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Make me a grave wher’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a loft hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow upon my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom…
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
Yes, Ethiopia yet shall stretch
Her bleeding hands abroad;
Her cry of agony shall reach
The burning throne of God.
The tyrant's yoke from off her neck,
His fetters from her soul,
The mighty hand of God shall break
And spurn the base control.
Redeemed from dust, and freed from chains,
Her sons shall lift their eyes;
From lofty hills and verdant plains
Shall shouts of triumph rise.
Upon the dark, despairing brow
Shall play a smile of peace;
For God shall bend unto her woe,
And bid her sorrows cease.
'Neath sheltering vines and stately palms
Shall laughing children play;
And aged sires, with joyous psalms,
Shall gladden every day.
Secure by night and blest by day,
Shall pass her happy hours;
Within her peaceful bowers.
Thy bleeding hands abroad;
Thy cry of agony shall reach
And find the throne of God.
Men of Cleveland, had a vulture
Sought a timid dove for prey
Would you not, with human pity,
Drive the gory bird away?
Had you seen a feeble lambkin,
Shrinking from a wolf so bold,
Would ye not to shield the trembler,
In your arms have made its fold?
But when she, a hunted sister,
Stretched her hands that ye might save,
Colder far than Zembla's regions,
Was the answer that ye gave.
On the Union's bloody altar,
Was your hapless victim laid;
Mercy, truth, and justice shuddered,
But your hands would give no aid.
And ye sent her back to the torture,
Robbed of freedom and of fright.
Thrust the wretched, captive stranger.
Back to slavery's gloomy night.
Back where brutal men may trample,
On her honor and her fame;
And unto her lips so dusky,
Press the cup of woe and shame.
There is blood upon our city,
Dark and dismal is the stain;
And your hands would fail to cleanse it,
Though Lake Erie ye should drain.
There's a curse upon your Union,
Fearful sounds are in the air;
As if thunderbolts were framing,
Answers to the bondsman's prayer.
Ye may offer human victims,
Like the heathen priests of old;
And may barter manly honor
For the Union and for gold.
But ye can not stay the whirlwind,
When the storm begins to break;
And our God doth rise in judgment,
For the poor and needy's sake.
And, your sin-cursed, guilty Union,
Shall be shaken to its base,
Till ye learn that simple justice,
Is the right of every race.
Life was trembling, faintly trembling
On the bondman's latest breath,
And he felt the chilling pressure
Of the cold, hard hand of Death.
He had been an Afric chieftain,
Worn his manhood as a crown;
But upon the field of battle
Had been fiercely stricken down.
He had longed to gain his freedom,
Waited, watched and hoped in vain,
Till his life was slowly ebbing --
Almost broken was his chain.
By his bedside stood the master,
Gazing on the dying one,
Knowing by the dull grey shadows
That life's sands were almost run.
"Master," said the dying bondman,
"Home and friends I soon shall see;
But before I reach my country,
Master write that I am free;
"For the spirits of my fathers
Would shrink back from me in pride,
If I told them at our greeting
I a slave had lived and died;
"Give to me the precious token,
That my kindred dead may see --
Master! write it, write it quickly!
Master! write that I am free!"
At his earnest plea the master
Wrote for him the glad release,
O'er his wan and wasted features
Flitted one sweet smile of peace.
Eagerly he grasped the writing;
"I am free!" at last he said.
Backward fell upon the pillow,
He was free among the dead.
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.
Our first claim upon the nation and government is the claim for protection to human life. That claim should lie at the basis of our civilization, not simply in theory but in fact. Outside of America, I know of no other civilized country, Catholic, Protestant, or even Mahometan, where men are still lynched, murdered, and even burned for real or supposed crimes.
A government which has power to tax a man in peace, and draft him in war, should have power to defend his life in the hour of peril. 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.
