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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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 single.

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.
Elizabeth Ammons
Tufts University

In the Heath Anthology
Free Labor  
Speech: On the Twenty-Fourth Anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society  
The Colored People in America  
The Slave Mother  
The Tennessee Hero  
An Appeal to the American People  
The Two Offers (1859)
Aunt Chloe's Politics (1872)
Learning to Read (1873)
Woman's Political Future (1894)
A Double Standard (1895)
Songs for the People (1895)
The Martyr of Alabama (1895)

Other Works
American Anti-Slavery Society
Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)
Sketches of Southern Life (1872)
Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted (1892)

Cultural Objects
Image fileSentimentality: Grief and Representation
Image filePhotographs of Nineteenth-Century African American Life

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American Authors
Links to biographies, bibliographies, and texts.

Sketches of Southern Life
Collection of poetry digitized by UVA.

Secondary Sources