57 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

Tammie Jenkins


The years immediately following the abolishment of slavery in the United States signified a transition in the expectation of the larger society and their role in the development of their community and acquirement of citizenships. Newly freed, Black people endeavored to integrate themselves into these narratives and to consider ways that they could achieve the American Dream. During these critical years, Black activists and scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey, who began proposing ways that Black Americans could either assimilate or leave the United States as part of a mass exodus back to Africa. DuBois was expounding his notions of a double consciousness which he felt that Black Americans possessed, as vehicle for viewing the world from multiple perspectives including their own. Whereas, Washington taunted the idea that Black Americans needed to adapt skills that demonstrated their usefulness and conformity to the expectations of the larger society. Meanwhile, Garvey encouraged Black Americans to return to Africa and build communities in their homeland. These men were highly vocal and used their words as well as oratorical attributes to present their thoughts in public spaces. Women such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper began entering these spaces and expressing their ideas regarding the role of Black people in a post-slavery United States through their written and oral texts.

Frances Ellen Harper (née Watkins) was born on September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents have been identified as free persons of color who passed away while she was a young girl. Frances was reared by her maternal uncle, Reverend William Watkins, a civil rights activist, and his wife, Harriet. Harper received her academic and vocational education at Academy for Negro Youth. At the age of fourteen, Frances worked as a seamstress before moving to Ohio and acquiring employment as a school teacher at Union Seminary. By age twenty, Frances had published a book of poetry titled Forest Leaves. She resigned her teaching position and pursued employment as a traveling lecturer with the American Anti-Slavery Society. Harper continued to publish poetry and deliver speeches until she met and married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children in 1860. From their union a daughter, Mary Frances Harper was born. Following her marriage, Frances withdrew from public life and assumed the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker until the death of her husband, Fenton.

Harper returned to public life as a professional lecturer, abolitionist, and author in an effort to provide for her family and to bring socially relevant subject matter such as temperance, women’s suffrage, and civil rights into larger societal conversations. Frances possessed an oratorical style commonly associated with masculinized speech patterns; yet, her written texts such as Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, Bury Me in a Free Land, and Slave Auction transcended the binary of gender. This enabled her to rewrite many of the social expectations and stereotypes regarding Black women through her engagement in meaningful and reciprocal relationships with her audiences and readers. The Slave Auction is a poem first published in 1854, in which Harper draws on the history of African enslavement in the United States. She retells the story of Black mothers helplessly watching as their daughters were sold to the highest bidder. While Bury Me in a Free Land addresses slavery and its atrocities from the perspective of the enslaved and that of their descendants. However, her better known work Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, in which each of the Black female characters embarked on a search for a personal “truth”. Iola Leroy, the protagonist, uses her lived experiences and social interactions with other characters to reconstruct her understandings of the larger society and her role in these discourses. Harper’s texts embodied the expectations of the Black community blended with larger societal discourses in ways that challenged or recreated these issues. She uses thematic or situationally constructed knowledge to redefine her narratives by providing the historical context or fictionalized testimonials for events such as slavery, miscegenation, and freedom in ways that recreated these narratives as intergenerational conversations. Similar, to the philosophical perspectives which were integral attributes in the works of DuBois, Washington, and Garvey, Harper used her lived experiences and social interactions to articulate ways for Black people to build their communities and uplift the race. She encouraged education and activism as vehicles for social change and communal advancement.

Works Cited:

Hollis, Robbin, Ed. “Introduction” Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, New York: Penguin Press, 2010.

Sanborn, Geoffrey. Mother’s Milk: Frances Harper and the Circulation of Blood. ELH, vol. 72, no. 3, 2005, pp. 691-715.

Stancliff, Michael. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the  Rise of a Modern State. New York: Routledge, 2010.


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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature Copyright © by Tammie Jenkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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