The strongest nation on earth cannot afford to deal unjustly towards its weakest and feeblest members. I claim for the Negro protection in every right with which the government has invested him. Whether it was wise or unwise, the government has exchanged the fetters on his wrist for the ballot in his right hand, and men cannot vitiate his vote by fraud, or intimidate the voter by violence, without being untrue to the genius and spirit of our government, and bringing demoralization into their own political life and ranks. Am I here met with the objection that the Negro is poor and ignorant, and the greatest amount of land, capital, and intelligence is possessed by the white race, and that in a number of States Negro suffrage means Negro supremacy?
It is said 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 the Negro is ignorant, he has lived under the shadow of an institution which, at least in part of the country, made it a crime to teach him to read the name of the ever-blessed Christ. 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.
But there 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. Colored men and women have gone into journalism. Some of the first magazines in the country have received contributions from them. Learned professions have given them diplomas. Universities have granted them professorships. Colored women have combined to shelter orphaned children. Tens of thousands have been contributed by colored persons for the care of the aged and infirm. 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.
Instead of taking the ballot from his hands, teach him how to use it, and to add his quota to the progress, strength, and durability of the nation.
Underlying this racial question, if I understand it aright, is one controlling idea, not simply that the Negro is ignorant; that he is outgrowing; not that he is incapable of valor in war or adaptation in peace. On fields all drenched with blood he made his record in war, abstained from lawless violence when left on the plantation, and received his freedom in peace with moderation. But he holds in this Republic the position of an alien race among a people impatient of a rival. And in the eyes of some it seems that no valor redeems him, no social advancement nor individual development wipes off the ban which clings to him. It is the pride of Caste which opposed the spirit of Christ, and the great work to which American Christianity is called is a work of Christly reconciliation.
Frances Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911), also known as Frances Watkins Harper, combined her talents as a writer, poet, and public speaker with a deep commitment to abolition and social reform.
She sustained a long and prolific publishing career at a time when it was rare for women, particularly women of color, to have a voice. She used that voice in powerful ways, and as a result, she’s been referred to as “the mother of African-American journalism.”
The 1854 collection Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) was possibly her most successful, having gone through many editions. “The Two Offers” was the first published short story by an African-American woman. And Iola Leroy (1892) was one of the first novels by a black woman to be published.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances Ellen Watkins was the only child of free African American parents. Orphaned at age three, she was raised by Henrietta and Reverend William Watkins, her maternal aunt and uncle. Under their care, she attended the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by Reverend Watkins, an active abolitionist. Quite likely, he was an inspiration for Frances’s later work.
At age 14, she went to work as a domestic and seamstress for a Quaker family, in whose home she had access to a wide array of literature.
Poetry towards Progress: Frances E. W. Harper
An activist, a teacher, a poet — Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an extraordinary figure in American history. She was born free in the city of Baltimore in 1825 , orphaned at the age of three, and grew up under the tutelage of her uncle Rev. William Watkins. William himself was an outspoken abolitionist and author , was a friend to William Lloyd Garrison and ran the “William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth” . Though not affluent, Frances ’s upbringing was intellectually rich and prepared her to challenge the status quo.
Portrait from William Still’s The underground rail road .
Continuing her uncle’s anti-slavery work, Frances taught at a school run by abolitionist John Brown and became an active figure in the Underground Rail Road . She lived for a time with William Still of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society , who p rofiled her in his book The underground rail road . S till called Frances “ one of the most liberal contributors, as well as one of the most able st of advocates of the Underground Rail Road and of the slave. ”
Her activism continued well past abolition. Harper was a life-long champion of rights for both African Americans and women. While suffrage was an important issue for Harper, she and other black suffragists were often excluded from the conversation by their white counterparts. In 1894, s he helped form the National Association of Colored Women alongside Mary Church Terrell , an organization that addressed the needs of both women and black Americans.
Frances Harper’s literary legacy is extensive and entwined with her social and political beliefs , with both poetry and novels that broke barriers. She published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves , at the age of 20 . Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, was first published in 1854 ( read an 1857 edition from the Library of Congress ) . It contained heart-breaking entries like “The Slave Mother” and “ T he Slave Auction”, poems that captur e the despair of the enslaved. In 185 8, she wrote the powerful poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” , now quoted on the walls of the National Museum of African American History and Culture . Her story “ The Two Offers” (1859 ), which examined marriage and women’s societal constraints, was the first short story published by an African American woman.
