Frances Watkins Harper: Writer and Activist

Frances Watkins Harper. Public Domain


Internationally renowned author and orator Frances Watkins-Harper inspired African-Americans and others to create change in society through her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writings. Considered the "most of African-American journalism," Harper published a number of essays and news articles focused on uplifting African-Americans. Harper's writing appeared in both African-American publications as well as white newspapers.

One of her most famous quotes, " nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment...if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered" encapsulates her philosophy as an educator, writer and social and political activist.

Major Accomplishments

  • 1845: Published first book of poems entitled, Forest Leaves
  • 1850: Published a second collection of poems, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. The collection sold more than 10,000 copies--a record for a poetry collection by a writer of color
  • 1857: First woman to teach at Union Seminary, which is now known as Wilberforce University
  • 1859: Editor and contributor to the first African-American literary journal--Anglo-African Magazine
  • 1883: Appointed director of the Northern United States Temperance Union
  • 1892: Published best-selling novel, Iola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifted
  • 1896: Co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women

The Life of Frances Watkins Harper

Born in 1825, Harper was born to free parents in Baltimore.

By the age of three, both of Harper's parents died and she was raised by her uncle, William Watkins attended the Academy for Negro Youth. When Harper was fourteen, she began working as a domestic servant for a Quaker family. It was in this home that Harper was able to explore literature and as a result, she began publishing poetry in local newspapers.

In 1845, at the age of twenty, Harper's first collection of poetry Forest Leaves was published.

Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Harper and her family migrated from Baltimore to free states. The family first settled in Ohio. Harper taught sewing at Union Seminary, which is today known as Wilberforce University. The following year, Harper moved to Philadelphia where she worked with William Still, helping enslaved African-Americans get to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Harper continued to develop her craft as a writer  and in 1854, she published another collection of poetry, Miscellaneous Subjects. The collection sold more than 10,000 copies and was Harper's best-selling writing. In this collection, Harper addressed African-American oppression, racism, and sexism.

The same year Miscellaneous Subjects was published, Harper began her career as a lecturer for the abolitionist movement. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Harper traveled and spoke to people concerning the horrors of slavery. In one of her most famous speeches,"Our Greatest Want," Harper called African-Americans to action by arguing "Our greatest need is not gold or silver, talent or genius, but true men and true women.

We have millions of our race in the prison house of slavery, but have not yet a single Moses in freedom."

In 1860, Harper married Fenton Harper, an Ohio farmer with three children. Four years after their marriage, Harper's husband died and the farm was repossessed. As a result, Harper returned to the lecturing circuit to support herself and children. During the Civil War, Harper traveled across the United States--first arguing to end slavery and later, encouraging citizens to aid in educating freed African-Americans and to assist in the Reconstruction.

Following the abolition of slavery, Harper focused her mission on the rights of women. Using her oratory skills, Harper argued for women of all races to become empowered citizens. Working with women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to help women gain the right to vote.

However, Harper fully supported the Fifteenth Amendment which granted African-American men the right to vote but excluded women. Harper argued that the African-American community needed a political voice that would enable them to acquire legal and civil rights.

In addition to writing and fighting for the rights of women and African-Americans, Harper spoke out against immorality. In 1873, Harper was appointed Superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women's Christian Temperance Union. An active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Harper taught Sunday School at Mother Bethel AME Church.

In 1894, Harper combined her fight for women's rights, an end to racism and uplifting people from immorality by co-founding the NACW. Harper served as the organization's vice president from 1895 to 1911.

Harper died in February of 1911, just nine years before women gained the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment. She is buried in Eden Cemetery with her daughter, Mary.