Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911) was an antislavery activist, suffragist, educator, writer, poet, and lecturer. She is most known for her seminal text, Iola Leroy, but she was also a frequent contributor to African American newspapers, where she published many of her poems and short stories. Harper was heavily involved in women’s rights organizations and helped found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), serving as vice president in its first year.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was one of the most well-known early Black women activists as well as a writer, lecturer, abolitionist, teacher, and poet.
Born free in Baltimore, Maryland Harper was the only child of free parents and was orphaned at a young age. Raised by her aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Reverend William J. Watkins, Sr., she was educated at the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, which her uncle founded in 1820.
When she was 26, Harper taught domestic science at an AME school for Black students in Ohio. She also contributed numerous poems and short stories to antislavery journals and newspapers and published her first poetry collection, Forest Leaves, in 1845 at the age of 20. She subsequently published her second book of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, which reached vast success and was published several more times in the years following. As the first Black woman lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society, Harper often incorporated her poety into her antislavery lectures while traveling throughout the South, her lectures and poetry predominantly speaking to Black women’s experiences during slavery and the Reconstruction era.
In 1859, Harper published her first short story, The Two Offers, in The Anglo-African Newspaper, a popular African American newspaper of the time. Between the period of 1868-1888, Harper also published three serialized short stories in The Christian Recorder (another popular nineteenth-century African American newspaper): Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, and Trials and Triumphs. These short stories were discovered more than a century later by famed historian and African American studies professor, Frances Smith Foster.
After the Civil War, Harper traveled south to teach newly freed African Americans and worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau (created by the U.S. government to assist African American’s transition from enslaved to free after the Civil War) to encourage African Americans to exercise their vote and work their own land. She also served as a voice for Black women within the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union and within the women’s rights movement but ultimately found that these organizations prioritized white women’s concerns more than Black women’s.
At the age of 67, Harper published her highly anticipated first novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted in 1892. Iola Leroy depicted the racial and sexual violence that endangered Black women prior to and after the Civil War and contributed to conversations about Black women’s education, miscegenation, and social responsibility.
Harper’s life of activism and her writings all reveal her dedication to promoting Black freedom, equality, education, and Black women’s rights. She was determined to present Black women’s experiences and the injustices that they faced in her written work and with her organizing. In fact, Harper was a founding member of the National Association for Colored Women and served as the vice president for the first term. In her work within Black women’s organizations, she served as a mentor to Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Ida B. Wells, and Victoria Earle Matthews, to name a few. Through these women and the Black women organizers that followed, her legacy lives on.