The Smithsonian Libraries hold s several of Harper’s works, both early editions and modern reprints , as well as biographies of Harper and literary interpretations . Poems , Harper’s fourth book was first published in 1871 but t he Libraries ’ copy is from 1900 . It recently received conservation treatment and was digitized as part of the Adopt a Book program and it now available in our Digital Library . Though some poems sp ea k of crocuses and dandelions, others, like “A Double Standard” , directly address societ y’s inequit able treatment of men and women :
Excerpt from “A Double Standard” in Poems
Sketches of Southern Life in our collection was also recently adopted. Poet Melba Joyce Boyd, in her book Discarded Legacy (1994), describes Sketches of Southern Life as “the first successful transcription of Afroamerican dialect into literature” . Harper’s example would be followed by other black authors, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar. Both Smithsonian Libraries’ copies of Poems and Sketches of Southern Life were gifted to the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lib rary by collector Charles Beyah.
At the Anacostia Community Museum Library, re searchers can read a 1969 edition of Harper’s Iola Leroy: Or Shadows Uplifted . Online, a third edition (1895) copy from the University of California Libraries is available through the Internet Archive . The book, dedicated to her daughter Mary, was one of the first published by an African American woman. It follows the story of Iola, born as the free daughter of a white father and black mother , later wrongfully enslaved and finally freed by the Union Army.
Frances Harper died in 1911 at the age of 85 in Philadelphia. The home where she lived from 1870 until her death is now a National Historic Landmark . Her legacy lives on, not only in her writing, but in the families of those she helped escape slavery and in the voting rights she fought for all women to hold.
Harper, Frances E.W. Sketches of Southern Life . [Frances E.W. Harper] 1888.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, You Should Know: African American Suffragists” . (Accessed 4/27/20)
Still, William. The underground rail road . People’s Publishing Company, .
The Frances Project is a Philadelphia-based celebration in association with the Commonwealth Monument Project , designed to bring the life and work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to bear on the momentous election year of 2020, the same year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 100th anniversary of the 19th. Throughout 2020, Philadelphia heritage and cultural institutions will explore Harper's poetry, novels, and speeches and her work to expand voting rights for Black people and women alongside work by contemporary authors and activists. Literary and performance-based events will be produced by Live and Learn, which has been facilitating a democratic approach to the arts since 2006.
Launched in 2018, the Commonwealth Monument Project has sought to memorialize Harrisburg's lost Eighth Ward, a storied Black neighborhood demolished to build Pennsylvania's Capitol Park. The theme of the memorial, by artist Becky Ault, is a "gathering at the crossroads" of the history of these interrelated constitutional amendments as well four central figures in Pennsylvania's 19th century fight for civil rights: William Howard Day, Jacob Compton, Morris Chester, and Frances Harper.
The Frances Project emerges from a series of collaborative sessions organized by the Commonwealth Monument Project with Philadelphia scholars, activists, authors, and artists hosted by Little Giant Creative, Temple University's Blockson Collection, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the First Unitarian Church, and Mother Bethel.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: A Tireless Advocate for the Oppressed
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was born in 1825 in Baltimore, a city that was then home to thousands of enslaved people as well as over 10,000 free black individuals, like Frances and her family. Orphaned at age three, she was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Rev. William Watkins, who gave her their last name. Little is known about her parents, not even their names.
Until she was 13, Frances attended a school run by her uncle. Frances was influenced by her uncle’s civil rights work even before she herself became an abolitionist. She began writing poetry at a young age and published her first collection, Forest Leaves, when she was only 20. She became a prolific writer of poems, novels and speeches. Frances made literary history as the first African American woman to publish a short story The Two Offers was published in 1859 and is a reflection on marriage and women’s education, explicitly avoiding any mention of race or slavery.
