Opera Philadelphia

Who was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper?

Reprinted by permission of Moonstone Arts Center

1825 – Born Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in Baltimore, Maryland, she was orphaned at the age of three and raised by her uncle, the abolitionist Williams Watkins.

1846 – She began her amazing career as a writer by publishing her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, at the age of 21.

1853 – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper first moved to Philadelphia after meeting William Still, in order to become active in the Underground Railroad.

1854 – She moved to Boston, published her second book of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, and became a noted public speaker for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, thus becoming one of the first professional woman orators in the United States.

1858 – She refused to give up her seat or ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia (100 years before Rosa Parks) and wrote one of her most famous poems, “Bury Me In A Free Land,” when she got very sick while on a lecturing tour. Her short story “The Two Offers” became her first short story to be published by an African American.

1859 – A dedicated abolitionist, Harper was one of the few public figures who did not abandon John Brown after his failed effort at Harpers Ferry, instead writing to him and staying with his wife, Mary, at the home of Lucretia Mott (Philadelphia’s leading Quaker Abolitionist) for the two weeks preceding his hanging.

1860 – She married Fenton Harper, had a daughter, Mary, and was widowed in 1864.

1865 – In the immediate post-Civil War years, Harper returned to the lecture circuit, focusing her attentions on education for the formerly enslaved, on the Equal Rights Movement, and on the Temperance Movement.

1868 – She spent four years speaking and teaching in churches and Freedmen’s schools in the South, stressing the importance of education and self-empowerment.

1892 – Harper published her most famous novel, Iola Leroy, at the age of 67. This novel, which was written in Philadelphia, was a best seller and is one of the few books from this period to look at the mid-nineteenth century American landscape through African American eyes.

1896 – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper became Vice President of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women.

1911 – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died on February 22, 1911.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is considered the “Mother of African American Journalism” as well as the most famous 19th century African American poet and novelist. In her role as a political activist, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a brave, principled, and talented advocate for freedom and equality for everyone, speaking for the Anti-Slavery societies before the Civil War and for Women’s Suffrage and Temperance movements after. The study of her life not only gives us a picture of the lived experiences of an intelligent, educated African American woman in the 19th century, but also provides us with a snapshot of Philadelphia as the nation from a perspective that is not usually presented.

Despite all her remarkable accomplishments, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s name cannot be found in most history books.

reprinted by permission of Moonstone Arts Center

Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning Dress Rehearsal Program has been provided by The William Penn Foundation, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Eugene Garfield Foundation, Wells Fargo, Universal Health Services, Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, and Mr. William A. Loeb

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