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Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper

Poet (1825–1911)
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Poet and orator Frances E.W. Harper, the child of two free black parents, publicly advocated for abolition and education through speeches and publications.


Frances E.W. Harper was born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was able to attend school as the daughter of free Black parents. Her first poem collection, Forest Leaves, was published around 1845. The delivery of her public speech, "Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race," resulted in a two-year lecture tour for the Anti-Slavery Society. She died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1911.

Early Life

Born Frances Ellen Watkins on September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances E.W. Harper was a leading African American poet and writer. She was also an ardent activist in the abolitionist and women's rights movements. After losing her mother at a young age, Harper was raised by an aunt. She also attended a school for African American children run by her uncle, Reverend William Watkins.

Bright and talented, Harper started writing poetry in her youth. She kept on writing while working for a Quaker family after finishing school. In 1845, Harper published her first collection of poetry, titled Forest Leaves. She moved to Ohio five years later to teach domestic skills, such as sewing, at Union Seminary. The school was run by leading abolitionist John Brown. Harper became dedicated to the abolitionist cause a few years later after her home state of Maryland passed a fugitive enslaved people law. This law allowed even free Black people, such as Harper, to be arrested and sold into slavery.

Writer and Activist

In 1854, Harper published Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects, which featured one of her most famous works, "Bury Me in a Free Land." She also became an in-demand lecturer on behalf of the abolitionist movement, appearing with the likes of Frederick Douglass, William Garrison, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone.

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Harper made literary history in 1859 with the publication of "Two Offers." With this work, she became the first African American female writer to publish a short story. The following year, she married Fenton Harper, who had several children from a previous marriage. Harper retreated from public life, choosing to live with her husband and children in Ohio. In 1862, she gave birth to a daughter, Mary.

In 1864, Harper returned to the lecture circuit after the death of her husband. She also produced several long-form poems a short while later, including Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869) and Sketches of Southern Life (1872), which explored her experiences during the reconstruction.

Harper published her most famous novel Iola Leroy in 1892. Four years later, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Women with Ida Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman and several others. The organization sought to improve the lives and advance the rights of African American women.

Final Years

By the turn of the century, Harper began to scale down her activities, though she still worked to support such causes as women's suffrage and such organizations as the NACW and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Harper died of heart failure on February 22, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was buried next to her daughter, Mary, at Eden Cemetery.

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