Frances left Baltimore to become the first female teacher at Union Seminary in Ohio, a school run by abolitionist John Brown. In 1853, when a new law was enacted that would have allowed Frances to be legally captured and sold into slavery in her home state of Maryland, she moved to the Boston area and began lecturing and writing in support of abolition. The same year, she published Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects, which sold over 10,000 copies and contained one of her most famous works, “Bury Me in a Free Land”:
Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gave of the passers-by
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
Frances E.W.Harper, 1872. Black and white etching.
Frances married Fenton Harper in 1860. The couple had a daughter, Mary, as well as his children from a previous marriage. She stepped back from public life until after her husband’s death in 1864, when she returned to writing and lecturing. In an 1875 speech at the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, one of her most famous lectures, Frances addressed what she called “the great problem to be solved,” saying “Apparent failure may hold in its rough shell the germs of a success that will blossom in time, and bear fruit throughout eternity.”
Frances was an ardent supporter of women’s enfranchisement who spoke alongside prominent white suffrage leaders, but black women were routinely excluded from white suffrage organizations. In response, black suffragists organized themselves in clubs across the country. Many black clubwomen advocated not only for equal suffrage, but also for greater social reforms that would improve the lives of African Americans, especially in the Jim Crow South. In 1896, Frances cofounded what would become the largest federation of black women’s clubs – the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs – to advocate for issues black women faced because of the double bigotries of racism and sexism. The NACW’s motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” captured their mission.
Throughout her career, Frances was respected for her powerful writing style that plainly addressed the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, and classism in her poems, speeches, and novels. In addition to her suffrage work and involvement in the black women’s club movement, she also led activities for black reformers for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and served as director of the American Association of Education of Colored Youth. Until her death from heart disease in 1911, Frances remained a tireless advocate for the oppressed.
Join us in celebrating American women winning the right to vote through this new series of narratives drawn from Berkshire Museum's exhibition, She Shapes History. Discover the stories of exceptional women, their work, and how their accomplishments impacted United States history over the past two centuries.
(1875) Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “The Great Problem to be Solved”
After the Civil War Frances Ellen Watkins Harper worked among African Americans as a representative of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. From her new position Harper publicized the violence and intimidation in the South directed at the freedpeople. She argued African Americans must organize to complete the work of Reconstruction rather than relying on political parties or organizations. To that end black women must play an important role in these crucial efforts.
On April 14, 1875, Harper delivered an address in Philadelphia at the Centennial Anniversary of the nation’s oldest abolitionist society, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery outlining the work yet to be done in the cause of African American freedom. That speech appears below.
Ladies and Gentlemen: The great problem to be solved by the American people, if I understand it, is this: Whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people but lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom and upon the right solution of this question depends in a large measure the future strength, progress and durability of our nation. The most important question before us colored people is not simply what the Democratic party may do against us or the Republican party do for us but what are we going to do for ourselves? What shall we do toward developing our character, adding our quota to the civilization and strength of the country, diversifying our industry, and practicing those lordly virtues that conquer success and turn the world’s dread laugh into admiring recognition? The white race has yet work to do in making practical the political axiom of equal rights and the Christian idea of human brotherhood but while I lift mine eyes to the future I would not ungratefully ignore the past. One hundred years ago and Africa was the privileged hunting ground to Europe and America, and the flag of different nations hung a sign of death on the coasts of Congo and Guinea, and for years unbroken silence had hung around the horrors of the African slave trade. Since then Great Britain and other nations have wiped the bloody traffic from their hands and shaken the gory merchandise from their fingers, and the brand of piracy has been placed upon the African slave trade. Less than fifty years ago mob violence belched out its wrath against the men who dared to arraign the slave holder before the bar of conscience and Christendom. Instead of golden showers upon his head, he who garrisoned the front had a halter around his neck. Since, if I may borrow the idea, the nation has caught the old inspiration from his lips and written it in the new organic world. Less than twenty five years ago slavery clasped hands with King Cotton, and said slavery fights and cotton conquers for American slavery. Since then slavery is dead, the colored man has exchanged the fetters on his wrist for the ballot in his hand. Freedom is king, and Cotton a subject.
