Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's career spanned the critical period in American history from abolition to women's suffrage, and she cared deeply about both. Harper frequently centered her writing on political issues and, conversely, incorporated her literary work into her speeches on political topics. She is one of the premier artist activists—or activist artists—in American literary history.
An only child born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances Ellen Watkins was orphaned at three and raised by her aunt and uncle, whose school she attended. She worked as a domestic in her teens; moved to Ohio in 1850, where she taught at Union Seminary near Columbus; moved again in the 1850s to York, Pennsylvania, where she became active in abolition work; and traveled throughout New England before the Civil War giving anti-slavery speeches and being hired by the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine as their official speaker. In 1860 she married a widowed farmer, Fenton Harper, in Ohio and had one daughter. When her husband died in 1864, she returned east and resumed her life of full-time speaking and writing.
Frances Harper was extolled as a brilliant and moving public lecturer who used no notes and often talked for two hours at a time. Though proud of the effect she had on audiences—Harper declared in the early 1870s, "both white and colored come out to hear me, and I have very fine meetings"—Harper experienced bigotry. She knew that many of her white listeners found it virtually impossible to believe that a black woman could be articulate and rational. She wrote to a friend in 1871, "I don't know but that you would laugh if you were to hear some of the remarks that my lectures call forth: 'She is a man,' again 'She is not colored, she is painted.'"
In addition to her speeches, which unfortunately have not survived because she normally did not read from prepared texts, Harper's poetry won her acclaim as the most popular and best-known black poet in the United States between Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. She published at least four volumes of poetry as an adult, reissuing several of them in slightly varying editions, and her poems also appeared in periodicals. Often concentrating on slavery before the Civil War, her poetry during the second half of the nineteenth century took up anti-lynching, women's rights, temperance, white racism, Christianity, black history and community issues, patriotism, and various historical and biblical themes. She followed the popular aesthetic of her time, writing poetry that directly and unabashedly appeals to readers' emotions. Also she used formal devises such as rhyme, meter, and stanza formation in regular, even predictable, ways that foster audience accessibility and powerful oral presentation, both of which were especially important in a period when most poetry was written to be heard and verse was frequently committed to memory. As an innovator, Harper was one of the pioneers of dialect verse and as such an important figure in the history of realism in American literature.
As a writer of fiction, Harper is recognized as the author of what is thought to be the first short story published by a black person in the United States, "The Two Offers" (1859); and she wrote three serialized short novels, Minnie's Sacrifice (1869), Sowing and Reaping (1876-1877), and Trial and Triumph (1888-1889). Her best-known novel, Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted, published in 1892, was for many years regarded as the first full-length novel by an African American woman. Though it was not the first, its stature in American literary history is considerable because of the book's ambitiousness and accomplishment.
The life chosen by Frances Ellen Harper was not easy. Often her work placed her in danger, traveling alone in the South to speak out against lynching and discrimination. Also, her life must have been lonely at times, and by her own account often it was filled with hardship (summer nights spent in windowless cabins, winter nights in unheated rooms). In addition, in her commitment to the primarily female issues of temperance and women's suffrage she had the bitter experience of many black women in America of suffering the racism of white women who argued for their own equality but treated black women as inferiors and ignored the horror of lynching. Undaunted, Harper persisted in linking the issues of lynching and women's suffrage at every opportunity, pronouncing at the World's Congress of Representative Women in 1893, for example, that lynchers-white men-should be denied the franchise as women-all women-gained it. Yet she had hope, declaring at this historic Congress: "Through weary, wasting years men have destroyed, dashed in pieces, and overthrown, but to-day we stand on the threshold of woman's era; and woman's work is grandly constructive. In her hands are possibilities whose use or abuse must tell upon the political life of the nation, and send their influence for good or evil across the track of unborn ages."
At the age of eighty-six Harper died of heart disease in Philadelphia and was buried in Eden Cemetery.