Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 24, 1825. A free black woman, she spent years bringing families to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
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.
The Emancipation Proclamation: Shifting Focus of a Civil War
On September 22 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation ordering the emancipation of 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 took effect.
The Emancipation Proclamation shifted the focus of the Civil War. Though slavery had been a major issue leading to the war, President Lincoln’s mission in the beginning had been to keep the Union together. The Proclamation turned the major goal of the Union war effort towards freeing the slaves and became another step towards outlawing slavery and conferring full citizenship on ex-slaves.
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With the Emancipation Proclamation, Frances Harper became a demanded speaker in churches and other organizations. With Fenton Harper’s death on May 23, 1864, Frances returned to full-time touring, lecturing and publishing poetry in a variety of antislavery publications. She spoke to large audiences, advocating education for freed slaves and aiding in the work of reconstruction.
Cultural Reconstruction: Harper Fights for Civil Rights
During the Reconstruction years, Frances traveled through the South, sometimes 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, initiating the fight for equality, education, and civil rights.
She also became increasingly vocal on feminist issues, including the vote for women, forming firm friendships with leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Unlike Stanton and Anthony though, Harper supported the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which granted the vote to black men, but not to women. She felt that with the constant danger of lynching, the black community needed these amendments to give them a political voice in the pursuit of legal and civil rights.
In 1866, Frances Watkins Harper demanded equal rights in a passionate speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention. She appealed to women to use their time and talents to achieve “high and lofty goals.”
In 1870, Frances 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.
Harper had been raised in the AME Church and her roots and loyalty to her people ran deep.
In 1870, Frances Harper joined the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. She had first worked with the Unitarians in the Abolition movement and in the Underground Railroad. Though the Civil War had ended only five years earlier, she continued to live in a racist society. It’s possible that she considered the Unitarian Church a common ground for the races to meet as well as a place to 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 style, publishing articles in magazines with a principally white circulation. In 1872, she published Sketches of Southern Life, a book of poems telling the story of Reconstruction through the voice of Aunt Chloe, a wise and elderly former slave.
Her serialized novel, Sowing and Reaping, published 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 mulatto 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.
Continued Struggle for Social and Civil Rights
Continuing to agitate for black rights, Frances Harper lectured across the south with anti-lynching activist Ida Wells-Barnett. A bulwark of integration, reform, and philanthropy in the organizations she joined, Harper’s experience and eloquence made her a highly demanded speaker.
In 1873, Harper 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. Harper joined Fannie Barrier Williams and other women in charging organizers of the group with excluding black women. In an address to the Columbian Exposition that she called “Women’s Political Future,” Harper deplored the exclusion of black women from the suffrage movement. She formed the National Association of Colored Women with other black women, serving as vice president from 1895-1911.
Frances Watkins Harper Lives in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
With the turn of the century, Frances Harper began to take a less-aggressive role in the women’s movement and reformist organizations, although she continued to participate in the WCTU, the Universal Peace Union, the NACW as well as other women’s suffrage groups. Despite respect from her colleagues and society, Harper lectured less frequently, and her writing became less popular.
Her leadership role suffered as a younger, better educated, more articulate and impatient generation came forward. Some scholars say that opposition to Booker T. Washington’s black vocational uplift ideas may have contributed to Harper’s loss of leadership.
Frances Harper Dies: 1911
Frances Harper died in Philadelphia on February 22, 1911, just nine years before women won the right to vote. Her funeral took place at the Unitarian Church 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.
Although Frances Harper enjoyed literary fame during her lifetime, critics did not always praise her after her death. W.E.B. Du Bois, who revered Henry James, said of Harper: “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 library shelves while her gravestone in Eden cemetery toppled. It has been in the twenty-first century that black women and feminists, as well as general readers, have rediscovered Frances Harper. Critics, scholars and readers alike value Harper’s work for its historical significance and competent, readable writing style.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: A Legacy Across Time
In 1992, African-American Unitarian Universalists commemorated the 100th anniversary of Iola Leroy by installing a new headstone on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s grave. The legacy of Frances Harper has endured, speaking as eloquently and honestly now as it did during her lifetime.
Harper, Frances. 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), Liberty for Slaves, The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems (n.d. ).
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