It may not seem to be a gracious thing to mingle complaint in a season of general rejoicing. It may appear like the ancient Egyptians seating a corpse at their festal board to avenge the Americans for their shortcomings when so much has been accomplished. And yet, with all the victories and triumphs which freedom and justice have won in this country, I do not believe there is another civilized nation under heaven where there are half as many people who have been brutally and shamefully murdered, with or without impunity, as in this Republic within the last ten years. And who cares? Where is the public opinion that has scorched with red hot indignation the cowardly murderers of Vicksburg and Louisiana? Sheridan lifts up the veil from Southern society, and behind it is the smell of blood and our bones scattered at the grave’s mouth murdered people a White League with its “covenant of death and agreement with hell.” And who cares? What city pauses one hour to drop a pitying tear over these mangled corpses, or has forged against the perpetrator one thunderbolt of furious protest? But let there be a supposed or real invasion of Southern rights by our soldiers, and our great commercial emporium will rally its forces from the old man in his classic shades, to clasp hands with “dead rabbits” and “plug uglies” in protesting against military interference. What we need today in the onward march of humanity is a public sentiment in favor of common justice and simple mercy. We have a civilization which has produced grand and magnificent results, diffused knowledge, overthrown slavery, made constant conquests over nature, and built up a wonderful material property. But two things are wanting in American civilization a keener and deeper, broader and tenderer sense of justice a sense of humanity, which shall crystallize into the life of the nation the sentiment that justice, simple justice, is the right, not simply of the strong and powerful, but of the weakest and feeblest of all God’s children a deeper and broader humanity, which will teach men to look upon their feeble brethren not as vermin to be crushed out, or beasts of burden to be bridled and bitten, but as the children of the living God of that God whose may earnestly hope is in perfect wisdom and in perfect love working for the best good of all. Ethnologists may differ about the origin of the human race. Huxley may search for it in protoplasm, and Darwin send for the missing links, but there is one thing of which we may rest assured that we all come from the living God and that He is the common Father. The nation that has no reverence for man is also lacking in reverence for God and need to be instructed.
As fellow citizens, leaving out all humanitarian views as a mere matter of political economy it is better to have the colored race a living force animated and strengthened by self reliance and self respect, than a stagnant mass, degraded and self condemned. Instead of the North relaxing its efforts to defuse education in the South, it behooves us for our national life to throw into the South all the healthful reconstructing influences we can command.
Our work in this country is grandly constructive. Some races have come into this world and overthrown and destroyed. But if it is glory to destroy, it is happiness to save and oh, what a noble work there is before our nation! Where is there a young man who would consent to lead an aimless life when there are such glorious opportunities before him? Before our young men is another battle not a battle of flashing swords and clashing steel, but a moral warfare, a battle against ignorance, poverty and low social condition. In physical warfare the keenest swords may be blunted and the loudest batteries hushed but in the great conflict of moral and spiritual progress your weapons shall be brighter for their service and better for their use. In fighting truly and nobly for others you win the victory for yourselves.
Give power and significance to your life, and in the great work of upbuilding there is room for woman’s work and woman’s heart. Oh, that our hearts were alive and our vision quickened, to see the grandeur of the work that lies before. We have some culture among us, but I think our culture lacks enthusiasm. We need a deep earnestness and a lofty unselfishness to round out our lives. It is the inner life that develops the outer, and if we are in earnest the precious things lie all around our feet, and we need not waste our strength in striving after the dim and unattainable. Women, in your golden youth mother, binding around your heart all the precious ties of life, let no magnificence of culture, or amplitude of fortune, or refinement of sensibilities, repel you from helping the weaker and less favored. If you have ampler gifts, hold them as larger opportunities with which you can benefit others. Oh, it is better to feel that the weaker and feebler our race the closer we will cling to them, than it is to isolate ourselves from them in selfish, or careless unconcern, saying there is a lion without. Inviting you to this work I do not promise you fair sailing and unclouded skies. You may meet with coolness where you expect sympathy disappointment where you feel sure of success isolation and loneliness instead of heart support and cooperation. But if your lives are based and built upon these divine certitudes, which are the only enduring strength of humanity, then whatever defeat and discomfiture may overshadow your plans or frustrate your schemes, for a life that is in harmony with God and sympathy for man there is no such word as fail. And in conclusion, permit me to say, let no misfortunes crush you, no hostility of enemies or failure of friends discourage you. Apparent failure may hold in its rough shell the germs of a success that will blossom in time, and bear fruit throughout eternity. What seemed to be a failure around the Cross of Calvary and in the garden has been the grandest recorded success.
