African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Frances E.W. Harper: Author Page

The following biography was researched and written by Kate Hennessey in the spring of 2024. Additional edits by Amardeep Singh. 

Frances E.W. Harper (September 24, 1825- February 22,1911)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born free in Baltimore, Maryland on September 24, 1825. At three years old, Harper lost both of her parents and went to live with her uncle and aunt, William and Henrietta Watkins. Harper’s uncle, William J. Watkins, Sr. was actively involved in the Abolitionist movement and his home was frequented by many of the leading figures, including William Lloyd Garrison, founder of The Liberator.

The Watkins family were middle-class, and as a child Harper had access to an activist culture and to an education at her uncle’s school, The Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. After receiving a basic vocational education there, 13-year-old Harper was sent to work as a servant for a White family that owned a bookstore. On her breaks, she was allowed to read through the family’s library, giving her even more access to a literary world. In her childhood, Harper had access to a diverse socio-political-cultural milieu that placed her in contact with a burgeoning free Black community, the Abolitionist Movement, but also White enslavers and their enslaved Black people. 

In her early twenties, Harper published her first volume of poems Forest Leaves (ca. 1849), with a local Baltimore printer; it contains several abolitionist and race-conscious poems she would later reprint and revise, including "Ethiopia" and "Bible Defence of Slavery." In 1851, at age 26, Harper moved to Ohio and was hired as the first woman faculty member at Union Seminary, where she taught sewing. Later, Harper lived in York, Pennsylvania, where she also worked as a teacher.

Harper’s life would soon intensely focus on activism when Maryland passed their Fugitive Slave Act in 1853. This law was aimed at curtailing the free Black community in Baltimore and made it illegal for African Americans to enter the state under threat of enslavement. Thus, Harper, who was born free, could then be enslaved if she were to re-enter her home state. Her growing activist engagement led Harper to move to the home of William and Letitia Still in Philadelphia, which also served as a hub in the Underground Railroad as well as the mainstream Abolitionist Movement in Pennsylvania. In the early 1850s, Harper began to publishing poetry in The Liberator and in the Frederick Douglass Paper in support of the Abolition movement. 

Harper's next volume of poems, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) became an instant success in 19th century America, where over 10,000 copies would be sold and over 20 editions published. Utz McKnight argues that Harper’s popularity and subject matter makes her the true democratic poet of America. Like her more famous friend and contemporary, Sojourner Truth, Harper began giving a series of traveling lectures for the Maine and Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Societies, where she would sell her poems, recite them live and give political lectures. The two women were the only Black women who would regularly be invited to appear in this way. In her lectures, Harper would also periodically join the stage with Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

Harper remained at the forefront of the Abolitionist Movement and continued to write prose and poems through the 1850s. In 1859 she published the first short story by an African American woman, “The Two Offers,” which focused on women’s education. Then, in 1860 Harper married Fenton Harper and had a daughter, Mary (born 1862). They bought land and dairy equipment in Ohio from the money Harper made from her lectures and writing. However, in 1864, Fenton Harper died leaving his wife with three of his previous children and Mary, as well as financial debt. Due to her status as a woman, the bank would not credit her for the debt, and Harper had to return to lecturing to make money. Later in 1864, she returned to Maryland with her daughter, leaving her three step-children with her in-laws. 

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, Harper began to travel South to help formerly enslaved people recover and begin to understand their new freedom and she lectured to audiences. Now that Emancipation was achieved, Harper was set on educating Black people, so that they begin to achieve material equality in the form of political representation, land, money, and education. Unsurprisingly, Harper became a leader in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and gave the speech “We Are All Bound Up Together” (1866) at the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York. In this speech, she calls for White and Black women to work together to achieve voting equality, rather than allow racism to tear apart the movement. Unfortunately, this speech would not convince her predominantly White peers at the Women’s Rights Convention and Harper founded the National Association of Colored Women to focus on the specific challenges that African American women faced. She also became involved in the Temperance movement. 

