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Biography of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins was born in the city of Baltimore in the year 1825. Although of "free" parentages she was subjected to many of the disadvantages and oppressive influences which bond and free alike experienced under slave laws. Mrs. Harper, after she had grown up," expressed very pathetically, but clearly, the loneliness of her childhood days, in the following extract from her writings:

"Have I yearned for a mother's love? The grave was my robber. Before three years had scattered their blight around my path, death had won my mother from me. Would the strong arm of a brother have been welcome? I was my mother's only child."

The earliest portion of her life was spent in the care of her aunt, while she enjoyed the privilege of attending the day school taught by her uncle, Rev. "William Watkins, for the benefit of "free" colored children. But, when she was about thirteen years of age, she was taken from school and put to work to earn her own living. She had, of course, many trials and temptations; but, at the same time, she greatly profited by her environment, in the white family where she was employed. Very early, in her teens, she gave unmistakable evidence of poetic and literary ability. She was taught sewing, while she cared for the children of the household, and, at the same time she satisfied her ever-growing fondness for books and good literature. She had scarcely reached her majority 'ere she had written a number of prose and poetic pieces which were deemed of sufficient merit to be published in a small volume under the title of "Forest Leaves." Some of her efforts found their way into the newspapers. Her mind was of a strictly religious caste, and all the effusions of her pen bear a highly moral and elevating tone. About the year 1851, she left Baltimore to seek a home in a Free State; and, for a short while, took up her abode in the State of Ohio, where she engaged in teaching. Her residence in Ohio was but for a short time. She removed to Little York, Pennsylvania, where she continued the work of teaching. It was while teaching in York that she became thoroughly drawn to the work of the Anti- Slavery cause, and, eventually, became one of its leading public lecturers, and with devotion and energy, gave herself, wholly to the cause.

What may be termed her "maiden speech" was delivered in August, 1854, and the following extract of that date is interesting:

"Well, I am out lecturing. I have lectured every night this week; besides, addressed a Sunday school, and I shall speak, if nothing prevents, tonight. My lectures have met with success. Last night I lectured in a white church in Providence. Mr. Gardener was present, and made the estimate of about six hundred persons. Never, perhaps, was a speaker, old or young, favored with a more attentive audience. My voice is not wanting in strength, as I am aware of, to reach pretty well over the house. The Church was the Roger Williams; the pastor, a Mr. Furnell, who appeared to be a kind and Christian man. My maiden lecture was Monday night in New Bedford, on the 'Elevation and Education of Our People.' "

In 1856, Mrs. Harper, desiring to see the fugitives in Canada, visited the Upper Province, and, in a letter dated at Niagara Falls, September 12 she gives the impression of that visit upon her heart and mind in the following language:

"Well I have gazed for the first time upon Free Land, and, would you believe it, tears sprang to my eyes, and I wept. Oh, it was a glorious sight to gaze for the first time on a land where a poor slave flying from our glorious land of liberty would in a moment find his fetters broken, his shackles loosed, and whatever he was in the land of Washington, beneath the shadow of Bunker Hill Monument or even Plymouth Rock, here he becomes a man and a brother. I have gazed on Harper's Ferry, or rather the Rock at the Ferry; I have seen it towering up in simple grandeur, with the gentle Potomac gliding peacefully at its feet, and felt that that was God's masonry, and my soul has expanded in gazing on its sublimity. I have seen the ocean singing its wild chorus of sounding waves, and ecstasy has thrilled upon the living chords of my heart. I have since then seen the rainbow-crowned Niagara chanting the choral hymn of Omnipotence, girdled with grandeur, and robed with glory; but none of these things have melted me as the first sight of Free Land. Towering mountains lifting their hoary summits to catch the first faint flush of day when the sunbeams kiss the shadows from morning's drowsy face may expand and exalt your soul. The first view of the ocean may fill you with strange delight. Niagara, the great, the glorious Niagara, may hush your spirit with its ceaseless thunder; it may charm you with its robe of crested spray and rainbow crown; but the land of Freedom was a lesson of deeper significance than foaming waves or towering mounts."