The Activism and Artistry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Willard’s prominence as an activist, orator, writer, and educator has tended to overshadow many of the other remarkable woman leaders active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union during the late nineteenth century–including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the National “superintendent for work among the colored people of the North” from 1883 to 1890. Over the course of her life, Harper embraced a wide range of reform efforts in order to bring about a more just and equal society. After decades of antislavery and women’s rights activism, Harper sought to use her leadership position in the WCTU to foster a strong interracial women’s movement.
Frances Watkins was born to free Black parents in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825. Orphaned by the age of three, she attended her uncle’s prestigious William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, where she distinguished herself as a writer and scholar. The increasingly hostile climate of the Upper South led Watkins to move to Ohio, where she became the first female member of the faculty at the African Methodist Episcopal Union Seminary, a school in Columbus that later merged into Wilberforce University. During the mid-1850s, she moved to Pennsylvania and devoted herself to the abolitionist cause. She was hired by the American Anti-Slavery Society as a traveling lecturer, sharing the platform with Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth.
Watkins always combined activism with artistry. She was the most prolific nineteenth-century African American novelist and the most beloved African American poet of her time. Having studied elocution at her uncle’s academy, she became a renowned public speaker. One of the most “eloquent women lecturers in the country,” she was praised for her “clear, plaintive, melodious voice,” the “flow of her musical speech,” and “her logical presentation of truth.” She incorporated recitations of original poems into her programs of political speeches. The topics of her poetry, as well as her novel Iola Leroy (1892), mirrored the broad scope of her reform agenda–antislavery, racial equality, women’s rights, Christian service, and temperance.
In 1860, Frances Watkins married Fenton Harper. The couple settled on a farm in Ohio with their infant daughter. Sadly, four years later, Harper died. Court officers repossessed their farm and personal belongings to pay off his debts. Frances Harper returned to the reform world just as the Civil War was drawing to a close.
Mrs. F.E.W. Harper, undated cabinet photograph by A.S. Thomas, 166 W. FIfth Street, Cincinnati. In photograph album with embossed title: “Superintendents National W.C.T.U., presented to Frances E. Willard, Jan. 3, 1885”
The postwar era witnessed a clash between reformers fighting for racial and gender equality. White suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton employed racist rhetoric to oppose the Fifteenth Amendment, arguing that it granted the right to vote to “inferior” black men while bypassing “superior” white women. Frances Harper joined Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone, and other former abolitionists to support the Fifteenth Amendment. She reasoned that if she had to choose between Black rights and women’s rights, she should not hinder the progress of Black men. She also supported a proposed Sixteenth Amendment for women’s suffrage.
Despite the racial tensions in the suffrage movement, Harper remained committed to the prospect of interracial alliances among women. When the WCTU gained strength during the 1870s and 1880s, Harper identified the organization as a powerful force for temperance, women’s rights, and Christian reform. Temperance had always been an important cause for Harper. In fact, she had called “slavery and intemperance” the “twin evils” of her time. African Americans had long supported temperance through churches, fraternal organizations, and voluntary societies. Black women identified the temperance cause as a means to exercise their public voice, expand women’s role in society, and perform their religious duty.
