E. W. Harper was a Prominent Social Reformer and Fighter for Women’s Suffrage

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Updated: Mar 31, 2023
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Frances E. W. Harper was a prominent social reformer and activist in numerous progressive organizations. She was an abolitionist who fought racial injustice through public orations and written compositions. Civil rights historian Carla Peterson argues that Harper’s writing became the tutelary activity through which she pressed for change throughout her lifetime. Harper certainly wrote within and for the black community. Her interests were, however, more expansive than the single issue of abolition.

Harper’s populist outreach works consistently demonstrated attention both to the domestic and political predicaments of African American communities.

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She addressed black readership and insisted that African American households and livelihoods were necessary to society and made them foundational to the process of national reconstruction. Moreover, she participated in the fight for women’s suffrage, was a pacifist, and regularly wrote and published articles concerning these causes. This essay will argue that Frances Harper’s life and writings were inextricably intertwined with numerous nineteenth-century social reform movements, providing her with extensive networks of influence.

Frances Ellen Watkins was the daughter of free parents. She was born on the 24th of September 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. After her father and then her mother died in 1828, Watkins was taken in by her maternal aunt and uncle. Rev. William Watkins was an important influence on his niece’s life as he ran the Academy for Negro Youth that Watkins attended and was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Barbara Johnson, in her study of Christianity and multiculturalism in relation to Frances Watkins, highlights the fact that ‘Maryland was a slave state as the Civil War approached,’ and so Watkins grew up in a dangerous environment in which ‘no black was safe from slavery.’

She did, however, receive a formal education, unlike the majority of African American children. As a teenager, Watkins was hired out as a seamstress to a white Quaker family. They gave her access to literature, which encouraged her love of reading and writing. Her first literary collection, called Forest Leaves, was published when she was twenty, of which a single copy has been discovered recently by scholar Johanna Ortner. In 1850, Watkins relocated to Ohio (a free state), where she supported herself financially by becoming the first black woman to teach sewing at Union Seminary, established by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Watkins grew dissatisfied and moved to Little Rock, Pennsylvania, in 1853. It was there that she became more involved in the anti-slavery movement. In a biographical study of Watkins, Ammons notes that she assisted runaway slaves via the Underground Railroad network. She concurrently joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and worked as a traveling lecturer on the abolitionist circuit between 1856 and 1860. According to Ammons’ observations, Watkins was an eloquent speaker who frequently spoke without a text.

Consequently, few of her dialogues survive today, but her written works have endured. In 1854, she released her second collection called Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. It went on to become her biggest commercial success. Her literary compositions were inspired by the daily realities of racial discrimination. In 1858, for example, whilst traveling on a tram in Philadelphia, Watkins declined to forfeit her seat or move to the “colored” section. This instance was reenacted almost one hundred years later with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama. Watkins later wrote, “Bury

Me in a Free Land.” Watkins used the motif of herself still suffering in her grave, not free to rest. In the poem, she lists atrocities that occurred under slavery, including ‘the lash,’ ‘babies torn from breast,’ ‘bloodhounds seizing their human prey,’ and girls’ bartered’ as if they were animals. Watkins does not provide a solution to slavery but rather seeks refuge from it in death. She frequently recited this poem at several public abolitionist meetings, and it had deeply felt resonance amongst the African American population, especially in the South.
Shortly after this, Watkins made history as her short story “The Two Offers” was published, making Watkins the first African American woman to do so.

The following year, after the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, Watkins married Fenton Harper, and they moved to Ohio. They had a daughter, Mary, in 1862. Familial happiness was short-lived; however, as Fenton Harper died in 1864 and was widowed, Mrs. Harper quickly returned to lecturing and writing in order to support herself and her daughter. Throughout her lifetime, Harper published approximately eighty poems and wrote three novels that were serialized from 1868 to 1888. Harper’s literary works engaged with serious relevant social issues, including abolition, motherhood and educational rights for women, religion, temperance, reconstruction, and social responsibility.

In her later life, Harper’s enthusiasm and political activism did not wane. In 1883 she began writing her novel Iola Leroy, which was published in 1892. She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 and served as its vice president alongside fellow activists such as Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tubman, and Ida Wells-Barnett. Field argues the NACW ‘was the most important women’s organization to push for expanding federal power.’ Harper’s revolutionary spirit continued long after her death at the age of eighty-six, as nine years later, American women gained suffrage in the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Harper’s funeral service was held at the abolitionist Unitarian Church (of which she was a member) and she was buried next to her daughter in Eden Cemetery, Philadelphia.

Harper’s reformist spirit has been immortalized in her literary works and in her powerful legacy. F. E. W. Harper Leagues and Frances E. Harper Women’s Christian Temperance Unions survived until the mid-twentieth century, and several African-American women’s service clubs are named after her. Harper’s story of strength, resilience, and will defy social and political norms inspired her contemporary African American writers and journalists to continue her efforts. Even today, her actions and words remain poignant, especially given America’s current political climate. The final stanza of her poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” is engraved on a wall in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her words have a profound impact on all who read them. Her story is certainly one for the ages.

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E. W. Harper Was a Prominent Social Reformer and Fighter for Women's Suffrage. (2023, Mar 25). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/e-w-harper-was-a-prominent-social-reformer-and-fighter-for-womens-suffrage/