Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812

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}

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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 magazine in the United States. “The Two Offers” is generally regarded as the first short story by an African American. In the story, Watkins describes a woman who has serious questions whether to choose marriage or social commitment. The author herself chose marriage to Fenton Harper in 1860. They settled in Ohio, where Frances E. W. Harper continued to write and where their daughter, Mary, was born. After her husband died in 1864, Harper resumed lecturing, this time traveling through the South. She returned to Philadelphia in 1867 but again resumed her touring of the South between 1868 and 1871.

During these years, Harper was writing as well as lecturing. In 1869, she published Moses: A Story of the Nile, a long, blank-verse biblical allegory with a strong racial message. Three years later, she published Sketches of Southern Life, which introduces the characters Uncle Jacob and Aunt Chloe, wise, old, former slaves who value reading and morality.

From the 1870’s until her health failed around 1900, Harper was immersed in social causes, some of which had concerned her since before the Civil War. Her belief in seeking common ground between races is reflected in her working with the traditionally black African Methodist Episcopal Church while maintaining membership in the mostly white Unitarian Church. Her name was linked through common causes with such figures as John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was one of the first black women associated with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, American Suffrage Association, and National Council of Women. Sometimes, hers was the only voice reminding members of the special concerns of women of color.

In 1892, Harper published the novel Iola Leroy: Or, Shadows Uplifted, which tells the story of a mulatto woman who searches for her family, declines the opportunity to “pass” for white, and ultimately marries a man of color without sacrificing her professional goals or her social activism. One of the most interesting aspects of the work is Harper’s depiction of the ingeniousness of enslaved people in communicating messages to each other unbeknownst to white people. Her 1895 publication Atlanta Offerings, Poems reflects her usual concerns with women’s rights, discrimination against blacks, Christian humanist morality, and literacy.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Harper participated in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women, working with such women as Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, and Wells. She continued to work for the rights of blacks in general. Before emancipation she had opposed slavery, although she had never been a slave herself; she campaigned vigorously against lynching, although most lynch victims were male; she was a feminist when white feminists were still defending the racist practices within their own organizations; she was a suffragist who did not believe in universal suffrage; and she believed that voters should have to pass tests for literacy and character. Harper lived a full life as a poet, novelist, lecturer, essayist, and social activist. Her writings, speeches, and actions left an indelible imprint on the history of the United States and on the canon of African American letters.

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