Harper joined the WCTU as the superintendent of the “Colored Section” of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania WCTUs during the late 1870s. From the beginning, she was wary about the organization’s racial politics. The WCTU allowed state and local unions to form segregated chapters. As part of a national effort for sectional reconciliation, Frances Willard conducted recruitment tours throughout the South, expressing sympathy with the plight of white Southern women and condemning the “political manipulation” of supposedly uneducated and drunken Black men. Still, Harper believed that the WCTU offered “one of the grandest opportunities that God ever placed in the hands of the womanhood of any country.” She became National Superintendent of “work among the colored people of the North” in 1883. Through her position, she strove to make the WCTU a more inclusive and equitable organization.
Harper’s work for the WCTU involved tireless travel, lecturing, and organizing. The Department of “Colored Work in the North” oversaw the formation of Black unions, Black youth groups, and the circulation of temperance literature. Harper compiled data and testimonies from State Superintendents, which she presented as annual reports at national conventions. She lamented that her department was underfunded and often ignored, and called on WCTU members to work together on equal terms: “may I not entreat you to… enlist the co-operation of the colored women of your locality to affiliate with you not as objects of charity, but as helpers and auxiliaries in a great and glorious cause.” “Let no lines of race circumscribe your efforts,” she urged. Several local unions in New Jersey and Connecticut integrated their memberships, but most remained segregated.
Harper grew increasingly frustrated as the National WCTU appeased the racial agenda of its Southern members. In 1890, Harper and Willard clashed over Willard’s “Southern strategy.” As a result, Willard “reorganized” Harper’s department, subsuming it into “Home and Foreign Missionary Work to Colored People.” This unfortunate move implied that African Americans were one of many “dependent races” who were objects of white women’s missionary efforts.
Despite her marginalization from leadership, Harper remained a WCTU member, because she was committed to supporting the Black women she had recruited. She publicly supported Ida B. Wells in 1894, when Wells criticized Willard’s and the WCTU’s problematic stance on lynching. The failure of Willard and the WCTU to fight for the equal rights of all women mirrored a national trend of worsening race relations and racial violence between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the establishment of Jim Crow laws during the 1890s. Recognizing the limitations of interracial alliances in this climate, Harper participated in the formation of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. This organization established its own department of temperance work.
Frances Harper believed that the WCTU could be mobilized as a progressive force for social change. For a time, she managed to achieve a leadership role in the nation’s largest women’s organization and used her position to advocate for African American women’s interests. The failures of white WCTU members to answer Harper’s call for “co-operation and active sympathy” represented a lost opportunity for interracial collaboration and serves as a lesson for present and future reform movements.
We are all bound up together
Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911) challenged us to practice a religion of justice.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911), from an 1872 engraving. (Courtesy of the House Divided Project, Dickinson College)
T hrough what she called “threads of fact and fiction,” nineteenth- and twentieth-century author and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper challenged Unitarians and other Christians to practice a form of religion that reflected “a stronger sense of justice and a more Christlike humanity in behalf of those . . . homeless, ignorant, and poor.”
A black woman, she was born Frances Ellen Watkins to free parents in Baltimore in 1825. She held dual membership in Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal churches in Philadelphia, and believed the struggles for black Americans and women of all races were connected. Her works were largely forgotten until scholars and Unitarian Universalists resurrected her legacy in the last twenty-five years.
Harper defied the racial and gender-based expectations of her day. In Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936 , the Rev. Dr. Qiyamah Rahman writes, “Harper’s education helped develop middle-class white audiences for her literary talents, [and] she was also able to write significant protest literature in the black liberation tradition.”
Much of her youth was devoted to abolishing slavery. In 1859, after abolitionist John Brown was sentenced to death for a failed attempt to seize an arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, she wrote letters to him and to his wife, Mary. The transcripts illuminate the liberatory theology that infused much of her work.
To John Brown, she wrote: “We may earnestly hope that . . . your martyr grave will be a sacred altar upon which men will record their vows of undying hatred to that system which tramples on man and bids defiance to God.”
In 1860 she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children, and the couple had one daughter together. After her husband died in 1864, she returned to lecturing.