In the Post-Civil War era Harper would continue to publish writing which provided more expansive visions of the future that Harper imagined for both Black and White Americans. In 1869 she published both the poem Moses: A Story of the Nile and the serialized novel Minnie’s Sacrifice. After moving to Philadelphia and buying a home for herself and her daughter Mary, Harper would also publish her collection of poetry Sketches of Southern Life (1891), which dealt with extreme violence and organizing of White supremacist groups that were stunting the political and cultural movements of Black Southerners. We now know this period to be the Jim Crow era. By 1877 Harper published two more novels and her famous novel, Iola Leroy (1892) became one of the most popular novels in the 19th century and continued to work through the most pressing issues facing American society: how to reckon with a country built on slavery and build an equitable future. Frances Harper dedicated her life to working so others could have access to many of the things that she had experienced as a child: freedom, education, improved living conditions and many others. While her novels, especially Iola Leroy, have been studied by scholars, her poetry has been left understudied in the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. In his introduction to Harper’s poetic consciousness, McKnight declares, “Frances Harper was a poet before she became active as a public speaker, and so I think we should consider Frances Harper as a poet who found her muse in the social and political events of her time” (McKnight 23). Her extensive biography, summarized here, provides crucial context to analyzing the constructions of slavery, emancipation, and freedom contained throughout her poetry. Some entry points to her poetry are provided below: 

Introducing Frances E.W. Harper's Poetry

Harper published Forest Leaves with a local publisher in Baltimore, James Young, probably sometime between 1846-1849 (only one copy of the volume is extant, at the Maryland Historical Society, and it is undated). It is a modest volume, which contains a fair amount of religious poetry, though it does also have poems important to Harper's overall body of work, especially the poem "Ethiopia." 

The second volume of Harper's poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) illustrates Harper’s ardent activism of the moment. This collection of poems seeks to help Americans understand the violence of slavery, especially on family bonds. In poems such as “The Syrophoenician Woman,” “The Slave Mother,” “The Fugitive’s Wife,” and “The Slave Auction” Harper acutely expresses the pain of African American families torn apart from the institution of slavery. These poems ask readers, including White readers, to consider their own children being torn from their sides into the hands of unknown violent men. They would also hit the nerve of devout Christians who should be appalled at the breach of the marriage vow by slavery.

In this way, Harper follows a rhetorical strategy similar to Harriet Beecher Stowe's in her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which Harper acknowledges in her poems “Eliza Harris”. Named after the sympathetic mother figure in Stowe’s novel, Harper's "Eliza Harris" asks readers to consider how a country founded on the ideas of freedom could allow for a young mother to risk her and her child’s life across a frozen river in Ohio just because of her skin color. In this poem, as the novel, Eliza makes it to freedom with her child. 

By contrast, in “The Slave Mother: a Tale of the Ohio,” the young child does not survive (this poem may be an allusion to the tragic story of Margaret Garner, who committed infanticide rather than allow her child to be recaptured into slavery). Told in the first person and the switching to third once the mother makes the same trek across the river as Eliza did, this poem first allows the reader into the perspective of the mother, but then reminds them of their own position by asking “Will ye not, as men and Christians, / On the side of freedom stand?” A year later, Harper published her poem “Bury Me in a Free Land,” which continues to pull the reader into the pain of families torn apart through the transactions of their masters. Crucially, this poem does not ask for a monument to recognize this violence, but to instead abolish the institution of slavery so the speaker may rest in freedom. 

