Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: Poetry & Fiction
As a poet, author, and lecturer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a household name in the nineteenth century. Not only was she the first African American woman to publish a short story, but she was also an influential abolitionist, suffragist, and reformer that co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born on September 24, 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. An only child, Harper was born to free African American parents. Unfortunately, by the time she was three years old, both of her parents died and she became an orphan. Harper’s aunt and uncle, Henrietta and William Watkins, raised her after her parent’s death. Her uncle was an outspoken abolitionist, practiced self-taught medicine, organized a black literary society and established his own school in 1820 called the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. Frances Harper learned from her uncle’s activism and she attended the Watkins Academy until she was thirteen years old. At that age, children were typically expected to join the workforce. Harper took a job as a nursemaid and seamstress for a white family that owned a bookshop. Her love for books blossomed as she spent any free time she had in the shop. By age twenty-one, Harper wrote her first small volume of poetry called Forest Leaves.
When she was twenty-six years old, Harper left Maryland and became the first woman instructor at Union Seminary, a school for free African Americans in Wilberforce, Ohio. She taught domestic science for a year and then moved to a school in York, Pennsylvania. Shortly after she began working as a teacher, her home state of Maryland passed a law stating that free African Americans living in the North were no longer allowed to enter the state of Maryland. If found, they would be imprisoned and sold into slavery. Harper was now unable to return to her own home. She decided to devote all of her efforts to the antislavery cause. Harper moved in with William and Letitia George Still who were abolitionists and friends of her uncle. William Still became known as the father of the Underground Railroad while he was an office clerk and janitor in the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Supported by the Stills, Harper began writing poetry for antislavery newspapers. Her poem “Eliza Harris,” was published in The Liberator, and in Frederick Douglass’ Paper. By the time Harper left Philadelphia in 1854, she had compiled her second small volume of poetry called Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects with an introduction by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
For the next eight years, Harper traveled across the United States and Canada as a lecturer. After her first speech entitled, “The Elevation and Education of our People,” she was hired as a traveling lecturer for various organizations including the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. In addition to her antislavery lectures, Harper was committed to the struggle for women’s rights and the temperance movement. She included her observations from her travels in her writings and began to publish novels, short stories, and poetry focused on issues of racism, feminism and classism. In 1859, Harper published a short story in the Anglo-African Magazine called “The Two Offers.” This short story about women’s education became was the first short story published by an African American woman.
On November 22, 1860, Frances married Fenton Harper and the couple had a daughter named Mary. Unfortunately, Fenton Harper died four years later. After her husband’s death, Frances Harper began touring again and formed alliances with prominent women’s rights activists. In 1866, Harper spoke at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York. Her famous speech entitled, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” urged her fellow attendees to include African American women in their fight for suffrage. She emphasized that Black women were facing the double burden of racism and sexism at the same time, therefore the fight for women’s suffrage must include suffrage for African Americans. The next day, the Convention held a meeting to organize the American Equal Rights Association to work for suffrage for both African Americans and women. However, the organization soon split over the decision to support the fifteenth amendment, granting African American men the right to vote. Harper, along with Frederick Douglass and many others supported the amendment and helped to form the American Woman Suffrage Association.
Harper spent the rest of her career working for the pursuit of equal rights, job opportunities, and education for African American women. She was a co-founder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and the director of the American Association of Colored Youth. She was also the superintendent of the Colored Sections of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Unions. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died on February 22, 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
(Source: Women’s History)
A Rediscovered Novel by Frances E.W. Harper
Edited By Frances Smith Foster
Miriam sat in her lowly cabin, painfully rocking her body to and fro;
for a great sorrow had fallen upon her life. She had been the mother of
three children, two had died in their infancy, and now her last, her
loved and only child was gone, but not like the rest, who had passed
away almost as soon as their little feet had touched the threshold of
existence. She had been entangled in the mazes of sin and sorrow; and
her sun had gone down in darkness. It was the old story. Agnes, fair,
young and beautiful, had been a slave, with no power to protect herself
from the highest insults that brutality could offer to innocence. Bound
hand and foot by that system, which has since gone down in wrath, and
blood, and tears, she had fallen a victim to the wiles and power of her
master; and the result was the introduction of a child of shame into a
world of sin and suffering; for herself an early grave; and for her
mother a desolate and breaking heart.
