Historical Markers
Frances E.W. Harper Historical Marker
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Frances E.W. Harper

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1006 Bainbridge St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
March 25, 1992

Behind the Marker

"We want more soul, a higher cultivation of all spiritual faculties. We need more unselfishness, earnestness, and integrity. We need men and women whose hearts are the homes of high and lofty enthusiasm and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom."
    -Frances E.W. Harper "Our Greatest Want," The Anglo-African Magazine, May 1859.
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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, circa 1860.
One of the most prominent African-American women of the 1800s, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper devoted her life to writing and lecturing for abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage. For more than a half century, Harper employed her poetry and prose to illuminate the plight of African Americans and women, to campaign against racism and sexism, and to appeal for equality.
Born September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances was raised by an aunt and uncle after being orphaned at the age of three. Greatly influenced by her uncle, William Watkins, an African-American school teacher, preacher, and abolitionist, Watkins received a well-rounded education at his Academy for Negro Youth. At fourteen, she gained employment as a seamstress and domestic for a book merchant, who granted her access to his library and encouraged her writing. In 1846, at the age of twenty-one, Watkins published her first collection of poems, Forest Leaves.
Desiring to live in a free state, Watkins moved to Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1850, and there became the first woman to teach at the Union Seminary. In 1852, she took a teaching job in Little York, Pennsylvania. When Maryland passed a law in 1853 legalizing the enslavement of any free black found entering the state from the north, Harper found herself an exile from her home state.

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Frances Harper, engraving from William Still’s The Underground Railroad,...
Upon hearing the story of a free black who had been enslaved after unknowingly violating the law and then died after his second attempt to escape, Watkins joined the abolitionist movement. “Upon that grave,” she wrote in a letter to a friend, “I pledged myself to the Anti-Slavery cause.” Her newfound devotion soon led her to Philadelphia, where markerWilliam Still, corresponding secretary and chairman of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, introduced her to the workings of the Underground Railroad.  
Invited by the Stills to stay in their apartment above the anti-slavery office, Watkins immersed herself in the Underground Railroad. In the spring of 1854, she traveled to Boston to visit the Anti-Slave Society and there found a publisher for her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. In this work, Watkins wrote about religion, temperance, slavery, poverty, and gender—all subjects that would become central themes in her literary career. That same year, the State Anti-Slavery Society of Maine recruited Watkins to travel throughout the northern states and Canada, delivering lectures on abolition and the need for the education and elevation of the black race.
Watkins also contributed to Frederick Douglass's newspaper, the Weekly Anglo African, and other abolitionist journals, and she joined the editorial board of the Anglo-African Magazine, the first African-American literary journal. In 1859, Anglo-African Magazine published Harper’s "The Two Offers," a tale about marriage and women's rights. This was the first short story, many scholars believe, published by an African-American woman.

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Frances Ellen Harper Branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union,...
In 1860, Watkins stopped her travels when she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. At their farm outside of Columbus, Ohio, she gave birth to their only daughter, Mary, in 1862. Even though she was busy with family responsibilities, Harper continued to write poetry and deliver lectures on abolition. Following her husband’s death in 1864, Harper and Mary moved east, boarding with the Stills in Philadelphia from 1865 to 1867. 

It was during these years in Philadelphia that Harper, now a widow and a single mother, became involved in the women’s-rights movement. In 1866, she delivered a powerful speech at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York that contributed to the development of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). There, too, the celebrated abolitionist and suffragist markerLucretia Mott delivered a speech identifying Harper as the embodiment of the new generation of feminists.

In the years that followed, Harper entered her greatest period of literary productivity and national prominence. Between 1866 and 1871, she toured the South, lecturing at black schools and assisting with Reconstruction. In 1869, she published Minnie's Sacrifice, a serialized novel that culminates in Minnie's lynching, in which her African-American characters, living in the South during Reconstruction, find their identity in political action and Christian tradition, resistance, and self-defense. That same year, Harper published her third book, Moses: A Story of the Nile

Portrait of an African -American woman standing with her hands on the back of chair.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Philadelphia, PA, 1891.
In 1871, Harper returned to Philadelphia, where she soon published Poems and Sketches of Southern Life. Harper’s works found eager audiences in southern freedmen’s schools. By 1872, more than 50,000 copies of Harper’s works were in circulation. Harper also continued to lecture and work for the advancement of African Americans. She collaborated with the Philadelphia Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal Church, carrying out youth work and fighting juvenile delinquency. Viewing alcohol as one of the greatest problems confronting African Americans, she joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), held various offices within the organization, served as the only African-American board member, and held an office within the national chapter from 1888 until 1893. 

In 1892, Harper published Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, her only full-length, separately published novel, in which she depicted slaves as active participants in the struggle for freedom and called upon African Americans to improve themselves. In 1893, she attended the Congress of Representative Women at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where she delivered one of her most powerful and influential speeches, “Woman’s Political Future,” “[T]o-day” she told the delegates, “we stand on the threshold [sic] of woman's era, and woman's work is grandly constructive. In her hand are possibilities whose use or abuse must tell upon the political life of the nation, and send their influence for good or evil across the track of marker unborn ages"
For the rest of her life, Harper remained a highly sought after speaker by women’s groups throughout the country. Through her publications and speeches, Harper inspired a generation of African Americans and feminists. Frances Harper died in her Philadelphia home on February 22, 1911, nine years before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote. Though passing from an imperfect world, her vision of freedom, expressed so eloquently in "Bury Me in a Free Land," first published in 1864, had been realized.    
Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves...

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a marker land of slaves.
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