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The Crafting Freedom Project/Frances E. W. Harper

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The Life of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born on September 24, 1824, to free black parents in Baltimore, Maryland. Her story, The Two Offers, written in 1859, is considered the first short story published by an African American woman. Harper is an important figure to study not only because of her literary accomplishments, but also because she devoted her literary and oratorical talents to “crafting freedom” for others. Orphaned at the age of three, Frances E. W. Harper was raised by her uncle, Reverend William Watkins, who was a political activist, clergyman, and director of Baltimore’s Academy for Negro Youth.

A gifted student, Harper began to write poetry and published her first book of poems, Forest Leaves, when she was only twenty. She obtained various teaching posts, including one at Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, and later accepted a teaching post in Pennsylvania. There, she lived at the home of William Still, a prominent abolitionist. Still’s house was a slave haven on the “Underground Railroad,” and the activities that Harper witnessed there changed her forever.

Harper gave up teaching and began to give anti-slavery lectures in the North and in Canada. She was one of the few African American women to do so. Harper used her powerful poetry and prose to express her beliefs about the evils of slavery and the morality of equal rights for all. She was a very popular and effective public speaker. One newspaper proclaimed, “Seldom have we heard a more cogent, forcible and eloquent lecture upon any subject, especially from a woman” (Christian Recorder, May 21, 1864.) Some white listeners believed Harper to be a black man dressed as a woman or a white woman painted black. In a time of prevalent racist as well as sexist attitudes, for many people it was unimaginable that a black woman could be a forceful and highly articulate speaker. She was nicknamed “The Bronze Muse.”

In addition to her speeches against slavery, Harper also gave lectures on equal rights for women and helped to found the National Federation of Afro-American Women.

Harper published many books of poetry, fiction, and lectures. Her most famous novel, Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, published in 1891, is the story of a girl who grows up thinking she is white, but because she is actually black, she gets sold into slavery. Harper was a highly respected writer and speaker throughout her life and continued to both write and speak until her death in 1911.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY ON FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER

PRIMARY SOURCES

Harper, Frances E. W. Short Works of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. 2007.

Harper, Frances E. W. Collected Works of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. 2007.

Harper, Frances E. W. Sketches of Southern Life. 1872.

Harper, Frances E. W. Idylls of the Bible. 1901.

Harper, Frances E. W. Moses: A Story of the Nile. 1893.

Harper, Frances E. W. In Memoriam, Wm. McKinley. 1901.

Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, by Frances E. W. Harper. 2001.

Harper, Frances E. W. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. 1854.

Harper, Frances E. W. Trial and Triumph. 2007.

Harper, Frances E. W. Minnie’s Sacrifice. 2007.

Harper, Frances E. W. Sowing and Reaping (A Temperance Story). 2006.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Bacon, Margaret Hope. “One Great Bundle of Humanity”: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911). 1989.

Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper, 1825-1911. 1994.