Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins

Life Span
Full name
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Place of Birth
Death Date Certainty
Sectional choice
Slave State
No. of Spouses
No. of Children
Reverend William Watkins (uncle), Fenton Harper (husband)
Writer or Artist
Relation to Slavery
Free black

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Biographical Information (American National Biography)

[Frances Harper] was orphaned at an early age and raised by an aunt. She attended a school for free blacks, which was run by her uncle, the Reverend William Watkins. Her formal education ended at age thirteen. Harper became a nursemaid and found additional employment as a seamstress, needlecraft teacher, and traveling abolitionist lecturer. She also lectured in support of woman suffrage. She later became a schoolteacher in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In 1860 she married Fenton Harper; they had one child, who died in 1909. After her husband's death in 1864, she returned to the lecture circuit, promoting black education and Sunday school teaching. She also served as superintendent of colored work in the Women's Christian Temperance Union and often made speeches on its behalf, pointing out the evils of strong drink and the need for higher standards of morality. Continuing her feminist pursuits after the abolition of slavery, Harper spoke at the Women's Rights convention in 1866 and the Equal Rights Association in 1869. Although she more strongly advocated black male suffrage at that time, she continued to stress the need for women's right to vote. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women in the 1890s and served as a vice president until her death.
Mamie E. Locke, "Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins," American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-00304.html.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Poetry (American National Biography)

Harper's poetry and prose were political. Her works tackled the issue of slavery and the cruelty endured by slave women. The final two lines of one of her more popular poems, "Bury Me in a Free Land," poignantly expresses the desire of slaves: "All that my yearning spirit craves / Is bury me not in a land of slaves." The "Slave Auction" addressed the issue of children being sold away from their mothers:
And mothers stood with streaming eyes
And saw their dear children sold
Unheeded rise their bitter cries,
While tyrants bartered them for gold.

Feminism was often the theme of Harper's works. The poem "Deliverance" (from Sketches of a Southern Life) is concerned with the response of women to men who abused the privilege of voting:
Day after day did Milly Green
Just follow after Joe
And told him if he voted wrong
To take his rags and go.
Mamie E. Locke, "Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins," American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-00304.html.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Still, 1872)

About the year 1853, Maryland, her native State, had enacted a law forbidding free people of color from the North from coming into the State on pain of being imprisoned and sold into slavery. A free man, who had unwittingly violated this infamous statute, had recently been sold to Georgia, and had escaped thence by secreting himself behind the wheel-house of a boat bound northward; but before he reached the desired haven, he was discovered and remanded to slavery. It was reported that he died soon after from the effects of exposure and suffering. In a letter to a friend referring to this outrage, Mrs. Harper thus wrote: "Upon that grave I pledged myself to the Anti-Slavery cause."
William Still, The Underground Rail Road (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 757-758.
Chicago Style Entry Link
Bacon, Margaret Hope.  "'One Great Bundle of Humanity': Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)."  The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 113, no 1 (1989): 21-43.
view record
Boyd, Melba Joyce.  Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825-1911.  Detroit:  Wayne State University Press. 1994.
view record
Carby, Hazel V. "'Of Lasting Service for the Race': The Work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper." In Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, edited by Hazel V. Carby, pp. 62-94.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
view record
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins.  "The Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Colored Woman."  African Methodist Episcopal Church Review 4, no. 8 (January 1888).
view record
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins.  A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader.  Edited by Frances Smith Foster.  New York:  Feminist Press, 1990.
view record
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins.  Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E.W. Harper. Edited by Francis Smith Foster.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
view record
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins.  The Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper.  Edited by Maryemma Graham.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
view record
Johnson, Sherita L.  " 'In the Sunny South': Reconstructing Frances Harper as Southern."  Southern Quarterly 45, no. 3 (2008): 70-87.
view record
Palmer-Mehta, Valerie. "'We Are All Bound Up Together': Frances Harper and Feminist Theory." In Black Women's Intellectual Traditions: Speaking Their Minds, edited by Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, pp. 192-215. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press; Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2007.
view record
Yacovone, Donald. "Sacred Land Regained: Francel Ellen Watkins Harper and 'The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth,' A Lost Poem." Pennsylvania History 62, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 90-110.
view record
How to Cite This Page: "Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/index.php/node/5842.