Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Poet Frances 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 rights.

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."

In 1860, 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 African-Americans. 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 Harper.

*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.
³ "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.

Picture courtesy of:
Ohio Historical Center
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.

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.

To the Union Savers of Cleveland
The Reunion
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)

I Thirst, Aunt Chloe, Shalmanezer, Save the Boys , Out in the Cold, "Fishers of Men," Church Building, Learning to Read, The Dying Queen, Wanderer's Return, 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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