While Miriam was sitting down hopelessly beneath the shadow of her
mighty grief, gazing ever and anon on the pale dead face, which seemed
to bear in its sad but gentle expression, an appeal from earth to
heaven, some of the slaves would hurry in, and looking upon the fair
young face, would drop a word of pity for the weeping mother, and then
hurry on to their appointed tasks. All day long Miriam sat alone with
her dead, except when these kindly interruptions broke upon the monotony
of her sorrow.
In the afternoon, Camilla, the only daughter of her master, entered her
cabin, and throwing her arms around her neck exclaimed, "Oh! Mammy, I am
so sorry I didn't know Agnes was dead. I've been on a visit to Mr. Le
Grange's plantation, and I've just got back this afternoon, and as soon
as I heard that Agnes was dead I hurried to see you. I would not even
wait for my dinner. Oh! how sweet she looks," said Camilla, bending over
the corpse, "just as natural as life. When did she die?"
"This morning, my poor, dear darling!" And another burst of anguish
relieved the overcharged heart.
"Oh! Mammy, don't cry, I am so sorry; but what is this?" said she, as
the little bundle of flannel began to stir.
"That is poor Agnes' baby."
"Agnes' baby? Why, I didn't know that Agnes had a baby. Do let me see
Tenderly the grandmother unfolded the wrappings, and presented the
little stranger. He was a beautiful babe, whose golden hair, bright blue
eyes and fair complexion showed no trace of the outcast blood in his
"Oh, how beautiful!" said Camilla; "surely this can't be Agnes' baby. He
is just as white as I am, and his eyes--what a beautiful blue--and his
hair, why it is really lovely."
"He is very pretty, Miss, but after all he is only a slave."
A slave. She had heard that word before; but somehow, when applied to
that fair child, it grated harshly on her ear; and she said, "Well, I
think it is a shame for him to be a slave, when he is just as white as
anybody. Now, Mammy," said she, throwing off her hat, and looking
soberly into the fire, "if I had my way, he should never be a slave."
"And why can't you have your way? I'm sure master humors you in
"I know that; Pa does everything I wish him to do; but I don't know how
I could manage about this. If his mother were living, I would beg Pa to
set them both free, and send them North; but his mother is gone; and,
Mammy, we couldn't spare you. And besides, it is so cold in the North,
you would freeze to death, and yet, I can't bear the thought of his
being a slave. I wonder," said she, musing to herself, "I wonder if I
couldn't save him from being a slave. Now I have it," she said, rising
hastily, her face aglow with pleasurable excitement. "I was reading
yesterday a beautiful story in the Bible about a wicked king, who wanted
to kill all the little boys of a people who were enslaved in his land,
and how his mother hid her child by the side of a river, and that the
king's daughter found him and saved his life. It was a fine story; and I
read it till I cried. Now I mean to do something like that good
princess. I am going to ask Pa, to let me take him to the house, and
have a nurse for him, and bring him up like a white child, and never let
him know that he is colored."
Miriam shook her head doubtfully; and Camilla, looking disappointed,
said, "Don't you like my plan?"
"Laws, honey, it would be fustrate, but your Pa wouldn't hear to it."
"Yes, he would, Mammy, because I'll tell him I've set my heart upon it,
and won't be satisfied if he don't consent. I know if I set my heart
upon it, he won't refuse me, because he always said he hates to see me
fret. Why, Mammy, he bought me two thousand dollars worth of jewelry
when we were in New York, just because I took a fancy to a diamond set
which I saw at Tiffany's. Anyhow, I am going to ask him." Eager and
anxious to carry out her plan, Camilla left the cabin to find her
father. He was seated in his library, reading Homer. He looked up, as
her light step fell upon the threshold, and said playfully, "What is
your wish, my princess? Tell me, if it is the half of my kingdom."
Encouraged by his manner, she drew near, perched upon his knee, and
said; "Now, you must keep your word, Pa. I have a request to make, but
you must first promise me that you will grant it."
"But I don't know what it is. I can't tell. You might want me to put my
head in the fire."
"Oh no, Pa, you know I don't!"
"Well, you might wish me to run for Congress."
"Oh no, Pa, I know that you hate politics."
"Well, darling, what is your request?"
"No; tell me first that you will grant it. Now, don't tease me, Pa; say
yes, and I will tell you."
