Known today for the bold stance she took in her poem “Bury Me in a Free Land,” published in 1854, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper became the most inspiring Black woman writer in the United States at the peak of her career in the decade before the Civil War. Known in her lifetime (1825-1911) as the Bronze Muse, she eventually faded from public awareness in the years following Reconstruction. In recent years, however, she has been dubbed the “Mother of Black Journalism” by some of her most enthusiastic admirers in the new century.
Frances Ellen Watkins was orphaned at age three and was raised by her mother’s sister and her husband, the Rev. William Watkins, a school master and a vocal advocate for free Black citizens’ rights and the abolition of slavery. Watkins was headmaster of the academy he had founded a few years earlier and was probably the most significant influence on her life and work.
Moving from Maryland after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Frances Ellen joined the faculty of John Brown’s – yes, the anti-slavery warrior noted for his stand at Harper’s Ferry – Union Seminary for Negro children in Columbus, Ohio. Brown was a comrade of her uncle, Reverend William Watkins. Frances Ellen was the first Black woman to teach vocational education at his school.
It was during this period also that she began working with William Still, the Black man most famous for his chronicles of the Underground Railroad and a leader of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Frances E. W. Harper before Civil War
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a passionate advocate for human rights for male and female American citizens during the Nineteenth Century.
She published her first book of poems, “Forest Leaves,” in 1845, at the age of 20. Ten years later, in 1855, her speech “Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race” endeared her to the leaders of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and she became a regular speaker in the New England anti-slavery circuit.
Altogether, she published over 80 poems in her career, but these poems were re-published in such numerous collections and new editions over the years that it seemed as though she was writing a lot more poems than she actually did.
In 1854, Harper published Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects, which featured one of her most famous works, “Bury Me in a Free Land.”
It was in the year 1854 that the national abolitionist leadership brought the brilliant poet and public speaker into their network, considering her a “valuable acquisition to the cause” and they hired her as one of their regular speakers.
In 1859, she became the first Black American woman to publish a short story, “The Two Choices.” The story is a critique of the life’s choices of a woman of the 19th Century – marry a dullard and abuser and die after a life of misery or remain a creative and independent spirit although such a woman will be dubbed an “old maid.”
During these years before the Civil War, she traveled to most of the Northern states to deliver anti-slavery speeches. She frequently shared the stage with the most famous speakers of her day, including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Wendell Phillips, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
In November 1860, she married Fenton Harper, a widower with four children, who moved her back to Ohio with his family. Adapting to her role as wife and mother, she withdrew from the public arena but continued to write at home on many national issues. She gave birth to her only child, Mary, in 1862.
Fenton Harper died in 1864, and this allowed the newly widowed Frances E. W. Harper to take on the role of Bronze Muse once again. During this phase, she once again joined the lecture circuit and wrote some of her longest poems, Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869) and Sketches of Southern Life (1872).
FIGHT FOR RIGHTS
The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments between 1865 and 1870 was a special joy for Harper and her Black colleagues. There were differences, however, with some of her old white friends from the women’s rights movement, such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, who considered it an insult to grant Black men the right to vote and own property while still excluding white women from these core rights.
Harper regularly addressed the apparent divisions between the races and the sexes in the fight for fundamental rights in American society.
“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” she said in a famous speech of 1866. “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.”
Historian Betty Collier-Thomas concludes that Harper was more inclined to support the racial struggle than she was the feminist cause.
“While Harper often worked with white society to gain social reform, she always sided with her race,” Collier-Thomas says. “She reasoned ‘that black males must have the right to vote and that the plight of the black woman was more related to their race than their gender.’ Racial uplift remained the primary focus of Harper’s agenda for social reform as it was clear to her that racism and classism destroyed opportunities for black citizens.”
END OF HER CAREER
Harper published the most famous of her three novels, Iola Leroy, in 1892. She was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, along with Ida B. Wells and Harriet Tubman, among others.
She remained a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and maintained her role as crusader for women’s rights until her death on Feb. 22, 1911 in Philadelphia.
She will long be remembered for her signatures lines: “All that my yearning spirit craves/
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.”