In our final post of National Poetry Month, we are highlighting a poet and novelist who was also a popular public speaker, reformer, teacher, and journalist – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was born in 1825 in Baltimore, a city that was then home to thousands of enslaved people as well as over 10,000 free black individuals, like Frances and her family. Orphaned at age three, she was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Rev. William Watkins, who gave her their last name. Little is known about her parents, not even their names.
Until she was 13, Frances attended a school run by her uncle. Frances was influenced by her uncle’s civil rights work even before she herself became an abolitionist. She began writing poetry at a young age and published her first collection, Forest Leaves, when she was only 20. She became a prolific writer of poems, novels and speeches. Frances made literary history as the first African American woman to publish a short story; The Two Offers was published in 1859 and is a reflection on marriage and women’s education, explicitly avoiding any mention of race or slavery.
Frances left Baltimore to become the first female teacher at Union Seminary in Ohio, a school run by abolitionist John Brown. In 1853, when a new law was enacted that would have allowed Frances to be legally captured and sold into slavery in her home state of Maryland, she moved to the Boston area and began lecturing and writing in support of abolition. The same year, she published Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects, which sold over 10,000 copies and contained one of her most famous works, “Bury Me in a Free Land”:
Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gave of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
Frances married Fenton Harper in 1860. The couple had a daughter, Mary, as well as his children from a previous marriage. She stepped back from public life until after her husband’s death in 1864, when she returned to writing and lecturing. In an 1875 speech at the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, one of her most famous lectures, Frances addressed what she called “the great problem to be solved,” saying “Apparent failure may hold in its rough shell the germs of a success that will blossom in time, and bear fruit throughout eternity.”
Frances was an ardent supporter of women’s enfranchisement who spoke alongside prominent white suffrage leaders, but black women were routinely excluded from white suffrage organizations. In response, black suffragists organized themselves in clubs across the country. Many black clubwomen advocated not only for equal suffrage, but also for greater social reforms that would improve the lives of African Americans, especially in the Jim Crow South. In 1896, Frances cofounded what would become the largest federation of black women’s clubs – the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs – to advocate for issues black women faced because of the double bigotries of racism and sexism. The NACW’s motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” captured their mission.
“No race can afford to neglect the enlightenment of its mothers.” – Frances EW Harper, addressing the Brooklyn Literary Society, 1892
Throughout her career, Frances was respected for her powerful writing style that plainly addressed the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, and classism in her poems, speeches, and novels. In addition to her suffrage work and involvement in the black women’s club movement, she also led activities for black reformers for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and served as director of the American Association of Education of Colored Youth. Until her death from heart disease in 1911, Frances remained a tireless advocate for the oppressed.
“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” – Frances EW Harper, addressing the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City, 1866