Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an American abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. Beginning in 1845, she was one of the first African-American women to be published in the United States.

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, Harper had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at the age of 20. At 67, she published her widely praised novel Iola Leroy (1892), placing her among the first Black women to publish a novel.[1]

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Teacher/Author

As a young woman in 1850, she taught domestic science at Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, a school affiliated with the AME Church.[2] In 1851, while living with the family of William Still, a clerk at the Pennsylvania Abolition Society who helped refugee slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad, Harper started to write anti-slavery literature.[2] After joining the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1853, Harper began her career as a public speaker and political activist.[2]

Frances Harper Historical Moments

Harper founded, supported, and held high office in several national progressive organizations. In 1886 she became superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union.[2] In 1896 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president.[2]

One of her speeches, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” delivered in 1866 at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York City, demanded equal rights for all, emphasizing the need to raise awareness for African-American suffrage while also advocating for women’s suffrage.[3] In her speech, she stated:

“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. You tried that in the case of the Negro…You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me…While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”[36]

After Harper delivered this speech, the National Woman’s Rights Convention agreed to form the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which incorporated African-American suffrage into the Women’s Suffrage Movement.[3] Harper served as a member of AERA’s Finance Committee, though Black women comprised only five of the organization’s fifty-plus officers and speakers.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died of heart failure on February 22, 1911, at the age of 85.