Frances Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an African-American abolitionistpoet and author. Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at age 20 and her first novel, the widely praised Iola Leroy, at age 67.

Frances Ellen Watkins was born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland. After her mother died when she was three years old in 1828, Watkins was orphaned. She was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Rev. William Watkins, who was a civil rights activist. She was educated at his Academy for Negro Youth. Watkins was a major influence on her life and work.[1][2] At fourteen, Frances found work as a seamstress.

Frances Watkins had her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845 (it has been lost) when she was 20. Her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), was extremely popular. Over the next few years, it was reprinted numerous times. In 1859, her story “The Two Offers” was published in Anglo-African Magazine. She continued to publish poetry and short stories.

She had three novels serialized in a Christian magazine from 1868 to 1888, but was better known for what was long considered her first novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), published as a book when she was 67. Long considered the first novel by an African American, it is one of the earliest. (Discoveries of earlier works by Harriet Jacobson and William Wells Brown have displaced her.) While using the conventions of the time, she dealt with serious social issues, including education for women,passingmiscegenationabolitionreconstructiontemperance, and social responsibility.

In 1850, Watkins moved to Ohio, where she worked as the first woman teacher at Union Seminary, established by the Ohio Conference of the AME Church. (Union closed in 1863 when the AME Church diverted its funds to purchase Wilberforce University, the first black-owned and operated college.) The school in Wilberforce was run by the Rev. John Brown (not the same as the abolitionist).

In 1853, Watkins joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became a traveling lecturer for the group. In 1854, Watkins delivered her first anti-slavery speech on “Education and the Elevation of Colored Race”. The success of this speech resulted a two-year lecture tour in Maine for the Anti-Slavery Society. She traveled, lecturing throughout the East and Midwest from 1856 to 1860.

At the age of 35, in 1860 she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. They had a daughter together in 1862. For a time Frances Harper withdrew from the lecture circuit. But after her husband died in 1864, she returned to her travels and lecturing.

Frances Watkins Harper was a strong supporter of abolitionism, prohibition and woman’s suffrage, progressive causes linked before and after the American Civil War. She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolitionism. She often read her poetry at the public meetings, including the extremely popular “Bury Me in a Free Land“.

She was connected with national leaders in suffrage, and in 1866 gave a moving speech before the National Women’s Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women.

Harper was active in black organizations. From 1883 to 1890, she helped organize events and programs for the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, and was elected vice president in 1897.

Frances Harper died on February 22, 1911.

Frances Watkins Harper