Chapter 5: Late Nineteenth Century
© Paul P. Reuben
February 15, 2017
| A Brief Biography |
A pioneering journalist, author of fiction and poetry, and a professional lecturer, Frances Harper has had a remarkable life. Active in abolitionism, suffrage, and the temperance movement, she lived long enough to see her efforts rewarded. She gets credit for introducing the tradition of African American protest poetry. Famous during her lifetime, Harper used her prestige and writings to fight racism and also make strong feminist statements.
Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, 1854; "The Two Offers," (short story), 1859; Sketches of Southern Life, (poems), 1872; Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, (novel), 1892; The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems, 1894.
Complete Poems of FEWH. NY: Oxford UP, 1988. PS1799 .H7 A17
Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. NY: Oxford UP, 1988. PS1799 .H7 I6
A Brighter Coming Day: A FEWH Reader. Ed. Frances Smith Foster. NY: Feminist P:1990. PS 1799 .H7 A6
Iola Leroy. Robbins, Hollis (ed. and introd.). NY: Penguin, 2010.
Selected Bibliography 1980-Present
Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn Into the Twentieth Century. 1991.
Belluscio, Steven J. To Be Suddenly White: Literary Realism and Racial Passing. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2006.
Bennett, Michael, and Vanessa D. Dickerson. eds. Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2001.
Bergman, Jill, and Debra Bernardi. eds. Our Sisters' Keepers: Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005.
Cane, Aleta F. and Susan Alves. eds. 'The Only Efficient Instrument': American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2001.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. 1987.
Chakkalakal, Tess. Novel Bondage: Slavery, Marriage, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011.
Ferguson, Sallyann H. ed. Nineteenth-Century Black Women's Literary Emergence: Evolutionary Spirituality, Sexuality, and Identity: An Anthology. NY: Peter Lang, 2008.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009.
Foster, Frances S. ed. A Brighter Coming Day; A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. NY: City Univ. of NewYork, 1990.
Foster, Frances S. ed. Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels. Boston: Beacon. 1994.
Hubbard, Dolan. ed. Recovered Writers/Recovered Texts. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1997.
Jackson, Cassandra. Barriers between Us: Interracial Sex in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004.
James, Jennifer C. A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007.
Kilcup, Karen L. ed. Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999.
Nurhussein, Nadia. Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013.
Parker, Alison M. Articulating Rights: Nineteenth-Century American Women on Race, Reform, and the State. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 2010.
Richardson, Elaine B. and Ronald L. Jackson. eds. African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.
Schmidt, Peter. Sitting in Darkness: New South Fiction, Education, and the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2008.
Showalter, Elaine. ed. The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. NY: Vintage, 2011.
Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire. 1992.
Van Dette, Emily E. Sibling Romance in American Fiction, 1835-1900. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
West, Elizabeth J. African Spirituality in Black Women's Fiction: Threaded Visions of Memory, Community, Nature, and Being. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2011.
Williams, Andreá N. Dividing Lines: Class, Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2012.
Zackodnik, Teresa C. The Mulatta and the Politics of Race. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2004.
A Student Project by Rachel Haro-Reichelt
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born a free black woman in Baltimore, Maryland on September 24, 1825. Other than the fact that she was orphaned at birth, little is known about her birth. However, it is known that her father was a white man and her mother, a black woman, had the last name of Watkins. Harper was raised and formally educated by her uncle, William Watkins, a strict man who founded and taught at a local Baltimore school for free black children. During her schooling years, like most free blacks, Harper was educated in literature, rhetoric, and the Bible (Graham 24). Although physically light-skinned in appearance, Harper did not stray from the traditional role of a free black woman while growing up. At the age of fourteen, after completing her formal education, she began employment as a maid with the Armstrong family of Baltimore. With permission from her employers, she frequently ventured into the family's personal library and family-owned bookstore to further her interests in literature and poetry (Foster 6). Soon after, Harper began writing poetry and prose. Her writings often reflected her own feelings and thoughts on various social and political issues while heavily using biblical and religious subject matter (7).
