Celebrating Black History Month: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

(Information for this article was taken from the Dictionary of UU Biography.)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African-American woman born in Baltimore in 1825 to free parents and raised by her uncle, the abolitionist William Watkins. Frances developed a love of literature at an early age and began writing poetry, publishing it in the local newspaper. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 she moved to Ohio and Pennsylvania and began working to free escaped slaves on the underground railroad. She became a successful poet, writing poetry that attacked the institution of slavery. She also traveled extensively throughout the country as a popular lecturer speaking out against slavery. She used the proceeds from writing and lecturing to free slaves.

In 1859 Frances Watkins published the first short story written by an African-American, called “The Two Offers.” This work introduced feminist themes. The Dictionary of UU Biography says:

Although cast in fictional form, the piece is actually a sermon on the important life choices made by young people, women in particular. The tale relates the tragedy of a woman who mistakenly thinks romance and married love to be the only goal and center of her life. "Talk as you will of woman's deep capacity for loving," Watkins preached, "of the strength of her affectional nature. I do not deny it; but will the mere possession of any human love, fully satisfy all the demands of her whole being? . . . But woman—the true woman—if you would render her happy, it needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature. Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties."

A lifelong member of the AME church, Watkins was introduced to Unitarians through her work on the underground railroad. Her theology became Unitarian. After the abolition of slavery, Frances Watkins (now married and known as Frances Harper) joined the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia but retained allegiance to both churches.

After the Civil War, Frances Harper began to work for women’s rights, including the right to vote. Although she worked alongside Unitarian women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances challenged the preoccupation of their feminism with white concerns. Many feminists of that day opposed the 14th and 15th amendments because they did not want to give the vote to black men ahead of white women. In her biography at poets.org we read:

In May 1866, [Harper] delivered the speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together” at the National Women’s Rights Convention in New York, sharing the stage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. “You white women speak here of rights," she said. “I speak of wrongs.”

Along with the prominent African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper fought for African-American rights and against the evils of lynching. Her writing was widely published in news magazines and popular journals. She is known today as the “mother of African-American journalism.”

In 1894 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president. She also continued all her life to do local service work in her community.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in 1911. Although her literary reputation declined in the immediate aftermath of her death, her substantial body of work, including poems, short stories, and novels, is being rediscovered and appreciated anew today.

From the Dictionary of UU Biography:

During the 20th century, as her reputation waned and the best of her poetry languished unread. Harper's gravestone fell over and was covered by grass. In her celebrated poem, "Bury Me In a Free Land," she wrote,

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

In recent decades, however, black women and feminists in general have resurrected Harper's legacy. In 1992 African-American Unitarian Universalists honored her and commemorated the one-hundredth anniversary of Iola Leroy by installing a new headstone. In the excavation, the old headstone was uncovered, forgotten but still enduring. Harper's call for full human development—black and white, male and female—also endures, as urgent and vital during these decades following the Civil Rights movement and Women's Liberation as it was during Reconstruction and its aftermath.

For a more complete biography, see: http://uudb.org/articles/francesharper.html

You can read some of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poetry here: