Black History Month. With a full roster of incredible people of color, how can we even begin to scratch the surface of what African Americans have done for this country? Regardless, I’d like to try to bring to the forefront a few people of color this month that have left indelible marks on the pages of history. I can think of no better person than Frances Harper to start off this exploration. Strong and determined, she may not be at the top of everyone’s lists when they think “African American Heroine”, but this lady certainly made a difference!
A Little background
Born in Maryland in 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an enigma. In a time when women didn’t have a voice, and especially African American women, she broke free from the oppression of the era. Although she was born free to free parents, she saw first-hand the ravages slavery had on the body and soul.
After losing her mother, Frances Harper was raised by her aunt and uncle, attending her uncle’s school — the Academy for Negro Youth. Refusing to settle and hungry for education beyond the confines of her conventional schooling, Frances Harper gained great knowledge and insight through her internship with a bookseller in Philadelphia. As she came into her own, she wrote poetry and prose, and so started her impressive career as a writer, poet, speaker and visionary.
Frances Harper was published for the first time at the young age of twenty. Her book, Forest Leaves, was the first of many to come, each and every one more powerful than the last.
In 1850 Frances Harper moved to Ohio for a teaching position, during which time she wrote and published another book, titled, Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects, bringing her into the limelight with the piece “Bury Me in a Free Land.”
After her teaching for two years and continuing her writing, she became a highly sought-after lecturer, speaking and working with the likes of abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott and William Garrison.
It was in 1859 that Frances became the first African American woman to publish a short story titled “Two Offers.” This alone was a huge feat — at a time when slavery was still in effect in most parts of the U.S. — four years before Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves. She became affectionately known as “mother of African American Journalism,” due to her deep involvement in writing for anti-slavery newspapers and publications.
Short-lived Domestic Bliss
In 1860 Frances married Fenton Harper, taking on the challenge of raising his three children. She chose at this time to take a break from the speaking circuit and concentrate on her family, giving birth to her own daughter, Mary.
After less than four years together, Frances’s husband passed away. As a means to support her family, she took up speaking once again.
A Force to be Reckoned With
In the following years, she would go on to write several more influential works, including Sketches of Southern Life; Poems; The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems; The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems; Atlanta Offering and a few novels, including Iola Leroy.
She became very active during the Reconstruction, fighting for women’s, civil and education rights. In the midst of such upheaval, she found herself superintendent for the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She also was the co-founder and VP for the National Association of Colored Women, the Director of the American Association of Colored Youth and a member of the American Women’s Suffrage Association.
Active almost right up to the end of her life, Frances Harper passed away at the age of 85 in Philadelphia.
Interested in learning more about this incredible woman? Check out her biography here.