Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born free to free parents in the slaveholding state of Maryland. Her parents died when Harper was still young. Subsequently, she was brought up by her Uncle William J. Watkins, a minister, educator, and founder of a school for free blacks. In 1850, she became the first female teacher at the Union Seminary in Ohio. She left teaching to devote herself to anti-slavery activism. She lectured for anti-slavery organizations in northern states and southeastern Canada. With William Still (1821–1902), she assisted fugitive slaves escape to freedom in the north through the network of people comprising the Underground Railroad. And she published poetry, first in antislavery newspapers, then in a collection entitled Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854). William Lloyd Garrison wrote its preface, endorsing her poetry, and the book sold so well that Harper published an enlarged and revised edition in 1857.
Image 4.23. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
She wrote consistently about the black experience in slavery, black resistance to slavery, education, women’s rights, and the dangers of intemperance. Her poetry is marked by its emotional intensity, lyricism, and Biblical allusions and language. It made a strong appeal to readers and was strongly appealing to them. She also wrote short stories, essays, and four novels. In The Anglo-African Magazine, she published “The Two Offers” (1859), a work that many consider to be the first short story published by an African American. In 1872, she published Sketches of Southern Life, in which she introduced the elderly Aunt Chloe, a free slave strong on reading and morality, particularly Christian morality.
In 1860, she married Fenton Harper. He died four years later, leaving Harper to care for his three children and their child Mary. Harper continued to publish highly successful books of poetry and worked as a paid lecturer, traveling not only in the North but also in the South. She worked with important social reformers for equal rights for blacks and for women, including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). She joined white-majority organizations such as The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the American Woman Suffrage Association, and the National Council for Women, to give their causes her support while reminding these groups to support blacks.
Her last novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), tells of a mulatto woman who reunites her family after the Civil War, refuses to pass for white, and remains true to herself and her own goals even within marriage. It speaks of a mutually-supportive black community that communicates amongst itself in messages of which and to which whites remain unaware. With Harriet Tubman (d. 1913), Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), and Wells, Harper helped found the National Association for Colored Women in 1896.