Abolitionist Writer Frances E.W. Harper: A Short Bio

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Frances E.W. Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), née Watkins, was a prominent African-African female social reformer and writer of 19th century America. Watkins became an abolitionist orator after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. In 1854, while teaching at a school in York PA, she was scandalized by the wrongful enslavement and death of a free black laborer named Edward Davis.

Watkins entered the anti-slavery lecture circuit in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She published the first edition of her bestseller, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1854. Watkins wove anti-slavery pieces such as The Slave Mother, Eliza Harris, The Slave Auction, A Mother’s Heroism, and The Fugitive’s Wife into a broader religious and moral framework. Watkins also published numerous abolitionist poems, speeches, essays and editorials – such as Be Active (1856), Could We Trace the Record of Every Human Heart (1857), Miss Watkins and the Constitution (1859), and Our Greatest Want (1859). Known by this time as the “bronze muse,” Harper also concerned herself with the broad reconstruction of the nation after the Civil War. She championed the rights of blacks and women in her work with the women’s rights movement. Harper died in 1911 and is buried in Eden Cemetery, an historic African American cemetery outside of Philadelphia.

Dr. Robinson nominated Harper to the Hall of Fame. Robinson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. Her doctoral studies at Emory University concentrated on the History of Christian Thought. Professor Robinson specializes in the history of Western Christian thought and culture, with an emphasis on 19th C. Europe and America. Her research and teaching have focused on issues in theological anthropology and aesthetics; religion, culture, and identity; and religion and art. She has researched Frances Ellen Watkins Harper for several years and is writing a Harper biography.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is set to be inducted into the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum (NAHOF) on Saturday, October 20, 2018 at ceremonies held at 5255 Pleasant Valley Road in Peterboro.

At 1:15 pm the Abolition Symposia will begin with opening remarks and announcements, followed directly by Marcia C. Robinson PhD will present a program on Harper. Dr. Robinson will officially nominate Harper to the Hall of Fame, and sponsors will unveil Harper’s banner which will be installed in the Hall of Fame. A second Harper banner will also be available for outreach exhibits.

At 2:30 pm James L Dumouchel will present on inductee Laura S. Haviland, and at 2:30 Roger Hiemstra PhD. will provide a program on inductee Rev. Samuel J. May.

At 7 pm the Induction ceremonies will be held in the Hall. The Hall of Fame banner for each inductee will be unveiled by the sponsors of the banner following a brief introduction of each inductee. Banner sponsorships of seventy-five dollars are due September 10 with name and affiliation to the inductee.

The public is encouraged to participate in all or parts of the Induction Weekend on Saturday and Sunday October 20 and 21. Registration opens at 8 am Saturday morning October 20 at 5255 Pleasant Valley Road. At 9 am Norman K. Dann PhD, biographer of Gerrit Smith, will conduct a tour of the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark, and the NAHOF Cabinet of Freedom members will host a tour of the Abolition Hall and Museum at 10:30. Both tours will be provided at the same time on Sunday morning for persons unable to attend the Saturday tours.

The Annual meeting for NAHOF members will be held at 11 am on Saturday. At 12:30 pm the Peterboro United Methodist Church will serve a sandwich buffet at NAHOF.

At 5 pm Michael’s Fine Food and Spirits will serve a 19th C. inspired dinner featuring four entrée selections. Dinner reservations and event registrations are due October 5 to NAHOF, 5255 Pleasant Valley Road, Peterboro. For more information call (315) 280-8828 or email nahofm1835@gmail.com.

Portrait of Frances E.W. Harper provided.

One thought on “Abolitionist Writer Frances E.W. Harper: A Short Bio

  1. Carol Kammen

    I wrote this essay for the Ithaca Journal on April 14, 2018

    Frances E. Watkins Harper—abolitionist, temperance advocate, woman’s rights fighter, author and poet—was born in 1825 in Baltimore of free black parents. She was educated at school and when her mother died, she went to live with her uncle who ran a school for African American children.

