Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911
Frances Ellen Watkins was born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland. The fate of her father is unknown but Watkins’ mother died when she was three leaving her to be raised by her uncle, the Reverend William Watkins, and her aunt (his wife), Harriet.
The age at which she started school is unclear but until the age of 13, Watkins attended the Academy for Negro Youth. The school was operated by her uncle who also provided for the family as a preacher, cobbler, and medical practitioner. After leaving school, Watkins began working for a Quaker family as a nanny which gave her access to a wide variety of books and allowed her to continue educating herself.
Watkins had been writing poetry prior to becoming a nanny but didn’t put together her first collection, Forest Leaves, until 1845. Through relationships with William Lloyd Garrison and William Still, Watkins was able to publish and promote her writing. In 1850, she moved to Ohio to teach at the Union Seminary before relocating to Little York, Pennsylvania.
During this period the abolitionist movement was very active as several border and slaveholding states implemented new fugitive slave laws and increased the restrictions of existing slave laws. With much at stake Watkins became involved in the public fight against slavery. She helped slaves escape bondage via the Underground Railroad by sending money to her uncle. Though it is unclear if she was directly involved with helping conduct escaped slaves to freedom.
Her 1854 publication Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects included one of her most famous poems, “Bury Me in a Free Land” and would go on to be reprinted 20 times. Watkins embarked on a two-year speaking tour on the abolitionist lecture circuit and contributed to anti-slavery newspapers. In 1859, Watkins published “The Two Offers”, the first short story published by an African-American.
A year later Watkins married Fenton Harper and adopted the name Frances Ellen Watkins Harper which was sometimes shortened to Frances E.W. Harper. Harper made the decision to retire from public life to focus on her family which settled in Ohio. The couple had one child, a daughter, and also raised Fenton’s three children from a previous marriage.
Unfortunately, her husband died four years later and Harper returned to public speaking to support the family and pay off debts. Following the end of the Civil War, Harper toured the South and gave lectures on a variety of topics such as education, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. Based on her experiences traveling through the South during the Reconstruction era came Sketches of Southern Life. In 1892, Harper published her most famous novel, Iola Leroy.
Harper was active with various organizations throughout the 1890s that primarily focused on women’s suffrage and temperance. She served as superintendent of Black activities within the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and director of the American Association of Colored Youth. Harper joined Ida Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, and other women to co-found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and was elected vice president in 1897.
On February 22, 1911, Frances Harper passed away at the age of 85 from congestive heart failure. She was buried in Eden Cemetery in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia next to her daughter.
- “Frances E.W. Harper.” 2019. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. September 20, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frances-E-W-Harper.
- “Frances E.W. Harper.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. June 19, 2019. https://www.biography.com/writer/frances-ew-harper.
- “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed February 9, 2020. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/frances-ellen-watkins-harper.
- Yee, Shirley. 2007. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).” BlackPast.org. February 11, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harper-frances-ellen-watkins-1825-1911/.
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