convictions were evident in her writing. She displayed her dedication to suffrage, women's education, and the welfare and elevation of newly freed African American women. [4]

Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, penned in 1854, became a huge success. These poems gave voice to the evils of racism and the oppression of women. Frances used her earnings from this and her other books toward the cause of freeing slaves. She was much in demand on the anti-slavery circuit prior to the Civil War, and began traveling extensively in 1854 lecturing in demand of freedom.

The Two Offers, the first short story to be published by an African-American, appeared in the Anglo-African in 1859. A work of fiction, it was Harper's teaching–essay on the important life choices made by young people, women in particular. The story relates the tragedy of a young woman who has as her only goal and focus in life the pursuit of romance and married love. She encouraged further development of women and the utilization of their capabilities. "Talk as you will of woman's deep capacity for loving, of the strength of her affectional nature. I do not deny it; but will the mere possession of any human love fully satisfy all the demands of her whole being? … But woman—the true woman—if you would render her happy, it needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature. Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties." [5]

The Biblical character Moses was a recurring theme in Harper's work. Seeking his equivalent in her own time, she often featured him in her oratory, poetry and fiction.

  • Our Greatest Want, an 1859 speech, was used to challenge her fellow blacks: "Our greatest need is not gold or silver, talent or genius, but true men and true women. We have millions of our race in the prison house of slavery, but have not yet a single Moses in freedom."
  • Moses: A Story of the Nile, was Harper's 1869 verse rendition of the Biblical tale. In this, she imagined the thinking and feeling of Moses' natural and adoptive mothers.
  • Minnie's Sacrifice, an 1869 Reconstruction-era Moses series, was published in the Christian Recorder.
  • A Factor in Human Progress, an article she wrote in 1885, again involved Moses, as she requested his intercession in asking God to forgive the sins of his people and provide to the African-American a model of self-sacrifice. In this work, she pointed out the need to reject the temptations of drink and other weaknesses which obstructed both racial and individual progress. "Had Moses preferred the luxury of an Egyptian palace to the endurance of hardships with his people, would the Jews have been the race to whom we owe the most, not perhaps for science and art, but for the grandest of all sciences, the science of a true life of joy and trust in God, of God-like forgiveness and divine self-surrender?" [6]

Sketches of Southern Life, a book of poetry published in 1872, presents the story of Reconstruction, using the voice of a wise elderly former slave, Aunt Chloe.

Sowing and Reaping, a serialized novel printed in the Christian Recorder in 1876 and 1877, expanded on the theme of The Two Offers.

Trial and Triumph, an autobiographical novel, was composed in 1888 and 1889. Harper centralized this work around her belief in progress through benevolence, individual development, racial pride and the rejection of prejudice.

Iola Leroy

Iola Leroy , an 1892 novel and one of her best known works, was a vehicle used to express Harper's attitudes about the African American. Being very concerned with the impact slavery had on women, she dedicated much of her life to the uplifting of the black woman. This work expressed her observations, her hopes and her fears. It displayed many images of womanhood, essentially on three major planes; one of motherhood, one of beauty, and the finally that of race.

Marie was a fair–skinned biracial slave living on Eugene Leroy's plantation. Leroy fell in love with his slave and decided to marry her, promising to free her from bondage, provide for her and care for their future children. Initially resisting his proposals, she eventually married him. They had three children whose true racial identity was kept from them. Marie and Eugene spoke together of other white men who didn't consider their children legitimate when produced by black women. In speaking of Henri Augustine, a slaveholder, Marie said, "He wronged their mother by imposing upon her the burdens and cares of maternity without the rights and privileges of a wife. He made her crown of motherhood a circle of shame. Under other circumstances she might have been an honored wife and happy mother." In this, Harper expressed the importance of being honored as a wife as well as a mother; both roles being important in defining a lady's womanhood.

