African American writer, lecturer, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was a notable voice in social reform in the nineteenth century. She captivated black and white audiences alike with dramatic recitations of her antislavery and social reform verse.
Dubbed the “Bronze Muse” in honor of her skills as both a writer and lecturer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is regarded as one of the most extraordinarily accomplished African American women of the nineteenth century. She was, for example, a respected poet whose ten volumes of verse sold well enough to provide her with a modest income. In 1859, she became the first black woman to publish a short story. And her only novel, Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted (1892), was the first book by a black writer to depict the life of African Americans in the Reconstruction-era South. (Many colleges and universities across the United States still feature it as part of their women’s studies and black literature courses.) But it was as a lecturer that Harper had her greatest impact, beginning in the antebellum period as an antislavery activist and ending up as a crusader for women’s rights and moral reform.
Harper was born of free parents in September of 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised there by an aunt and uncle after being orphaned at an early age. She attended a private school run by her uncle until she was 13, when she went to work as a housekeeper for a family that owned a bookstore. Harper’s employer encouraged her to spend her free time reading and writing, and before long the young woman was composing her first poems and essays. Her first book, Forest Leaves (also known as Autumn Leaves), a compilation of poetry and prose, was published about 1845.
After leaving Maryland in 1850, Harper taught school for a while in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was in Pennsylvania that she became active in the Underground Railroad. She also launched her career as an antislavery lecturer during this period, traveling extensively throughout New England, New York, Ohio, and eastern Canada to speak as often as three or four times a day. On May 13, 1857, for example, she addressed the New York Antislavery Society. In an excerpt of what is believed to be the only surviving example of one of Harper’s antislavery lectures, as quoted from Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers, 1635-1935, Harper called for an end to slavery: “A hundred thousand newborn babes are annually added to the victims of slavery; twenty thousand lives are annually sacrificed on the plantations of the South. Such a sight should send a thrill of horror through the nerves of civilization and impel the heart of humanity to lofty deeds. So it might, if men had not found out a fearful alchemy by which this blood can be transformed into gold. Instead of listening to the cry of agony, they listen to the ring of dollars and stoop down to pick up the coin.”
The 1850s proved to be a productive time for Harper, and in addition to her public speaking engagements, she also published several volumes of poetry. In much of her writing, Harper argued for social change and in support of her beliefs. One of her most critically acclaimed works, the abolitionist poem “Bury Me in a Free Land, ” was published in 1854 in her popular book Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. This collection saw print in over 20 editions. “Mrs. Harper’s verse is frankly propagandist, a metrical extension of her life dedicated to the welfare of others, ” commented Joan R. Sherman in Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century. “She believed in art for humanity’s sake.”
In 1860, Harper married Fenton Harper, a farmer, and briefly retired from public speaking. The couple had one daughter, Mary. After her husband’s death in 1864, Harper returned to the lecture circuit. She also published what many critics believed to be her best work, Moses: A Story of the Nile, a collection of poems and an essay, under the name Mrs. F.E.W. Harper around this time. An extended biblical allegory written in blank verse and lacking overt racial references, Moses tells the story of the Hebrew patriarch by focusing on his self-sacrifice and leadership skills. “The poem’s elevated diction, concrete imagery, and formal meter harmoniously blend to magnify the noble adventure of Moses’ life and the mysterious grandeur of his death, ” judged Sherman inInvisible Poets. “Mrs. Harper maintains the pace of her long narrative and its tone of reverent admiration with scarcely a pause for moralizing. Moses is Mrs. Harper’s most original poem and one of considerable power.”
