Frances E.W. Harper: First African American Woman to Publish a Short Story

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a lecturer, poet, abolitionist, suffragist, and reformer born September 24, 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised by her aunt Henrietta and uncle William Watkins. An only child, her parents died by the time she was three years old.

Harper attended the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, founded in 1820 by her uncle, an outspoken abolitionist, until the age of thirteen.

She worked as a nursemaid and seamstress for a Quaker family that owned a bookshop, and encouraged her reading following her chores.

By the time she was 21, Francis Harper wrote her first small volume of poetry called Forest Leaves.

At 26, she left Maryland for Columbus, Ohio and became the first woman instructor at Union Seminary, a school for free African Americans in Wilberforce from 1850 to 1852 before leaving for a better teaching position in Little York, Pennsylvania.

During this time, she lived in an Underground Railroad station, witnessing the workings of the Underground Railroad and the movement of slaves toward freedom, and wrote frequently for anti-slavery newspapers, earning her a reputation as the mother of African American journalism.

Around 1853, Maryland passed a law stating that free African Americans were no longer allowed to enter the state, otherwise they’d be imprisoned and sold into slavery, she pledged herself to the antislavery movement.

Harper was hired as a traveling lecturer by various organizations including the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society after her first speech entitled, “The Elevation and Education of our People.”

While traveling and lecturing, several thousand copies of her books were sold, and she donated a large portion of the proceeds to the Underground Railroad.

She emphasized that Black women were facing the double burden of racism and sexism at the same time, therefore the fight for women’s suffrage must include African Americans.

On November 22, 1860, she married Fenton Harper and they purchased a farm near Columbus, Ohio where they settled until his death May 5, 1864. Together, they had a daughter named Mary who died at an early age.

The evening of the day on which Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (1/1/1863) she was in Columbus, Ohio. She asked her audience, “Well, did you ever expect to see this day?”

In May 1866, she delivered the speech, "We Are All Bound Up Together" at the National Women's Rights Convention in New York, sharing the stage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. "You white women speak here of rights," she said. "I speak of wrongs."

Her efforts to raise consciousness on this issue earned her election as vice president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1897, which she helped found along with Margaret Murray Washington (wife of Booker T. Washington), Harriet Tubman, and other prominent African American women.

She spent the rest of her career working for the pursuit of equal rights, job opportunities, and education for African American women. She was the director of the American Association of Colored Youth, the superintendent of the Colored Sections of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Unions.

She published several books including "Sketches of Southern Life" (1872), "The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems" (1894), and her well-known novel "Iola Leroy", or Shadows Uplifted, one of the first novels published by a black woman in the United States (1892).

Frances E.W. Harper died from heart disease on February 22, 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's buried at Eden Cemetery next to her daughter Mary.


Like this post? Stop by and read "Mary Todd Lincoln: Rarely a Kind Word." Mary Todd Lincoln was wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The two met in Springfield, Illinois in 1839... in his own words, he was “a poor nobody then.” She reportedly managed to save $70,000 of his $100,000 salary during his presidency. During the Civil War, Mary Lincoln became a regular at the newly-established hospitals around Washington, D.C. providing food and comfort to the wounded. Rarely was a kind word printed about her by the press. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre. She uttered in disbelief, "Oh my God, have I given my husband to die?"

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