After the Civil War, Harper continued to advocate for the rights of recently freed African Americans and began to imagine what a truly free America might look like for both Black and White readers. In 1870 she published her long poem, Moses: A Story of the Nile, which focuses on “the capacity for a people to come together through their faith and to overcome obstacles to their salvation” (McKnight 237). Harper returns to the story of Moses in her collection Idylls of the Bible in 1901. This envisioning of overcoming racial injustice across races remains present throughout Harper’s writing career.  The next year, Harper published another edition of her Miscellaneous collection called Poems (1871). In this collection, Harper pays homage to the work of White abolitionists in her poems “Lines to the Hon. Thaddeus Stevens,” “Lines to Charles Sumner,” and “President Lincoln’s Proclamation of Freedom.” Importantly, all these men served in government, and therefore were able to represent the rights of African Americans at a structural level, a fact that Harper is very attuned to in this collection. While Harper acknowledges the violent battle for the freedom of African Americans, she warns that the work for true liberty is far from over. In her poem “Words for the Hour,” Harper calls on Northerners who fought in the Civil War to now  “teach the Freedman how to wield / The ballot in his hand,” emphasizing the importance of voting rights for African Americans.  Her poems “Fifteenth Amendment” and “An Appeal to the American People” also emphasize the sentiment for a general American audience. Harper also calls on the pathos of hope to inspire her readers, as the poems “The Freedom Bell” and “The Change” offer imaginings of what it would feel like to rid the country of hate and live in a truly free nation. 

Presumably inspired by her travels in the South to help newly freed African Americans and speak to mixed race audiences, Harper published her volume of poetry Sketches of Southern Life in 1891. Twenty years later, the hope for voting rights and political representation of African Americans was slowly losing ground in the face of the Jim Crow South and White violence rampant in the South. This collection is most well-known for the poems following the character Aunt Chloe through her experience of enslavement, gaining freedom, and then building a life in this new-found freedom. Told in first-person narration, the first poem in the collection, “Aunt Chloe,” opens with her children being sold away from Chloe because the master of the estate has died and left behind massive debt. Despite this, another slave helps Aunt Chloe hold out hope for freedom and the return of her son. In “The Deliverance” and “Aunt Chloe’s Politics,” Harper details the experience of slaves learning that they are now free while on the estate of their master’s and the subsequent voting fraud enforced by White Southerners to prevent African American men from voting for their own interests. Importantly, Harper emphasizes the “women radicals” that punished their husbands for selling their votes for meager food and money. Harper also focuses on the hope of the future in “Learning to Read” and “Church Building” in which Aunt Chloe outlines the denial of knowledge by slave owners and her determination to read as a free woman, as well as her ownership of a cabin and a community effort to build a church– all actions that would’ve been punished by death pre-emancipation. Finally, in “The Reunion,” Aunt Chloe gets her happy ending by reconnecting with her now adult son with plans to live out her life in their new cabin. 

Just a couple years later, Harper published her collections Atlanta Offering: Poems (1895) and then Poems (1896), which extended her earlier collections. These collections continue to focus on the violence that African Americans face in the South, which Harper highlights in “The Martyr of Alabama”, which is accompanied by a newspaper clipping detailing the murder of Tim Thompson by  a White mob. However, in her poems such as “God Bless Our Native Land” and “Home, Sweet Home,”  Harper continues to envision a nation that could heal from the long history of violence. In the 1896 collection, Harper added the poems “Songs for the People,” “Then and Now," and “The Burdens of All”, which continue to emphasize the need for all Americans to work together to build a greater nation. Additionally, Harper maintained her activism for women’s rights and the growing Temperance movement. In “A Little Child Shall Lead Them” and “Nothing and Something” Harper details the ruin of families from the result of drinking. What seems shockingly relevant, in “Double Standard,” Harper also writes about the unfair judgment that women face compared to then men in their lives. Finally, Harper revises her previous appeal to all Americans to specifically White women in “An Appeal To My Countrywomen,” to question how they can show mercy and empathy to many beings around the world, except for Southern African Americans who need their activism. Harper castigates their complicity by telling them to not weep for these recently freed Americans, but to “weep for your sons who must gather / The crops which their fathers have sown.” Throughout her writing career, Harper provided many imaginings of what it might look like to heal as a nation together, as Americans. Yet, she remained attuned to the violence and dehumanization that White Americans continued to commit, and therefore prevented the nation from truly healing post-Civil War. 


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