Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

By Sala Thanassi

“Mrs. F.E.W. Harper.”

Known famously as the “Bronze Muse,” Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s prominence in United States history lies in her accomplishments as an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, and writer. She used her talents to advocate for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and equity in educational spheres. Her work alongside other influential figures has created and fostered a lasting impact on society today. 

Section One: A Brief Biography

Harper was born free in Baltimore, Maryland, a slave state. Harper’s mother died when Harper was just three years old, and Harper began living with her aunt and uncle. Her uncle was the Reverend William J. Watkins Sr.: he was involved as a civil rights activist and leader in Baltimore’s Black Sharp Street Church, and was a highly influential figure in Harper’s upbringing and entrance into activism. Like Mary Church Terrell , Harper was raised in a family environment which prioritized education. Her uncle founded Harper Academy for Negro Youth, where he and four of his sons took teaching posts. As a teenager, Harper worked as a seamstress for a white Quaker family: while working for them she continued reading and writing and, in 1846, she published her first book of poetry. (Hallie) (Parish)

“William J. Watkins Sr.”

Section Two: Harper’s Teaching Background

In 1851, 26-year-old Harper relocated to Columbus, Ohio, where she taught domestic science as the first woman faculty member at Union Seminary, an African Methodist Episcopal school. This school later merged into Wilberforce University, where Mary Church Terrell took her first teaching post 34 years later. In 1852, Harper took another teaching position in Pennsylvania, where she lived in an Underground Railroad Station. As a close witness to the movement of slaves toward freedom, Harper’s poetry and activism were greatly influenced by this time period. (“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper”)

Original map design: oil on canvas, by Charles Hollingsworth, 1981. Image courtesy of the permanent collection of the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Section Three: The National Association of Colored Women

Harper’s organizational activism began with her involvement in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and in 1890 she was appointed national superintendent of the WCTU’s Colored Work Department. Despite her qualifications and experience, her appointment was met with resistance from other members based on her race. In 1891, Harper was demoted from the position of national superintendent, reportedly due to the pressure of white members who opposed her leadership. Six years after her demotion, she was amongst the founding members of the National Association of Colored Women. Harper also helped organize the association’s first convention held in Washington, D.C., the First Annual Convention of the National Association of Colored Women. The convention was a success, boasting the attendance of over 100 women’s clubs across the nation. Harper delivered a powerful address on the subject of Black women’s equality at the convention, where she was then elected as the organization’s Vice President. She served as Vice President from 1897-1904.

During her involvement with the N.A.C.W., Harper committed to expanding the organization’s reach and increasing membership. Harper’s specific advocacies included increased vocalization on behalf of the N.A.C.W. to demand government action on matters of lynching and racial violence; that the N.A.C.W. should participate in suffrage parties and rallies to ensure that Black women’s voices were heard; and that the organization increase attention to breaking down access barriers to education for Black women. In 1900 she served as the organization’s National Superintendent of Clubs, and during her tenure she established the National Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs Library. This library provided access to books and other written materials that were less accessible in segregated public libraries, and served as a meeting place for the N.A.C.W. and other Black women’s organizations. Continuing Terrell’s legacy, Harper also supported efforts to create educational programs for Black women and children, and served as director of the American Association of Colored Youth. (Terborg-Penn), (Wall).

“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.”

Section Four: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893

In June of 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as the Chicago World’s Fair) drew international crowds to Chicago in their stated mission to showcase the technological, cultural, and artistic achievements of the United States and other nations around the world. In establishing the structure of the fair, President Benjamin Harrison failed to include any racial minorities in his 208-person Board of National Commissioners, the official administrative body (Paddon, Turner 19-20). There was, however, The Congress of Representative Women, which was organized by the World’s Congress Auxiliary and staged a series of meetings and presentations that centered around women’s rights and issues. Harper was a prominent and respected figure in the women’s rights and temperance movements by that time, and was thus invited to speak at the congress: there, she delivered a powerful speech titled “The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Franchise.” In her speech, she asserted the exclusion of Black women from the mainstream suffrage movement and called for mobilization in Black women’s efforts for suffrage. She recited a poem titled “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” during her speech, which celebrated the contributions of Black U.S. citizens and expressed hope for a more equitable future. While Black women were not permitted to exhibit their work in many sections of the Women’s Building, the “Poetry and Prose” section allowed for a broader range of contributions, including a poem by Harper titled “The Mission of the Flowers.”

