Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

North American 19th-Century Anti-Enslavement Activist and Poet

From The Slave Auction by Frances E.W. Harper
From "The Slave Auction" by Frances E.W. Harper.

Public Domain

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a 19th century Black woman writer, lecturer, and anti-enslavement activist, who continued to work after the Civil War for racial justice.   She was also an advocate of women's rights and was a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. The writings of Frances Watkins Harper were often focused on themes of racial justice, equality, and freedom. She lived from September 24, 1825 to February 20, 1911.

Early Life

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born to free Black parents, was orphaned by the age of three, and was raised by an aunt and uncle. She studied Bible, literature, and public speaking at a school founded by her uncle, William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. At 14, she needed to work, but could only find jobs in domestic service and as a seamstress. She published her first volume of poetry in Baltimore about 1845, Forest Leaves or Autumn Leaves, but no copies are now known to exist.

Fugitive Slave Act

Watkins moved from Maryland, a pro-slavery state, to Ohio, a free state in 1850, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act. In Ohio she taught domestic science as the first woman faculty member at Union Seminary, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) school which later was merged into Wilberforce University.

A new law in 1853 prohibited any free Black persons from re-entering Maryland. In 1854, she moved to Pennsylvania for a teaching job in Little York. The next year she moved to Philadelphia. During these years, she became involved in the anti-enslavement movement and with the Underground Railroad.

Lectures and Poetry

Watkins lectured frequently on North American 19th-century Black activism in New England, the Midwest, and California, and also published poetry in magazines and newspapers. Her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, published in 1854 with a preface by anti-enslavement activist William Lloyd Garrison, sold more than 10,000 copies and was reissued and reprinted several times.

Marriage and Family

In 1860, Watkins married Fenton Harper in Cincinnati, and they bought a farm in Ohio and had a daughter, Mary. Fenton died in 1864, and Frances returned to lecturing, financing the tour herself and taking her daughter with her.

After the Civil War: Equal Rights

Frances Harper visited the South and saw the appalling conditions, especially of Black women, of Reconstruction. She lectured on the need for equal rights for "the Colored Race" and also on rights for women. She founded YMCA Sunday Schools, and she was a leader in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She joined the American Equal Rights Association and the American Women's Suffrage Association, working with the branch of the women's movement that worked for both racial and women's equality.

Including Black Women

In 1893, a group of women gathered in connection with the World's Fair as the World's Congress of Representative Women. Harper joined with others including Fannie Barrier Williams to charge those organizing the gathering with excluding Black women. Harper's address at the Columbian Exposition was on "Women's Political Future."

Realizing the virtual exclusion of Black women from the suffrage movement, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper joined with others to form the National Association of Colored Women. She became the first vice-president of the organization.

Mary E. Harper never married, and worked with her mother as well as lecturing and teaching. She died in 1909. Though Frances Harper was frequently ill and unable to sustain her travels and lecturing, she refused offers of help.

Death and Legacy

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in Philadelphia in 1911.

In an obituary, W.E.B. duBois said that it was "for her attempts to forward literature among colored people that Frances Harper deserves to be remembered.... She took her writing soberly and earnestly, she gave her life to it."

Her work was largely neglected and forgotten until she was "rediscovered" in the late 20th century.

More Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Facts

Organizations: National Association of Colored Women, Women's Christian Temperance Union, American Equal Rights Association, YMCA Sabbath School

Also known as: Frances E. W. Harper, Effie Afton

Religion: Unitarian

Selected Quotations

  • We may be able to tell the story of departed nations and conquering chieftains who have added pages of tears and blood to the world's history; but our education is deficient if we are perfectly ignorant how to guide the little feet that are springing up so gladly in our path, and to see in undeveloped possibilities gold more fine than the pavements of heaven and gems more precious than the foundations of the holy city.
  • Oh, could slavery exist long if it did not sit on a commercial throne?
  • We want more soul, a higher cultivation of all spiritual faculties. We need more unselfishness, earnestness, and integrity. We need men and women whose hearts are the homes of high and lofty enthusiasm and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom.
  • This is a common cause; and if there is any burden to be borne in the Anti-Slavery cause—anything to be done to weaken our hateful chains or assert our manhood and womanhood, I have a right to do my share of the work.
  • The true aim of female education should be, not a development of one or two, but all the faculties of the human soul, because no perfect womanhood is developed by imperfect culture.”
  • Every mother should endeavor to be a true artist.
  • The work of the mothers of our race is grandly constructive. It is for us to build above the wreck and ruin of the past more stately temples of thought and action. Some races have been overthrown, dashed in pieces, and destroyed; but to-day the world is needing, fainting, for something better than the results of arrogance, aggressiveness, and indomitable power. We need mothers who are capable of being character builders, patient, loving, strong, and true, whose homes will be uplifting power in the race. This is one of the greatest needs of the hour.
  • No race can afford to neglect the enlightenment of its mothers.
  • The moment the crown of motherhood falls on the brow of a young wife, God gives her a new interest in the welfare of the home and the good of society.
  • I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need to-day is not simply more voters, but better voters.
  • I envy neither the heart nor the head of any legislator who has been born to an inheritance of privileges, who has behind him ages of education, dominion, civilization, and Christianity, if he stands opposed to the passage of a national education bill, whose purpose is to secure education to the children of those who were born under the shadow of institutions which made it a crime to read.
  • Apparent failure may hold in its rough shell the germs of a success that will blossom in time, and bear fruit throughout eternity.
  • My lectures have met with success.... My voice was not wanting in strength, as I am aware of, to reach pretty well over the house.
  • I never saw so clearly the nature and intent of the Constitution before. Oh, was it not strangely inconsistent that men fresh, so fresh, from the baptism of the Revolution should make such concessions to the foul spirit of Despotism! that, when fresh from gaining their own liberty, they could permit the African slave trade—could let their national flag hang a sign of death on Guinea's coast and Congo's shore! Twenty-one years the slave-ships of the Republic could gorge the sea monsters with their prey; twenty-one years of mourning and desolation for the children of the tropics, to gratify the avarice and cupidity of men styling themselves free! And then the dark intent of the fugitive clause veiled under words so specious that a stranger unacquainted with our nefarious government would not know that such a thing was meant by it.  Alas for these fatal concessions. (1859?)
  • [letter to John Brown, November 25, 1859]  Dear Friend: Although the hands of Slavery throw a barrier between you and me, and it may not be my privilege to see you in your prison-house, Virginia has no bolts or bars through which I dread to send you my sympathy.  In the name of the young girl sold from the warm clasp of a mother's arms to the clutches of a libertine or a profligate,—in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations,—I thank you, that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race.
  • Oh, how I miss New England,—the sunshine of its homes and the freedom of its hills!  When I return again, I shall perhaps love it more dearly than ever.... Dear old New England! It was there kindness encompassed my path; it was there kind voices made their music in my ear. The home of my childhood, the burial-place of my kindred, is not as dear to me as New England.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper." ThoughtCo, Oct. 31, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, October 31). Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).