|September 24, 1825—February 22, 1911 (aged 85)
Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper) was an abolitionist and poet born free in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. Harper's mother died before she was three years old, leaving her an orphan. Harper was raised by her uncle, William Watkins, a teacher at the Academy for Negro Youth and a radical political figure in civil rights. Watkins was a major influence on Harper's political, religious and social views.
Harper attended the Academy for Negro Youth, and the rigorous education she received, along with the political activism of her uncle, affected and influenced her poetry. After she left school in 1839, Harper's first poems were published in abolitionist periodicals, such as Frederick Douglass' Paper. In 1845, Harper's first book of poems, "Forest Leaves," was published.
In 1850, Harper left Baltimore in order to become the first woman to teach at Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her acceptance of the position was met with considerable protest. In 1852, Harper took another teaching position in Pennsylvania. During this time, she lived in an Underground Railroad Station, where she witnessed the workings of the Underground Railroad and the movement of slaves toward freedom. This experience had a profound effect on Harper, her poetry and her later work as an activist. In 1854, Harper was exiled from Maryland because of new slavery laws stating that Black people who came in through the northern border of Maryland could be sold into slavery. This marked the beginning of Harper's activism. She began giving anti-slavery speeches throughout the northern United States and Canada as a representative of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. Her speeches included her prose and poetry, in which she combined the issues of racism, feminism and classism.
In addition to her rigorous lecturing schedule, Harper was also working on a second book of poems, "Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects," published in 1854. While traveling and lecturing, several thousand copies of her books were sold, and Harper donated a large portion of the proceeds to the Underground Railroad. Harper's marriage to Fenton Harper in 1860 slowed down her lecturing schedule, and the birth of their daughter, Mary, in 1862 temporarily put a hold on her oratory career. With the end of the Civil War and death of her husband in 1863, Harper began touring again, giving lectures and publishing poetry in various anti-slavery publications. Harper formed alliances with strong figures in the feminist movement, including Susan. B. Anthony. In 1866, Harper gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention demanding equal rights for all, including Black women. Harper's efforts to raise consciousness on this issue earned her election as vice president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1897.
Harper also published books throughout this period, including "Sketches of Southern Life" (1872), "The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems" (1894), and her well-known novel "Iola Leroy", or "Shadows Uplifted" (1892). "Iola Leroy" is one of the first novels published by a Black woman in the United States. The book tells of her struggles of being separated from her mother, her search for work, and her experience with racist boundaries in nineteenth-century society. The book, like the rest of Harper's career, intertwined the issues of racism, classism, and sexism that otherwise may not have been recognized as related and intersecting.
Critics and scholars generally regard Harper's work in terms of its tremendous historical importance, along with its respectable writing style. Among the general population, Harper's work has been well received and valued. Harper's straightforward style of writing may have contributed to her popularity and her revolutionary success.
Harper continued her important work through her lectures and her writing until her death from heart disease in 1911.