Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Abolitionist, Poet, Activist

From The Slave Auction by Frances E.W. Harper
From The Slave Auction by Frances E.W. Harper. Public Domain Image

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Facts

Known for: abolitionist poetry and activism, work for equal rights for African Americans and for women
Occupation: lecturer, poet
Dates: September 24, 1825 - February 20, 1911
Also known as: Frances E. W. Harper, Effie Afton

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Biography

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 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.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper moved from Maryland, a slave 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-slavery movement and with the Underground Railroad.

Lectures and Poetry

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper lectured frequently on abolitionism 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 abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, sold more than 10,000 copies and was reissued and reprinted several times.

Marriage and Family

In 1860, she 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 Ellen Watkins 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 African American 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

Religion: Unitarian