Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, African American writer, lecturer, and political activist who promoted abolition, civil rights, and women's rights. Publishing her first book of poetry at twenty and her first novel at age 67, the topic usually focused on supporting morality. She was the most famous female poet of her day and the most famous African-American poet of the 19th century. She spoke frequently in public (sometimes twice in one day) promoting equal rights for women and African-Americans. She was a worker for the Underground Railroad, and in 1896 she helped establish the National Association of Colored Women.
Frances was born September 24, 1825 in Baltimore to free parents. From age three, she was raised by her aunt and uncle. She was educated 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.
In her early teens, she was hired as a domestic worker and was allowed to use her employer's library who also encouraged her literary aspirations. This inspired her to start writing.
In her mid-20s, she worked as the first woman teacher at Union Seminary, established by the Ohio Conference of the AME Church.. The topic of her writings supported the fight against slavery. With her uncle, the abolitionist William Watkins, father of William J. Watkins, who would become an associate of Frederick Douglass, her interest in the anti-slavery movement was influenced by her family involvement. And, with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 in Maryland, her family left Baltimore, this personal experience also influenced her political activism.
And, at age 29, Forest Leaves, her collection of verse and prose was published. She began touring Canada, speaking for the anti-slavery movement with wit, which drew large crowds. Her articles appeared in the Provincial Freeman newspaper.
Her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, about racism and the oppression of women, became her biggest commercial success. She donated most of the proceeds toward freeing the slaves.
She was connected with national leaders in suffrage, and, at age 31, in 1866, gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women.
By age 34, she was the first African American to publish a short story, The Two Officers, about the importance of life choices made by women especially, noting that getting married isn't the only goal in life. One excerpt, "...Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties."
At age 35, she married a widower, Fenton Watkins, and with his three children they moved to Ohio. Two years later, in 1862, they had a child and two years later, in 1864, her husband died. After the end of the Civil War, she toured the South, again lecturing to large audiences, this time encouraging education for freed slaves and aiding in the Reconstruction.
At age 36, she had moved to Pennsylvania and with William Still, Chairman of the local Abolition Society, she helped slaves along the Underground Railroad.
By 1870, at age 45, she and her daughter relocated to Philadelphia and joined the First Unitarian Church. Prior to the war, she had become familiar with the Unitarians due to their support of abolition and the Underground Railroad. The Unitarian Church provided the unique opportunity for races to meet. Once in Philadelpha, her attention turned back to empowering women. She worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to secure women's right to vote. But, she also began working toward civil rights.
She continued to publish in magazines and became known as the mother of African American journalism. She also wrote in periodicals whose readers were mainly White.
At age 48, she became Superintendent of the Colored Section of the Women's Christian Temperance Union of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. She was also a member of the Universal Peace Union and lectured and wrote against lynching. She taught Sunday School at her AME church in North Philadelphia, worked with other churches near her home in programs to feed the poor and prevent juvenile delinquency.
At age 63, in her most autobiographical novel, Trial and Triumph, she presented her plan for progress through personal development, altruism, non-discrimination and racial pride.
And, at age 67, her novel, Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, was published, making her the second African American woman to have a novel published in the United States. In this novel, she incorporated her belief that Christ is a role model for the kind of exalted existence all human beings could attain; she wrote of a Christ-like role for African Americans, who, by transcending their suffering, had the opportunity to transform society.
At age 69, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as vice president from 1895, at age 70, until her death.
She died February 22, 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote. Due to the politics of the day, she was given little credit for her writing. W.E.B. Du Bois, eulogized her stating "...she was not a great writer, but she wrote much worth reading." Shortly after, her communicative and intentionally popular style was dismissed as sentimental hackwork by African-American male critics and her message held in suspicion because her mixed-race protagonists were not sufficiently African American.
During the 20th century, as her reputation waned and the best of her poetry languished unread. Harper's gravestone fell over and was covered by grass. In her celebrated poem, "Bury Me in a Free Land," she wrote,
"I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves."
In recent decades, however, black women and feminists in general have resurrected her legacy. In 1992, African-American Unitarian Universalists honored her and commemorated the 100th anniversary of Iola Leroy by installing a new headstone. In the excavation, the old headstone was uncovered, forgotten but still enduring.
Her call for full human development—black and white, male and female—also endures, as urgent and vital during these decades following the Civil Rights movement and Women's Liberation as it was during Reconstruction and its aftermath.
Compiled, with excerpts, from www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/francesharper.html in an article by Janeen Grohsmeyer and Wikipedia.
Her works include:
• 1845: Forest Leaves
• 1854: Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects
• 1857: Poems
• 1869: Moses: A Story of the Nile
• 1872: Sketches of Southern Life
• 1890: Light Beyond the Darkness
• 1892: Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted
• 1894: The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems
• 1894: The Sparrow's Fall and Other Poems
• 1895: Atlanta Offering
• 1901: Idylls of the Bible
• 1901: In Memoriam, Wm. McKinley
• Free Labor
• Minnie's Sacrifice
• Sowing and Reaping
Frances Smith Foster's A Brighter Coming Day is a valuable anthology of the entire range of Harper's writing, including speeches, journalism, poetry, fiction, and letters. Foster has also edited Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper (1994).
Compiled from various resources on the Internet.