Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
The long and remarkable career of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper ran
from the middle of the nineteenth into the beginning of the twentieth century.
Over her lifetime she was directly involved in abolitionism, the Underground
Railroad, the temperance movement, the labor for black education and economic
self-determination, the anti-lynching movement, and the campaign for women’s
suffrage. Harper demonstrated in her life and work a fusion between her
artistic and her political lives. She refused to separate the two. Political
issues suffused her literary creations; literary selections (especially poems
that she wrote) laced her political speeches. Ardent activist, groundbreaking
writer, and brilliant artist in the oral tradition, she stands as a model of
integrated aesthetic and political commitment.
The only child of free
parents, Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland, a slaveholding
state, where she witnessed slavery firsthand as she was growing up. Orphaned at
three, she was adopted by an aunt and uncle, who ran a school for free blacks
which she attended until the age of fourteen. At that time she hired out as a
domestic to a Baltimore family. Already a writer while still in her teens, she
published a volume of poetry at sixteen, Forest Leaves (also cited as Autumn
Leaves), no copies of which are known to exist.
She left the South in
1850, settling in a free state, Ohio, where she took a teaching job at Union
Seminary near Columbus (relocated, this institution would become Wilberforce
University). After a few years she moved to Little York, Pennsylvania, and when
a law was passed in 1853 forbidding free blacks to enter Maryland without
risking capture and sale, she became intensely involved in anti-slavery work.
Vowing to fight slavery in whatever way she could, she immersed herself in the
stories of runaway slaves arriving on the Underground Railroad and became a
friend and colleague of William Still, later famous as the author of the
monumental 1872 history The Underground Railroad.
Probably at this point
political passion and her calling as an artist truly began to fuse for Harper.
With the delivery of her first anti-slavery speech in August of 1854 in New
Bedford, Massachusetts, “The Education and Elevation of the Colored Race,” she
inaugurated the long and brilliant public-speaking career that before the Civil
War would carry her through Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey,
Ohio, and Maine, where she was engaged by the state Anti-Slavery Society as a
full-time lecturer. In 1860 in Cincinnati she married a widower, Fenton Harper,
who had two children, and settled with him on a farm she helped purchase
outside Columbus. When he died four years later, she and their baby, Mary,
moved to Philadelphia where she resumed the teaching and anti-slavery work she
had begun before her marriage.
Harper’s brilliance as
an artist in the oral tradition is testified to by contemporary descriptions.
She spoke at length—up to two hours—without a written text (thereby leaving few
verbatim records of her speeches). She is pictured by one audience member,
Grace Greenwood (Sara J. Lippincott), quoted in William Still’s book, as
standing quietly beside her desk “with gestures few and fitting. Her manner is
marked by dignity and composure. She is never assuming, never
theatrical. . . . The woe of two hundred years sighed through her
tones. Every glance of her sad eyes was a mournful remonstrance against
injustice and wrong.” Although she met with discrimination—she would later
report some listeners refusing to believe she was a woman or that she was
really black—Harper was hugely successful as an orator, at one point in 1854
giving at least thirty-three speeches in twenty-one different towns and cities
in a six-week period.
Highly gifted as well
in the written tradition, Harper was America’s best-known and most popular
black poet between Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Publishing four
volumes of poetry as an adult, she wrote about many topics, characteristically
focusing on black characters and experiences, slavery, lynching, temperance,
Christianity, or moral reform. As a poet she worked in both the popular and
high-culture traditions, often aiming in her work to stimulate a vivid
emotional response in the reader, such as anger, pity, horror, exaltation, or
compassion. She incorporated into her poetry African American oral subject
matter and techniques and also used the conventions of sentimentalism—ultra
regular rhyme and rhythm, elaborate and even artificial language, direct
apostrophal exclamations—to bring black and poor people’s experiences into the
mainstream, which in terms of popular published poetry in the United States in
the nineteenth century prized rather than avoided the indulgence of feeling.
Her poems on slavery in this volume, for example, appeal directly and boldly to
her readers’ emotions of sympathy, outrage, shame, and patriotic pride.
As a fiction writer
Harper’s position in American literary history is preeminent. Her 1859 short
story “The Two Offers” is thought to be the first short story published by a
black person in the United States. It appeared in the Anglo-African
Magazine, a publication founded in 1859 by Thomas Hamilton and committed to
printing the work only of black writers. Perhaps because of the freedom created
by that policy, the story does not deal with racial issues; it focuses instead
on the problems of drunkenness, wife abuse, and child neglect, and the pressure
on women to marry, even if the marriage in question is destructive. Grounded in
the middle-class nineteenth-century feminine ideology which some historians
have labeled the cult of “true womanhood,” an ideology which praised the
superior piety, domesticity, and moral rectitude of Christian womanhood, the
story argues that dignity and happiness are available to the woman who remains
Following the Civil War, Harper did not diminish her
commitment as a political activist, orator, poet, and fiction writer,
continuing to be celebrated as the most popular and well-known black American
poet of the nineteenth century and publishing her best-known long work, Iola
Leroy, in 1892. She died of heart disease in Philadelphia at the age of
eighty-six and is buried there in Eden Cemetery.