"Iola stood up before Dr. Gresham in the calm loveliness of her ripened womanhood, radiant in beauty and gifted in intellect." In the story, Iola's beauty was counterbalanced by Lucille's; Iola was a fair skinned black woman, easily passing as white, whereas Lucille was a dark skinned woman with all Negro features. Harper described the importance of both images, expressing that a black woman is a black woman no matter how light her skin; her beauty (as anyone’s) comes from within. Beauty is viewed not by the color of one's skin, but for one's personality and intelligence.

A major issue throughout the novel is that of identity. In the beginning, Marie hid the true racial identity of her children. They easily passed for whites because of the fairness of her skin. When Iola realized the truth of her heritage, she completely embraced it. She rejected the thought of passing for a white woman ever again. Dr. Gresham was a white doctor who expressed his love for Iola. When she informed him that she was black he told her that it must be kept secret. His prejudice turned Iola away, who said, “I do not choose my lot in life, but I have no other alternative than to accept it." Her truthfulness of her identity was more important to her than the promise of an easy life with a well-to-do man. [7]

This book has been reprinted as recently as 1988.

Additional Works

  • Poems (1857)
  • The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (1892)
  • The Sparrow's Fall and Other Poems (1894)
  • Atlanta Offering (1895)
  • Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper (1988) was compiled and edited by Maryemma Graham.
  • A Brighter Coming Day (1990) is an anthology of the entire range of Harper's writing, including speeches, journalism, poetry, fiction, and letters compiled by Frances Smith Foster.
  • Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper (1994), also edited by Frances Smith Foster.

Bury Me In a Free Land

Bury Me in a Free Land is a poem by Harper, composed in 1845.

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.

Studies of Harper and her works

  • Benjamin Griffith Brawley's "Three Negro Poets: Horton, Mrs. Harper and Whitman," Journal of Negro History (1917).
  • Melba Joyce Boyd's Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper. (1994)
  • Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley's Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: 19th Century Pioneer in the Women's Suffrage Movement, a research paper written at Wesley Theological Seminary (1993).


Frances Harper was an extremely popular writer during her lifetime. She was not, however, acclaimed by literary critics. She was eventually dismissed by many black male critics, untrusted because of her popularity among whites and those of mixed-race.

Her popularity eventually waned, to the point she became nearly forgotten. However, black women and feminists in general have recently resurrected her legacy. Her call for full human development irregardless of race or gender have put her into the spotlight as a woman ahead of her time.


  1. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. May 13, 1857 Address To The Fourth Anniversary Of The New York City Anti-slavery Society, from the website: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Black Emancipators of the Nineteenth Century, written by Beryl Bailey and Marcella Flake, May 1, 1985. Retrieved March 30, 2007.
  2. Janeen Grohsmeyer. Frances Harper, Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.
  3. Elisabeth Griffith. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (Oxford University Press, 1985. ISBN 0195037294), 122.
  4. Rinad Bsharat, Conair Guilliames, and Ritu Singh. Lifting as We Climb, The George Washington University. Retrieved March 30, 2007.
  5. Grohsmeyer. Frances Harper, Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. Retrieved March 29, 2007.
  6. Grohsmeyer. Frances Harper, Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. Retrieved March 29, 2007.
  7. Rinad Bsharat, Conair Guilliames, and Ritu Singh. Lifting as We Climb, The George Washington University. Retrieved March 30, 2007.


Print Sources

  • Boyd, Melba Joyce. 1994. Discarded legacy: politics and poetics in the life of Frances E.W. Harper, 1825-1911. African American life series. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814324886
  • Calhoun, Charles W. 1996. The gilded age: essays on the origins of Modern America. Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources. ISBN 0842025006
  • Fehrenbacher, Don E. 2002. The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery. New York. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195141776
  • Griffith, Elisabeth. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. NY: Oxford University Press, 1985. ISBN 0195037294. Also by Galaxy Books, ISBN 0195034406
  • McGriggs, Imogene. 1987. Frances Harper: a historical perspective. Thesis (M.A.)—Bowling Green State University, 1987.
  • Shockley, Ann Allen. 1989. Afro-American women writers, 1746-1933: an anthology and critical guide. New York, NY, U.S.A.: New American Library. ISBN 0452009812

Online Sources

External links

All links retrieved April 1, 2024.


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