    Harper began writing poetry and became known for her collection called “Forest Leaves.” She moved to Ohio and taught domestic skills at Union Seminary, a school created by John Brown. Her most famous poem is entitled, “Bury Me in a Free Land.” She married a widower with two children, they had one of their own, and in 1864 Frances Watkins Harper took to the lecture circuit.
    She is credited with being one of the few African American women to cross into and work with women in primarily white organizations: she became a member and promoter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She traveled about, founding women’s clubs and social groups for African American women, and she became a founding member in 1893 and Vice President of the National Association of Colored Women created because of the racism they perceived among white women’s organizations. Frances Harper died in 1911 in Philadelphia and is buried there, recognized as one of the “most prominent African American female reformers.”

    Harper came to Ithaca in 1888 as a WCTU lecturer, arriving here from Elmira where she had also spoken. She spent a week in Ithaca appearing at the A.M.E. Zion Church on Wheat Street.
    With unusual facility, reported the newspaper account of her talk, “of expression and apt historical allusions she demonstrated the magnitude of the work of the” WCTU. “I hold,” quoted the paper, that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union has in its hands one of the greatest opportunities that God ever pressed into the hands of the womanhood of any country.” Its conflict, she noted, is “not the contest of a social club, but a moral warfare for an imperiled civilization.”
    Frances Watkins Harper was introduced at that occasion by Mrs. Prof. Jones—who was Caroline Jones, wife of a Cornell professor of mathematics.
    From Ithaca, Francis Harper went to Fort Covinton, New York in the North County, where she worked among the “colored women.”

    Harper’s influence did not end with her visit in 1888 for shortly after, African American women in Ithaca formed a Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Club. Minutes of those club meetings do not seem to exist.

    In 1918 members of the Frances Harper Woman’s Club wrote an open letter to President Woodrow Wilson hoping he would stay the death sentence on thirteen black men of the 24th Infantry who were involved with the Houston [Texas] Riot in the summer of 1917. That letter was signed by Matilda Washington, president, Jessie Johnson, Enola McGill, Leona Hammond and Margaret Thomas and it was sent from 5 Central Avenue in Ithaca.

    In 1918 Louise Cooper of 577 West Green Street wrote a rather startling letter to the “Ithaca Daily News,” to point out that contrary to a current rumor that “all the colored women are going to vote for a local law to enforce prohibition on the City of Ithaca. Mrs. Cooper commented that “colored women” were as divided as were white women on the issue, and had a clear economic stake in not supporting prohibition. She noted that “many of our men work in clubs, hotels and restaurants and it would be impossible for them to get work in other places, no matter how well qualified” they might be. The reason she gave was “on account of race prejudice.” Then Mrs. Cooper asked, are the white people of Ithaca going to “give these men work if their wives vote for no license?” The reader can hear her implied, ‘of course not.’

    She also noted that “liquor hasn’t been our besetting sin: we don’t fill the jails, county houses and asylums.” The Mrs. Cooper flung into the argument the charge: is it the colored people of Ithaca who have the help of the Associated Charities [meaning the early form of the United Way]? No, she answered, “I know of worthy cases where application has been made and no help given. Let it be understood the colored women who do not vote for license [for allowing the sale of alcohol] are voting for their own livelihoods.”
    Alarmed that members of the Associated Charities might take umbrage and refuse aid in the future, members of the Frances Harper Woman’s Club replied in the form of a letter to the editor, saying that they “wish to correct the statement in the paper” that they pointed out “conveyed the idea that no colored residents” had received aid from the associated Charities, which was certainly not true. They wrote that the Associated Charities had aided families in need and members of the Frances W. Harper Club would not want the leaders of the Associated Charities to “think we are ungrateful.” We acknowledge receipt of aid to thirty colored persons whose names,” they submitted but were not published.

    The Frances Harper Club went on to hold mother daughter dinners, to support community education, and it became the Serv-Us League the organization that spearheaded the creation of the South Side Center.


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