By 1846, after several years of creating and gathering poetry and prose, Harper published her first book of poetry entitled Forest Leaves. Leaving her employment with the Armstrong family, she assumed the esteemed role as the first female faculty member at Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio (Graham 24). During her time in Ohio her interest in the anti-slavery movement and Afro-American rights became passionate causes that ultimately consumed her public and private life until her death. According to a letter written by Harper in 1851, "Upon the grave, I pledged myself to the anti-slavery cause..." (Still 786) In 1854, impassioned with a need to achieve her goal of social reform, Harper assumed residence in the Underground Railroad station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and released her second poetic collection plainly titled: Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects. This collection of poetry, according to author Benjamin Brawley, marks the beginning of the first of three major groupings in Harper's writing (Brawley 388). This first section, from 1854 to 1864, chronicles her involvement as a lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. The abolitionist movement serves as the dominant theme of her poetry and article writing during this period. The second section from 1865 to 1872, chronicle her extensive travels through the southern states. The third, from 1872 to 1900 was done while living in Philadelphia "when she...held leadership roles in a number of black, civil rights, and womenís organizations and temperance societies." (Graham 37)
Between the years of 1860 and 1864 Harper experienced a brief marriage to Fenton Harper, the birth of her daughter Mary, and the early death of her husband. All of this was enough to force Harper into a brief retirement in Columbus, Ohio (Foster 18). However, soon after Fenton's death in 1864, Harper was back in Philadelphia, with her daughter Mary, and ready to tackle problems and initiate social change. Harper began lecturing and teaching, often committing to two engagements a day (19). In Daughters of America, Phebe A Hanaford writes that in addition to being one of the most eloquent lecturers in the country "...She is one of the colored women of whom white women may be proud, and to whom the abolitionists can point and declare that a race which could show such women never ought to have been held in bondage." (Hanaford 326) Harper's concerns and interests began leaning toward black working women and the welfare of their race. Her participation in "political movements such as abolition, suffrage, temperance, and education" earned her a reputation as a strong woman with educated beliefs (Foster 4).
As if extensive lecturing throughout the eastern states wasn't enough, 1869 arrived with the release of Moses: A Story of the Nile. Soon after, she and Mary settled into a Philadelphia home where Harper began collecting poetry and prose for her next book Poems, released in 1871. Her 1872 release of Sketches of Southern Life received praise from her peers as an original work reflecting the scenes and people she came upon during her travels through the southern states (20). In addition, she published a number of articles, on various topics, in the Christian Recorder, the New National Era, and the Philadelphia Press (21). Her article publishing and active involvement in the American Women's Suffrage Association, the national Council of Women, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union left little time for anything other than her passions.
In 1892, after her interest shifted from poetry to fiction, Harper released Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted. This novel was regarded as being "the most impressive novel by an African-American prior to the twentieth century." (Johnson 11) From 1893 to 1901, with the exception of Atlanta Offering: Poems, Idylls of the Bible, and The Sparrow's Fall and Other Poems, Harper wrote mainly essays dedicated to a number of social causes but primarily focused on the African-American woman (Foster 39). In 1896, as a respected black woman, she participated in the First Congress of Colored Women in the United States. This group, along with her participation in the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the Colored Women's League resulted in the creation of the National Council for Negro Women (21).
Harper's internal fire and pure commitment to the rights of black women fueled her passionate and idealistic writings until her death in 1911. Her embracement of progressive and radical ideas toward social reform made her one of the strongest speakers and writers of the time period. Her radical political involvement and ideological development is why Maxwell Whiteman credits the modern concept of "black power" and the women's rights movement to her (35-36). Her wisdom and desire for human equality is something that has survived well into the 1990s and is sure to live on for years to come.
Brawley, Benjamen. "Three Negro Poets: Horton, Mrs. Harper, and Whitman." Journal of Negro History 2 (1917): 384-92.
Foster, Frances Smith (ed.) A Brighter Coming Day; A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist Pat. City University of New York. 1990.
Graham, Maryemma. The Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Hanaford, Phebe A. Daughters of America. Augusta, Maine: True and Co., 1882.
Johnson, Edward A. A School History of the Negro race in America from 1619-1860. 1911. Reprint. New York: A.M.S. Press, 1969.
Still, William. The Underground Rail Road. Philadelphia: Porters and Coates, 1872.
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 5: Frances Harper." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:
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