Frances Harper

Quick Look At Harper

Frances Harper was an African American poet and author who was also an influential abolitionist. She was the first Black woman to publish a short story in the history of America. She wrote powerful poems and stories that discouraged slavery.

Early Life

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born on September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was an only child and her parents were free African Americans. When she was just three years old, both of her parents died, leaving Harper an orphan. She grew up with her aunt and uncle who would influence her choice of career. Her uncle was a self-taught doctor and was also an abolitionist. In 1820, he founded his own school called the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. Frances Harper started writing poetry at a young age, and she attended her uncle's school until she was thirteen years old. At that age, she left school and started to work, which was typically expected for children in that time period. She began working for a white family, looking after their children and tailoring their clothes. Even though Harper had already shown an interest in books, poetry, and writing, this interest progressed while she was working for the family. They owned a bookshop in which she spent her free time. In 1845, at the age of twenty-one, she wrote and published her first selection of poetry which she called Forest Leaves.


Five years after publishing Forest Leaves, Harper moved to Ohio where she worked at Union Seminary, teaching household skills. This was a school specifically for free African Americans. At this point, she made history by becoming the first female teacher to work at Union Seminary. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in America, and adopted by Maryland, Harper began to adopt stronger views on slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act was an Act passed that encouraged citizens (mainly Southerners, as most Northerners were against slavery) to find and bring in escaped slaves. These people would be paid and praised, and the person they brought in would not be able to say anything. Therefore, this basically allowed people to find random, freed, or formally enslaved African Americans and bring them in to be sold into slavery. This act prevented Harper from returning home to Maryland because if she did, she was bound to be captured and enslaved.

Harper moved to Philadelphia where she lived with abolitionists and friends of her uncle, William, and Letitia George Still. William Still was known as the father of the Underground Railroad. Harper began writing poems for antislavery newspapers, as she became more and more dedicated to the cause. In 1854, she released Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects, which included some of her most famous abolitionist poems. Her poem, Eliza Harris was published in Frederick Douglass' Paper. In 1859, after leaving Philadelphia, Harper published a short story, Two Offers. This story was revolutionary because in publishing this, she became the very first Black woman to publish a short story. In 1860, Harper married Fenton Harper, and in 1862, they had a daughter who they named Mary.

In 1866, Harper spoke and advocated for women's rights at the National Woman's Rights Convention. Here, she gave a famous speech titled "We Are All Bound Up Together," where she explained the double burden Black women faced with racism and sexism. She explained that if people were going to fight for women's rights, that needed to mean all women, not just white women.

Harper continued to write abolitionist poetry, and in 1896, she, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, and others co-founded the National Association of Colored Women. She died on February 22, 1911.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's poetry and writing encouraged and inspired many, and her advocacy for women's rights and against slavery truly made a change in America.