When the Civil War ended, Harper waged a dual campaign for women’s suffrage and civil rights for all citizens. In May 1866 she delivered an address to the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York, saying before thousands, “Justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law. We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Her words in New York laid out her theology and vision for a healthier society. For Harper, the stakes were high, and the “soul” of liberal religion—and the nation—was on the line. “You pressed [the Negro] down for two centuries,” she said, “and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of . . . the country.”
Perhaps Harper’s most enduring work is her 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted . The book, which may have been the best-selling novel by an African-American before the twentieth century, explores the black title character’s decision to forego “passing” as white and work instead on fighting to end slavery and obtain civil rights for her people. Through Harper’s characters, Iola Leroy issues the call for religious persons to join struggles for freedom. In the novel, Iola asks her mother, “Are these people Christians who made these laws which are . . . reducing us to slavery? If this is Christianity I hate and despise it.” Iola’s mother responds, “I have not learned Christianity from them. I have learned it at the foot of the cross, and from [the New Testament].” The elder Leroy’s commentary is but one example of Harper’s denunciation of Christianity as commonly practiced in her day.
Harper’s multifaceted insistence on a liberatory religion evokes white Unitarian Lydia Maria Child’s 1833 “Appeal to End Slavery.” Child wrote of people who have grown used to slavery: “Christianity expressly teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. This shows how dangerous it is, for even the best of us, to become accustomed to what is wrong.”
Harper’s vision continues to resonate with scholars, feminists, and Unitarian Universalists. In 1992, several black Unitarian Universalists gathered in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, to honor Harper’s memory by replacing her headstone at Eden Cemetery, the oldest public black-owned cemetery in the United States. In 2011 scholars gathered in Philadelphia to honor the 100th anniversary of Harper’s death. Professor Melba Joyce Boyd, a panelist at the celebration, said, “Harper’s insight, developed during an era rife with violent enforcement of racism, sexism, and classism, constitutes a viable ideological framework for contemporary radical thought.”
Harper called on people of faith to resist the status quo and embrace a radical, liberatory Christianity. In the present climate of renewed calls for racial justice, Harper’s words still carry weight. She concluded Iola Leroy with a poem insistent on hope. In part it reads: “There is light beyond the darkness, joy beyond the present pain . . . the shadows bear a promise of a brighter coming day.”
Frances E.W. Harper
An author, lecturer, and social activist. Harper lived here and devoted her life to championing the rights of slaves and free Blacks. She advocated education as a way of advancement for Black Americans.
Erected 1991 by Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African Americans &bull Education &bull Women. In addition, it is included in the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission series list.
Location. 39° 56.52′ N, 75° 9.558′ W. Marker is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia County. Marker is on Bainbridge Street. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 1006 Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia PA 19147, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Engine Company No. 11 (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line) Institute For Colored Youth (about 400 feet away) Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (about 400 feet away) Standard Theatre (about 600 feet away) Jacob C. White Jr. (about 700 feet away) William Whipper (approx. 0.2 miles away) Henry George (approx. 0.2 miles away) Robert Mara Adger (approx. 0.2 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Philadelphia.
September 24, 1825 - February 22, 1911
Harper, a writer, abolitionist and suffragette, was born free in Baltimore in 1825, and spent most of her adult life in Philadelphia, where she was active with the Underground Railroad.
She published over 11 books of poetry and fiction, including Iola Leroy, one of the first novels published by an African American.
Her writings primarily focused on social issues: education for women, miscegenation as a crime, temperance and social responsibility.
“The true aim of female education should be, not a development of one or two,” Harper said, “but all the faculties of the human soul, because no perfect womanhood is developed by imperfect culture.”
- Published her first book of poetry at age 20
- Helped escaped slaves make their way to Canada on the Underground Railroad
- Refused to give up her trolley seat 100 years before Rosa Parks
- Led the “colored” section of the Philadelphia Women’s Christian Temperance Union
From “Bury Me In A Free Land,” Harper’s most famous poem:
“Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.”
Home page image: A Message to the Child: The Hero May be Found © 2004. City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / John Lewis. 3403 N. 17th Street. Photo by Jack Ramsdale