Frances Ellen Watkins: Teacher, Writer and Underground Railroad Conductor

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This is Stephen Gloucester, one of the founders of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. Frances Watkins Harper and William Still were important conductors in the Philadelphia Underground Railroad. Image by Fintler.

In September 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making it more difficult for Free Blacks to avoid being sold into slavery, as well as for slaves to escape to safe havens in the North.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required a federal marshal, or other official, to arrest any suspected runaway slave based solely upon the sworn testimony of ownership. If they didn’t arrest the slave, the official would have to pay a fine of $1,000, equivalent to $28,000 today, while officers capturing a fugitive slave were awarded a bonus or promotion.

Suspected slaves did not have the right to demand a jury trial or testify in their own defense, meaning many Free Blacks found themselves conscripted into slavery. The law condemned those who aided runaway slaves with food or shelter to prison for six months and a $1,000 fine.

Frances Watkins: First Woman Faculty Member at Union Seminary

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. That same year, Frances Ellen Watkins, then 25, moved on her own to Ohio, a free state, and accepted a job teaching domestic science at Union Seminary in Columbus. The African Methodist Episcopal Church operated the Union Seminary as a work-study school, and later merged it into Wilberforce University. Frances, the first woman faculty member, taught sewing between 1850-1852. Many resented that she was a woman and black.

In 1852, Frances took a teaching job in Little York, Pennsylvania.  She lived in an Underground Railroad Station, observing the difficult journey of slaves toward freedom. This experience led her to despair at the sufferings of her people under slave laws; she found herself becoming deeply in tune with the abolition movement. Although Frances felt deeply that the education of black children was of utmost importance, her intellect led her to become involved in something beyond teaching in rural Pennsylvania. Events in Maryland helped her decide which direction to take.

Maryland’s Freeman to Slavery Law: A Call to Action

In 1853, the state of Maryland passed a law decreeing that any free person of color entering the state would be arrested and sold into slavery. Frances heard about a young man who had accidentally crossed into Maryland and under this law, was bought by a Georgia slaveholder. This young man escaped, but slave catchers recaptured him and sent him back to Georgia, where he eventually died. Frances wrote a friend, pledging on the grave of the young man to the Anti-Slavery cause, and joining 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 realm of the abolitionist. In 1854, she delivered a public lecture on “The Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race.” With several other lectures given, 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 this eloquent woman of color with the musical voice, logical arguments, and poetic language. From 1854 to 1856, Francis Watkins traveled, lecturing on abolitionism in New England, the Midwest, and California, preaching social, political, and moral reform.

Francis Watkins: A Woman of Words

Harriet Beecher Stowe is the author of the famous book "Uncle Tom's Cabin," an inspiration to Frances Ellen Harper's "Poems" series.'

Harriet Beecher Stowe is the author of the famous book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” an inspiration to Frances Ellen Harper’s “Poems” series.’ Image by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Frances 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. 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. This collection contained her most famous abolitionist poem “Bury Me in a Free Land,” securing her literary reputation.

…”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

The stories of Free Blacks in Philadelphia and the founding of America 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 law meant to establish a timeline for the abolishing of slavery and 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’s voices of the Abolition Movement.

In 1855, Frances 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. Leaders of the Philadelphia Underground Railroad refused to appoint Frances an agent because she was a woman, 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. In this letter, she assured him of her ability and willingness to contribute to the freeing her people. She believed that helping humanity was a sacred calling and a blessing.

In support of the Free Produce movement which encouraged the boycott of products tied to slave labor, Francis 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 their own community. She believed that anti-slavery work had the important goal of teaching black people to build their own souls, intellect, and character.

Click to Read Page Three: Frances Watkins Writes to John and Mary Brown

© Copyright 2013 Kathleen Warnes, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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