Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)
The list of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s accomplishments is lengthy. She was a suffragist, an abolitionist, a poet, a teacher, a prohibitionist, a public speaker, and a writer.
Mary Ellen Watkins was born free in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the only child of free parents whose names are unknown. They both died in 1828, making Watkins an orphan at age three. She was raised by a maternal aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Rev. William J. Watkins Sr. who gave her their last name.
Rev. Watkins was the minister at the Sharp Street African Methodist Episcopal Church and in 1820 had established the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. It was there that Frances received her education. A civil rights activist and abolitionist himself, Rev. Watkins was a major influence on his niece’s life and work.
At age thirteen, Watkins began working as a seamstress. She had been trained in the “trades” of sewing and domestic work in addition to academics at Watkins Academy. She also worked as a nursemaid for a white family who owned a bookstore. In her spare time she was able to read books from the shop and began doing her own writing. She published her first book, a collection of her poetry entitled “Forest Leaves”, when she was 21.
At age 26 Watkins moved from Baltimore to take a position as the first female teacher at Union Seminary, an AME-affiliated school for Black students near Columbus, Ohio. She taught domestic science there until it closed in 1853. The following year she took a position at a school in York, Pennsylvania. During this period of her life, she lived with the family of William Still, a clerk at The Pennsylvania Abolition Society and who helped refugee slaves on their passage along the Underground Railroad. Watkins began writing anti-slavery literature and, after joining the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1853, Watkins began her career as a public speaker and political activist. Her literary career by then was becoming quite successful. Her collection “Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects” (1864) became a commercial success, making her the most popular African American poet before Laurence Dunbar.
On November 22, 1860, Watkins married Fenton Harper and moved to a farm in Ohio. She remained there for the next four years, raising their daughter and Fenton’s three children from a previous marriage, until his death four years later. Fenton’s death left Watkins-Harper with a large debt requiring her to resume lecturing, teaching and writing in order to support herself and the children.
Because of her alliances with prominent women’s rights activists, she was a speaker at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York in 1866. There she gave her famous speech entitled “We Are All Bound Up Together”, urging attendees to include African American women in their fight for the right to vote. She emphasized that Black women faced a double battle against racism and sexism and therefore the fight for women’s suffrage must include suffrage for African Americans. The next day the Convention held a meeting to organize the American Equal Rights Association to work for suffrage for both African Americans and women. A dispute over support of the fifteenth amendment caused the organization to split. The amendment was to grant African American men the right to vote. Watkins-Harper supported the amendment. She, along with Frederick Douglass and other supporters, formed the African Woman Suffrage Association.
Watkins-Harper spent the rest of her career working for equal rights and education for African American Women. With Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and several others she co-founded the National Association of Colored Women. Prior to forming the association, she published her most famous novel “Iola Leroy”. She served as the director of the National Association of Colored Youth and as superintendent of the Colored Sections of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Unions.
Watkins-Harper died on February 22, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.