After the American Civil War, Harper continued to lecture on behalf of the women’s movement and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Her top priority, however, was the race issue; while on a lengthy tour across the South during the late 1860s and early 1870s, she saw firsthand that former slaves endured conditions nearly as intolerable as those that had existed before the war. (And as lynchings and other forms of racial intimidation became more commonplace, the lives of Southern blacks took on an increased sense of desperation.) Consequently, like many of her fellow black activists, she felt that securing rights for women could wait until African Americans were guaranteed certain basic freedoms. Harper addressed this very topic on February 23, 1891, at a meeting of the National Council of Women. Her remarks were originally published in 1891 in Transactions and later reprinted in Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings. In her introduction, Harper declared: “I deem it a privilege to present the negro, not as a mere dependent asking for northern sympathy or southern compassion, but as a member of the body politic who has a claim upon the nation for justice, simple justice, which is the right of every race, upon the government for protection, which is the rightful claim of every citizen, and upon our common Christianity for the best influences which can be exerted for peace on earth and goodwill to man.”
In the same speech, Harper appealed to women of all colors to work towards social equality: “[T]here are some rights more precious than the rights of property or the claims of superior intelligence: they are the rights of life and liberty, and to these the poorest and humblest man has just as much right as the richest and most influential man in the country. Ignorance and poverty are conditions which men outgrow. Since the sealed volume was opened by the crimson hand of war, in spite of entailed ignorance, poverty, opposition, and a heritage of scorn, schools have sprung like wells in the desert dust. It has been estimated that about two millions have learned to read…. Millions of dollars have flowed into the pockets of the race, and freed people have not only been able to provide for themselves, but reach out their hands to impoverished owners.”
At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Harper delivered a speech entitled “Women’s Political Future.” In this presentation, she reiterated her belief in the ability of women to exert a strong moral force for social change. Her address was published in May Wright Sewall’s 1894 book entitled The World’s Congress of Representative Women. “The tendency of the present age, with its restlessness, religious upheavals, failures, blunders, and crimes, is toward broader freedom, an increase of knowledge, the emancipation of thought, and a recognition of the brotherhood of man; in this movement woman, as the companion of man, must be a sharer, ” declared Harper. “So close is the bond between man and woman that you can not raise one without lifting the other. The world can not move without woman’s sharing in the movement, and to help give a right impetus to that movement is woman’s highest privilege.”
Harper also presented her ideas on suffrage in this speech, favoring an educated voter of either sex over the then-current system of only men being allowed to vote in the United States: “I do not believe in unrestricted and universal suffrage for either men or women. I believe in moral and educational tests. I do not believe that the most ignorant and brutal man is better prepared to add value to the strength and durability of the government than the most cultured, upright, and intelligent woman. I do not think that willful ignorance should swamp earnest intelligence at the ballot box, nor that educated wickedness, violence, and fraud should cancel the votes of honest men. The unsteady hands of a drunkard can not cast the ballot of a freeman. The hands of lynchers are too red with blood to determine the political character of the government for even four short years. The ballot in the hands of woman means power added to influence. How well she will use that power I can not foretell. Great evils stare us in the face that need to be throttled by the combined power of an upright manhood and an enlightened womanhood; and I know that no nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment and happiness if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered. China compressed the feet of her women and thereby retarded the steps of her men. The elements of a nation’s weakness must ever be found at the hearthstone.”
Harper continued to write and lecture for social reform until her death on February 22, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Among the notable posts she held during her life included director of the American Association of Education of Colored Youth, executive member of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and founding member and vice-president of the National Association of Colored Women. Eugene B. Redmond, discussing Harper’s writing in Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History, noted: “Up until the Civil War, Mrs. Harper’s favorite themes were slavery, its harshness, and the hypocrisies of America. She is careful to place graphic details where they will get the greatest result, especially when the poems are read aloud.” He continued: “Critics generally agree that Mrs. Harper’s poetry is not original or brilliant. But she is exciting and comes through with powerful flashes of imagery and statement.” W.E.B. DuBois, writing an editorial for Crisis after Harper’s death, opined: “It is, however, for her attempts to forward literature among colored people, that Frances Harper deserves to be remembered. She was not a great singer, but she had some sense of song; she was not a great writer, but [what] she wrote [was] worth reading. She was, above all, sincere. She took her writing soberly and earnestly; she gave her life to it.”