Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1825 – 1911
Frances Ellen Watkins was born September 24, 1825 to free black parents in the slave state of Maryland. Her mother died when she was two years old, and she was raised by an aunt and uncle. She attended her uncle’s school for free black children until the age of thirteen, when she was forced by circumstances to leave school and go to work.
The family for whom she worked ran a book store, which provided a rich source of reading material for the young woman and she was able to educate herself enough to obtain a position in Ohio, teaching domestic science, thus becoming the first black woman to teach in a vocational school. She soon tired of teaching, however, and joined a traveling circuit of lecturers, preaching on the evils of slavery and recounting the horrors slaves faced as they attempted to flee on the Underground Railroad. In 1854 she was hired by the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine as a full-time lecturer.
Married in 1860 to Fenton Harper, she had one daughter before being widowed in 1864. To support herself and her young daughter she returned to the lecture circuit but changed her message from railing against the evils of slavery to lecturing on temperance, and on the difficulties women faced in their battle for equal rights.
As a single mother struggling to support her daughter, Frances Harper’s life was not an easy one. Her travel schedule was exhausting; she sometimes gave three speeches a day to Sunday school audiences, women’s clubs, and Women’s Christian Temperance Union conferences, exhorting women, both black and white, to seek both social and economic power, including suffrage. A founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, she gave the closing speech at the Association’s 1873 conference, noting that “as much as white women need the vote, colored women need it more,” thus attempting to illustrate the unique problems faced by women of her race.
Despite the paucity of her education, Harper was a prolific writer, producing many poems and short stories. Her only full-length novel, Iola Leroy: Or Shadows Uplifted, was published when she was sixty-seven years old and was reprinted in 1987. She continued to work for equality for women, especially those of her own race, until her death in 1911 at the age of 87.
Happy Birthday, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper!