Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Picture courtesy of:
Digital Schomburg Center for African American Women's Writing
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
by Frances Watkins Harper ---"Bury Me in A Free Land"
Frances Ellen Watkins, African-American port, novelist, lecturer, anti-slavery,
women's rights, and temperance activist, was born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland, which
was a free state at that time. Harper's mother died before she was three years
old. She was raised for a time by an aunt, and then sent to live with an uncle,
Reverend William Watkins, a
teacher at the Academy for Negro Youth ( where Frances was educated) and a radical political figure in civil
¹ Young Frances found work as a servant and babysitter, and sewing for the
Armstrongs, a white family in Baltimore. Much to Frances's delight,
Armstrong owned a bookstore. Better still, he allowed her free access to books
and encouraged her in her love for writing.
²After Frances left school in 1839, her first poems were published in abolitionist
periodicals, such as "Frederick Douglass' Paper."
In 1845, Harper's first book
of poems, Forest Leaves, was published. The book was extremely popular and over
the next few years went through 20 editions.
She produced ten volumes of poetry and many articles,
along with her novels.
¹Around 1846, when she was in her
early thirties, Frances became active as an anti-slavery lecturer and published
her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves, now extant. Writing remained a
passion and she became a most celebrated writer, "the Bronze Muse."
she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children, and moved to Ohio.
Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1862. After Fenton Harper, her husband of four years
died in 1864, she returned to lecturing on a variety of social causes,
stressing the need for temperance, education, and morality among her fellow
¹ Harper subsequently became the most widely published and recognized writer
before and after slavery.
² In 1850, Harper left Baltimore in order to become the first woman to teach at
Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her acceptance of the position was
with considerable protest. The principal of the school at the time, Reverend
John M. Brown (who later led the famous revolt at Harper's Ferry), supported
*In 1853 Frances moved to Philadelphia to work as an abolitionist. She lived
with William Still and his family, helping them with their work in the
Underground Railroad movement.
"at the station of the Underground Rail Road, she frequently saw
passengers and their melting tales of suffering and wrong, which intensely
increased their sympathy in their behalf."* Even during the Civil War, she
wrote prolifically, hoping to contribute to the cause of freedom. The writing
she produced during the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln's assassination
further reveals her eloquence in expressing her hopes and disappointments with
the progress of the fight for equality.
¹ Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's body of work includes several collections of
poetry. Among them are the following, published between 1872 and 1900: Sketches
of Southern Life, Moses: A Story of the Nile, Light Beyond Darkness,
The Sparrow's Fall,
Martyr of Alabama, Atlanta Offerings, and Poems.
"The Slave Mother,"
"The Slave Auction,"
"The Fugitive's Wife," and
"Bury Me in a Free Land," are among her best known poems.
¹ Harper was also a gifted writer of prose. One of her best known essays is
"Christianity" (1853). Her most famous short story is "The Two Offers," which
first appeared in the Anglo-African in 1859.
Known as the first African
American woman novelist until recently, Harper's first three novels
serialized in the African Methodist Episcopal Church's Christian Recorder:
Minnie's Sacrifice (1869); Sowing and Reaping: A Temperance Story (1876-1877),
and Trial and Triumph (1888-1889). In 1892, Harper's best known novel was
published: Iola Leroy: or, Shadows Uplifted, the story of a young woman striving
to overcome racism during Civil War/Reconstruction America, who commits herself
to the cause of racial uplift.
To the Union Savers of Cleveland
¹ Harper managed her writing life in and around other important work. She was a
teacher, an anti-slavery lecturer, a member of the Free Produce and, according
to William Still, one of the "ablest" workers on the Underground Railroad. After
the Civil War, Harper continued a life of activism as a social
reformer-especially promoting civil and women's rights. She advanced these
causes through her writing, through countless speaking engagements, and through
her work with several organizations, including the American Equal Rights
Association, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the YMCA, the National
Congress of Colored Women, and the National Association of Colored Women, of
which she was a founding member.
Frances Harper died February 22, 1911.
Nothing and Something
Learning to Read
To view more of Frances Harper's work:
from "Iola Leroy"
Digital Schomburg Center for African American Women's Writing
from Sketches of Southern Life
Society for the Study of American Women's Writing
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Some more of her work includes:
from Sketches of Southern Life (1891)
Save the Boys ,
Out in the Cold,
"Fishers of Men,"
Learning to Read,
The Dying Queen,
Signing the Pledge,
Aunt Chloe's Politics,
[Poet's Corner Index]
Reference, Research and Source Information
¹ Digital Schomburg Center for African American Women's Writing --Biographies
²Voices from the Gap
³Unitarian Universalist Historical Society
* PBS -- Resource Bank
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