Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an African American abolitionist and poet. Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at twenty and her first novel, the widely praised Iola Leroy, at age 67.
Read Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, free from Project Gutenberg.
Frances Ellen Watkins was born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland. After her mother died when she was three years old in 1828, Watkins was orphaned. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. She was educated at the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by her uncle Rev. William Watkins, who was a civil rights activist. He was a major influence on her life and work. At fourteen, she found work as a seamstress.
Frances Watkins had her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845 (it has been lost). Her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, published in 1854, was extremely popular. Over the next few years, it was reprinted in 20 editions. Many African American women's service clubs named themselves in her honor, and across the nation, in cities such as St. Louis, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh, F. E. W. Harper Leagues and Frances E. Harper Women's Christian Temperance Unions thrived well into the twentieth century.
In 1850, Watkins moved to Ohio, where she worked as the first woman teacher at Union Seminary, established by the Ohio Conference of the AME Church. (Union closed in 1863 when the AME Church diverted its funds to purchase Wilberforce University.) The school in Wilberforce was run by the Rev. John Brown (not the same as the abolitionist). In 1853, Watkins joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became a traveling lecturer for the group.
In 1860, she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. They had a daughter together in 1862. For a time Frances withdrew from the lecture circuit. Fenton died in 1864.
Frances Harper was a strong supporter of prohibition and woman's suffrage. She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolition. She often would read her poetry at the public meetings, including the extremely popular Bury Me in a Free Land. She was connected with national leaders in suffrage, and in 1866 gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women.
She also continued with her writing and continued to publish poetry. In 1892 she published Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. One of the first novels by an African-American woman, it sold well and was reviewed widely.
Harper continued with her political activism, and in 1897 was elected Vice-President of the National Association of Colored Women.
Frances Harper died on February 22, 1911.