"Well, yes; if it is anything in reason."
"Well, it is in reason, let me tell you, Pa. To-day, after I came home,
I asked Annette where was Agnes, and she told me she was dead. Oh I was
so sorry; and so before I got my dinner I hastened to Mammy's cabin, and
found poor Mammy almost heart-broken, and Agnes lying dead, but looking
just as natural as life."
"She was dead, but had left one of the dearest little babies I ever saw.
Why, Pa, he is just as white as we are; and I told Mammy so, but she
said it didn't matter; 'he is a poor slave, just like the rest of us.'
Now, Pa, I don't want Agnes' baby to be a slave. Can't you keep him from
growing up a slave?"
"How am I to do that, my little Abolitionist?"
"No, Pa, I am not an Abolitionist. I heard some of them talk when I was
in New York, and I think they are horrid creatures; but, Pa, this child
is so white, nobody would ever know that he had one drop of Negro blood
in his veins. Couldn't we take him out of that cabin, and make all the
servants promise that they would never breathe a word about his being
colored, and let me bring him up as a white child?"
"Well," said Mr. Le Croix, bursting into a hearty laugh, "that is a
capital joke; my little dewdrop talk of bringing up a child! Why,
darling, you would tire of him in a week."
"Oh no, Pa, I wouldn't! Just try me; if it is only for a week."
"Why, Sunbeam, it is impossible. Who ever heard of such a thing as a
Negro being palmed upon society as a white person?"
"Negro! Pa, he is just as white as you are, and his eyes are as blue as
"Still he belongs to the Negro race; and one drop of that blood in his
veins curses all the rest. I would grant you anything in reason, but
this is not to be thought of. Were I to do so I would immediately lose
caste among all the planters in the neighborhood; I would be set down as
an Abolitionist, and singled out for insult and injury. Ask me anything,
Camilla, but that."
"Oh, Pa, what do you care about social position? You never hunt, nor
entertain company, nor take any part in politics. You shut yourself up
in your library, year after year, and pore over your musty books, and
hardly any one knows whether you are dead or alive. And I am sure that
we could hide the secret of his birth, and pass him off as the orphan
child of one of our friends, and that will be the truth; for Agnes was
our friend; at least I know she was mine."
"Well, I'll see about it; now, get down, and let me finish reading this
The next day Camilla went again to the cabin of Miriam; but the overseer
had set her to a task in the field, and Agnes' baby was left to the care
of an aged woman who was too old to work in the fields, but not being
entirely past service, she was appointed as one of the nurses for the
babies and young children, while their mothers were working in the
Camilla, feeling an unusual interest in the child, went to the
overseer, and demanded that Miriam should be released from her tasks,
and permitted to attend the child.
In vain the overseer plead the pressure for hands, and the busy season.
Camilla said it did not matter, she wanted Miriam, and she would have
her; and he, feeling that it was to his interest to please the little
lady, had Miriam sent from the field to Camilla.
"Mammy, I want you to come to the house. I want you to come and be my
Mammy. Agnes is dead; your husband is gone, and I want you to come and
bring the baby to the house, and I am going to get him some beautiful
dresses, and some lovely coral I saw in New Orleans, and I am going to
dress him so handsomely, that I believe Pa will feel just as I do, and
think it a shame that such a beautiful child should be a slave."
Camilla went home, and told her father what she had done. And he,
willing to compromise with her, readily consented; and in a day or two
the child and his grandmother were comfortably ensconced in their new
The winter passed; the weeks ripened into months, and the months into
years, and the child under the pleasant dispensations of love and
kindness grew to be a fine, healthy, and handsome boy.
One day, when Mr. Le Croix was in one of his most genial moods, Camilla
again introduced the subject which she had concealed, but not abandoned.
"Now, father, I do think it is a shame for this child to be a slave,
when he is just as white as anybody; I am sure we could move away from
here to France, and you could adopt him as your son, and no one would
know anything of his birth and parentage. He is so beautiful, I would
like him for my brother; and he looks like us anyhow."
Le Croix flushed deep at these words, and he looked keenly into his
daughter's face; but her gaze was so open, her expression so frank and
artless, he could not think that her words had any covert meaning in
reference to the paternity of the child; but to save that child from
being a slave, and to hide his origin was with her a pet scheme; and, to
use her own words, "she had set her heart upon it."