Celebrating Black Female Freedom Fighters: Frances E.W. Harper

To learn more on Frances E.W. Harper’s writings and her impact on politics in her day, read Discarded Legacy.  Available at national booksellers.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), “the mother of African-American journalism”  used her immense writing and oratorical skills to advocate for abolition, civil rights, women’s rights and educational opportunities for all. She was the first Black American ever to publish a short story.

Over the course of her activist life, she served as superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a member of the American Women’s Suffrage Association, and the director of the American Association of Colored Youth. She also helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and helped found the National Association of Colored Women along with Ida B. Wells.

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. — Frances E. W. Harper

Born to free Black parents, Ms. Harper began writing poetry at a young age. She published her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves at the age of 20.  At the age of 25, she became a teacher at a seminary school run by abolitionist John Brown.  Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (which allowed even for free Blacks to be captured and sold into slavery), Ms. Harper dedicated her own life  and writings to the fight for abolition.

A government which can protect and defend its citizens from wrong and outrage and does not is vicious. A government which would do it and cannot is weak; and where human life is insecure through either weakness or viciousness in the administration of law, there must be a lack of justice and where this is wanting, nothing can make up the deficiency. — Frances E.W. Harper

Ms. Harper was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing frequently for anti-slavery newspapers, she published the following works which touched upon subjects ranging from Black life and Reconstruction to motherhood, separation and death:

Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)
Poems (1857)
Sketches of Southern Life (1872)
The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems(1892)
Iola Leroy (1892)
The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems (1894)
Atlanta Offering (1895)

In 1860, the writer married Fenton Harper, cared for his three children from a previous marriage and gave birth to a daughter. Sadly, her husband died just four years later. She supported herself through a series of speaking engagements in which she spoke on educational access, civil rights and women’s suffrage. One of her most famous speeches was “Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race.” This speech garnered her a two-year lecture tour with the Anti-Slavery Society.

It is said that the Negro is ignorant. But why is he ignorant? It comes with ill grace from a man who has put out my eyes to make a parade of my blindness,–to reproach me for my poverty when he has wronged me of my money…. If he is poor, what has become of the money he has been earning for the last two hundred and fifty years? Years ago, it was said cotton fights and cotton conquers for American slavery. The Negro helped build up that great cotton power in the South, and in the North his sigh was in the whir of its machinery, and his blood and tears upon the warp and woof of its manufactures. – Frances E. W. Harper


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