In protest of the active exclusion of Black Women at the Chicago World’s Fair, Harper joined an organized group of her fellow creators and Black women, including Mary Church Terrell and Fannie Barrier Williams to protest the active exclusion of Black women at the Fair. This protest was held during the last week of the fair and was called the “Congress of Colored Women.” Solidarity was shown by women who weren’t directly involved in the protest, as well: one such example is Ida B. Wells, who worked with other prominent activists to increase exposure of the exclusion with the creation and publication of a pamphlet titled The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Congress of Colored Women, and all those in support of their mission, were intent on showcasing the achievements of Black women and demanding recognition within the larger women’s suffrage movement. 

The work of Harper and the Congress of Colored women as they championed the recognition of Black women at the Chicago World’s Fair continued other movements that challenged gender and racial inequity. These movements included the protests around the exclusion of Black women from the Women’s Department at the 1884 New Orleans Cotton Centennial: nine years before Harper joined The Congress of Colored Women in their protest, Black women’s groups and activists organized an event called the Colored Women’s Congress to advocate for and showcase the accomplishments of the Black women left out of the 1884 Cotton Centennial. The Congress featured speeches and presentations on the subjects of education, women’s rights, health, and more. The passion shown by the Colored Women’s Congress of New Orleans in 1884 was no less powerful than the passion displayed by the Congress of Colored Women of Chicago in 1893. The unwavering determination for equal representation would only grow in strength, and take up arms time and time again, against the racism that plagued the World’s Fairs of the 19th century.

Section Five: Literary Works

Harper’s first book, a collection of poetry titled “Forest Leaves”, was published in 1845 when Harper was 20 years old. Her second book, another collection of poetry titled “Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects,” was published in 1854. This second book reached vast success, and contains some of Harper’s most well-known works. Harper’s literary prowess extended into her activism: as the first Black woman lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society, she often incorporated her poetry into her anti-slavery lectures as she traveled throughout the South (Black Women’s Organizing Archive). 

In 1859, when Harper was 34 years old, her first short story was published in The Anglo-African Newspaper, a popular Black newspaper during the nineteenth century. Her short story was titled The Two Offers. Between the years of 1868-1888, three of Harper’s serialized short stories were published in The Christian Recorder, another popular Black newspaper at the time: these stories were titled Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, and Trials and Triumphs. These stories were included in her book lola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, which was published in 1892 and is considered one of Harper’s most significant works of fiction. Scholars have theorized that the character of Violet in Iola Leroy is inspired by the prominent activist and journalist Ida B. Wells (Black Women’s Organizing Archive)

Harper’s literary works are categorized by their focus on race, gender, and social justice. Her work often addressed the experiences of herself and the women around her; and, as such, should be recognized for its important contribution to the representation of life as a Black woman in the nineteenth century.

Featured below is Frances Harper’s most recognized poem, titled “The Slave Mother.” The poem describes a mother’s forceful separation from her child, an experience that was all too common amongst enslaved women.

Works Cited

“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” Black Women’s Organizing Archive, Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

“Frances E. W. Harper.” BlackPast, 27 Nov. 2007, Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” Iowa State University: Archives of Women’s Political Communication, Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” Wikipedia, Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

Hollingsworth, Charles. “William Still: An African American Abolitionist,” 1981, Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

Parish, Jenette. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).” Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), MSA SC 3520-12499. Maryland State Archives, Accessed 26 Mar. 2023.

Parker, Alison M. “Frances Watkins Harper and the Search for Women’s Interracial Alliances.” Boydell & Brewer: University of Rochester Press, 2013. Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.

Quinn, Hallie. “Mrs. F.E.W. Harper.” Courtesy of Documenting the American South. Colored Conventions Heartland, 2016, Accessed 24 Apr. 2023.

Ruffin, Josephine St. Pierre. “The Women’s Era” v.2:no.2 (1895: May). Women’s Era Club, Accessed 24 Apr. 2023.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press, 1998.

Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 1995.

“William J. Watkins Sr.” Watkins Education, 2014, Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.