Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Frances Ellen Watkins was born free in the slave-holding state of Maryland in 1825. She was educated mainly in the school her uncle ran for free blacks. Upon completing her early education, she worked in a book shop, where she continued to read avidly. In 1850, Watkins accepted a position as the first female teacher at Union Seminary in Ohio. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Little York, Pennsylvania, where she taught another year before beginning the activist career that brought fame, notoriety, and danger into her life.{$S[A]Watkins Harper, Frances Ellen;Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins}

An important event in Watkins’s development was when she met William Grant Still, the African American composer and antislavery activist, who influenced her own activism and later wrote about her in his book The Underground Railroad (1872). Another significant event was Maryland’s enactment in 1853 of laws permitting all blacks, slave or free, to be sold into slavery. In 1854, Watkins joined the abolitionist movement and gave her first antislavery speech. In the next four years, she lectured in Ohio, New York, and other northern states and in southeastern Canada.

Watkins’s powerful voice and compelling delivery made her a particularly effective spokesperson for the abolitionists. In her antislavery lectures, Watkins included readings from her own poems. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, which was enthusiastically endorsed by the abolitionist movement and published with a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, became her most popular book; in 1855 and 1871, she published enlarged editions. Recurring themes in her poetry include the horrors of slavery, the importance of education, and the strength of women. She makes frequent use of biblical language and incidents, and the poems, like her speeches, have powerful mass appeal.

In 1859, Watkins’s short story “The Two Offers” appeared in The Anglo-African Magazine, the first African American...

(The entire section is 812 words.)