The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper pic
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, article title
I asked Mrs. Johnson, who just lives in the wash tub and is the main stay of her family, what would her husband do if she were to die? and she said, 'get another wife.'
from Trial and Trimph, a rediscovered novel
by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Maybe it was despite its history of Southern sympathy and racism; maybe because of it. Whichever it was, Baltimore managed to produce one of America's first African American women writers, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born in 1825 in Baltimore to free blacks. An aunt and uncle saw to it that she received good care and a quality education. That uncle, William Watkins, had taught in a school for black children at Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Church. He started his own school, known as the Academy for Negro Youth (also as the Watkins Academy), and there Harper received a classical education, which included Latin, Greek, and the Bible.

She loved to read and write and started writing poetry and essays while still a child. When she was thirteen, she left school to work for a bookseller's family. Impressed with her abilities, they gave her access to books and encouraged her to read in her off hours. She took the bold step of sending her poems to local African American publications and soon saw some of them published in Frederick Douglass's Paper. She published her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves, in 1845 when she was twenty years old.

In 1851, Harper left Baltimore to live where she would have more options for education and work. She accepted a job teaching sewing at Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, where there were far fewer restrictions on blacks than there were in Maryland.

In 1854, Maryland passed a law that forced free blacks who came to Maryland from the North into slavery; that made it impossible for Harper to come home to Baltimore. Being an outcast from her home, and hearing a tragic story of a freedman who had been sold back into slavery, escaped, returned, and then died, she channeled her anger and grief into the abolitionist movement.

Very possibly reinforcing her thinking was the radical abolitionist John Brown (not the same John Brown who led the 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry, WV), who headed Union Seminary while Harper was teaching there. Brown went on to lead an 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, for which he was convicted of treason. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the people who comforted Brown's wife as Mrs. Brown awaited her husband's execution.

Hired by a New England anti-slavery group, Harper lectured widely in the East and continued to work on her poetry and essays. She became friends with Susan B. Anthony and spoke on the rights of women. For a time, she lived in a home that served as a station on the Underground Railroad, and she spent many an hour listening to the stories of escapees and giving them comfort. In 1859, the Anglo-African Magazine published her story, "The Two Offers," one of the first short stories by an African American writer published in the United States.

Her experiences found their way into her poetry, essays, stories, and lectures. Her writing and activism slowed in 1860 when she married Fenton Harper and had a child, Mary. After her husband's death in 1863, she returned to the lecture circuit and to her prolific writing career. She had a temporary falling out with some of her colleagues in the suffrage movement when she opined that black men should have priority in getting the vote.

In 1892, her novel, Iola Leroy, saw publication. One of the first novels to be published by an African American woman, the book tells the story of a young woman of mixed race, raised as white, who comes to embrace her identity and stand up for her rights as an African American and as a woman, finding happiness with a man of similar background and beliefs. Aware of the complexities of life, Harper could write a book that contained a happily-ever-after romance; she could believe that a woman could be happy and accomplished without being married; and she could lecture widely on the importance of motherhood. In a talk given before the Brooklyn Literary Society in 1892, she said:

Every mother should endeavor to be a true artist. I do not mean by this that every woman should be a painter, sculptor, musician, poet, or writer, but the artist who will write on the table of childish innocence thoughts she will not blush to see read in the light of eternity and printed amid the archives of heaven . . .

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in 1911 of heart disease. Though popular and well-received in her time, like many writers of color and women writers, her work was soon brushed aside and neglected. Since the late 1980s, however, she and her work have enjoyed renewed interest. Four of her novels, including Iola Leroy, have been republished, and articles about her writing have appeared in prestigious scholarly journals. According to Frances Smith Foster, who edited a collection of Harper's work, she was "the best known and best loved African American poet prior to Paul Laurence Dunbar." Harper's publications, as well as her life, paved the way for other women and African Americans to have careers as writers.

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