Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: First African American Woman to Publish a Short Story

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

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

She’d attended the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth until she was 13 years old, which was founded in 1820 by her uncle, an outspoken abolitionist, practiced self-taught medicine.

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, she’d 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, Ohio 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, where she witnessed 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 living were no longer allowed to enter the state, otherwise they’d be imprisoned and sold into slavery, she pledged herself to the antislavery movement.

She 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 suffrage for 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, January 1, 1863, she was in Columbus, Ohio where 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, the wife of Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, and other prominent African American women.

Frances 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, she was also the superintendent of the Colored Sections of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Unions.

She also published books throughout this period, 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 Ellen Watkins Harper died from heart disease on February 22, 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is buried at Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter Mary.

“This is a common cause; …I have a right to do my short of the work. The humblest and feeblest of us can do something; and though I may be deficient in many of the conventionalisms of the city life, and be considered as a person of good impulses, but unfinished, yet I there is common rough work to be done, call on me.”

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