Frances Harper ‘s name doesn’t appear in many, if any, American history textbooks. She is often overlooked for her efforts to fight slavery and promote abolition and women’s suffrage in the United States. As a free black woman living at a time when being a woman and black made an individual less important in the minds of millions, she refused to stop fighting to end slavery and bring equality to all. This piece looks at Frances Harper’s life and service and the accomplishments she helped millions realize.
When the discussion of America’s deep, dark history of slavery and racism starts it often focuses on the tragedies of the slave trade, the horrors of the life of servitude that millions of enslaved Africans endured, and the enduring racism that lingered for over a century. Often lost in the conversation are the deeds of those, even in the 19th century, that fought to bring an end to slavery and racism in the United States.
Of particular note in these conversations should be people like Frances Harper. Harper was a woman, a writer, and a free African-American living in the United States in the 19th century who spoke out in favour of not only the rights of slaves, but of women at a time when both topics were taboo.
A Life of Freedom
Unlike millions of other African-Americans in the U.S. during the 19th century, Frances Ellen Watkins was born a free woman on 24 September 1825 in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents, both free black people, would have little hand in raising her in her youth. At the age of three, her mother died and she was orphaned. Her maternal uncle Reverend William Watkins, along with his wife, took in the young girl and saw to her education and social enrichment.
Rev. Watkins was a well-known civil rights activist at a time when the Civil War was still three decades away and slavery was still an entrenched institution in the American South. It was Rev. Watkins that saw to the education of young Frances, enrolling her at his Academy for Negro Youth.
While Frances found work at the age of 14 as a seamstress, her true calling would be discovered shortly thereafter as a writer and political activist. Her writing career had humble beginnings in 1845 when her first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves, was published. Although she was just 20 at the time, it was clear that France had a bright future as a writer.
Frances would go on to publish another extremely popular book of poems, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), as well as other notable works such as her short story The Two Offers which was published in Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, but it would be three novels that would bring her lasting glory as a writer.
Iola Leroy and Other Novels
Between 1868 and 1888, Frances had a series of three novels published in a Christian magazine that gained greater notoriety for her as a writer. Despite the high profile of these novels and their reception, it was a novel published later that would be considered her first, and perhaps most important, novel.
Iola Leroy was a ground-breaking novel from a female writer, especially an African-American female writer. The novel tells the story of a woman of mixed race, predominantly white, who is born free in Mississippi before the Civil War. Her father, a wealthy white land owner, is married to a mixed race woman who was formerly a slave of his.
While such a marriage was illegal at the time, men with enough wealth would ignore the laws against such unions. After the death of her father, Iola is sold into slavery in the South as a mixed race mulatto. After being freed by the Union Army during the Civil War, Iola struggles to find her family members who have been dispersed during the war. Along the way she battles against prejudice and the struggles facing blacks in the American South.
More than a story about the struggles of one woman, Iola Leroy tackles the issues of education for women, miscegenation, abolition, and reconstruction in America. What made her work with this novel ground-breaking was the fact that she was tackling issues that were divisive and even taboo at the time.
In Service of Others
Frances’ life was not lived simply through written word in the hopes of affecting change, but rather lived in a manner that actively sought to bring change to the world she was living in. Beginning in the 1850s, she attached herself to several anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements and became a teacher and public activist.
Frances travelled throughout the East and Midwest lecturing on the evils of slavery, stomping for abolition, and women’s suffrage. During the American Civil War, she was an active member of the Underground Railroad. Frances risked her own life to hide escaped slaves seeking safe passage to assured freedom in Canada.
After the war, Frances continued her activism and lecture tours. While on tour she routinely read off her own poems, one of the most popular being Bury Me in a Free Land. In 1866 she gave a particularly moving speech to the National Women’s Rights Convention that called for equal rights for all, black women included.
Throughout her life, Frances made it clear through her works, speeches, and activism that she saw the world as a place where everyone truly was created equal. She did not see a world where white men should be held up as superior, followed by men, women, and women of colour. In her later years, Frances worked with the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and had a hand in organizing the National Association of Coloured Women in 1896.
Until her death on 22 February 1911, Frances Harper lived a life of service not only to other people, but to worthy and morally right causes. Her tireless efforts at abolition and women’s suffrage eventually paid off. Sadly, Frances passed away nine years before women gained the right to vote in America. While she may not have been there to experience this achievement, her fingerprints were all over this success for women across the country.