"When we recall the scenes of those awful days of sorrow, anxieties, and genuine affliction, centering around the tragic outcome of the 'John Brown's raid," at Harper's Ferry, we can get some idea of the deep sensations which I energized the heart of the subject of this sketch, from the note addressed by her, from her home in Ohio, to John I. Brown's wife. On that memorable occasion, she wrote thus:

"My Dear Madam:
In an hour like this the common words of sympathy may seem like idle words, and yet, I want to say something to you, the noble wife of the hero of the Nineteenth Century. Belonging to the race your dear husband reached forth his hand to assist, I need not I tell you that my sympathies are with you. I thank you for the brave words you have spoken. A republic that; produces such a wife and mother may hope for better days. Our heart may grow more hopeful for humanity when it sees the sublime sacrifice it is about to receive from his hands. Not in vain has your dear husband periled all, if the martyrdom of one hero is worth more than the life of a million cowards. From the prison comes forth a shout of triumph over that power whose ethics are robbery of the feeble and oppression of the weak, the trophies of whose chivalry are a plundered cradle and a scourged and bleeding woman. Dear sister, I thank you for the brave and noble words you have spoken. Enclosed I send you a few dollars as a token of my gratitude, reverence and love.

"Frances Ellen Watkins.
'P. S.  May God, our own God, sustain you in the hour of trial. If there is one tiling on earth I can do for you or yours, let me be apprised. I am at your service.''

It was in the fall of 1860 that Miss Watkins was married to a Mr. Harper, of Ohio. Mr. Harper died in May 1864.

This brave woman who had traveled throughout the North in the interest of the Anti-Slavery cause, immediately after the close of the Civil War, was among the very first to go south, and labor on behalf of her emancipated brethren. She traveled, and labored in nearly every one of the Southern States. She went on the plantations, and amongst the lowly, as well as to the cities and towns, addressing schools, churches, meetings in Court Houses, Legislative Halls, and sometimes under the most trying and hazardous circumstances; influenced in her labor of love, wholly by the noble impulses of her own heart, working her way along unsustained by any society. She came into contact with all classes, the original slave holders, and the Freedmen. In no instance did she permit herself, through fear, to disappoint an audience when engagements had been made for her to speak, although frequently admonished that it would be dangerous to venture in so doing.

In a letter from Darlington, S. C, to the late Mr. William Still, of Philadelphia, under date of May 13, 1807, she writes:

"You will see by this that I am in the sunny South. I here read and see human nature under new lights and phases. I meet with a people eager to hear, ready to listen, as if they felt that the slumber of the ages had been broken, and that they were to sleep no more. I am glad that the colored man gets freedom and suffrage together; that he is not forced to go through the same condition of things here, that has inclined him so much to apathy, isolation, and indifference, in the North. You, perhaps, wonder why I have been so slow in writing to you, but if you knew how busy I am, just working up to or past the limit of my strength. Traveling, conversing, addressing day and Sunday Schools (picking up scraps of information, takes a large portion of my time) besides what I give to reading. For my audiences I have both white and colored. On the cars, some find out that I am a lecturer, and then, again, I am drawn into conversation, what are you lecturing about?' the question comes up, and if I say, among other topics, politics, then I may look for an onset. There is a sensitiveness on this subject, a dread it may be that someone will put the devil in the niggers head, or exert some influence inimical to them; still, I get along somewhat pleasantly.

"Last week I had a small congregation of listeners in the cars, where I sat. I got in conversation with a former slave-dealer, and we had rather an exciting time. I was traveling alone, but it is not worthwhile to show any signs of fear. Last Saturday I spoke in Sumter; a number of white persons were present, and I had been invited to speak there by the Mayor and editor of the paper. There had been some violence in the district, and some of my friends did not wish me to go, but I had promised, and, of course, I went. I. am in Darlington, and spoke yesterday, but my congregation was so large, that I stood near the door of the church, so that I might be heard both inside and out for a large portion, perhaps, nearly half of my congregation were on the outside: and this is Darlington where, about two years ago, a girl was hung for making a childish and indiscreet speech. Victory was perched on our banners. Our army had been through, and this poor, ill-fated girl, almost a child in years, about seventeen years of age, rejoiced over the event, and said that she was going to marry a Yankee and set up housekeeping. She was reported as having made an incendiary speech and arrested, cruelly scourged and then brutally hung. Poor child, she had been a faithful servant, her master tried to save her, but the tide of fury swept away his efforts. Oh, friends, perhaps, sometimes your heart would ache, if you were only here and heard of the wrongs and abuses to which these people have been subjected. Things, I believe, are a little more hopeful; at least, I believe, some of the colored people are getting better contracts, and, I understand that there is less murdering. While I am writing a colored man stands here, with a tale of wrong, he has worked a whole year, year before last, and now he has been put off with fifteen bushels of corn and his food; yesterday he went to see about getting his money, and the person to whom he went, threatened to kick him off, and accused him of stealing. I don't know how the colored man will vote, but, perhaps many of them will be intimidated at the polls."

In June of the same year, Mrs. Harper writes the following from Cheraw, South Carolina:

Well, Carolina is an interesting place. There is not a State in the Union I prefer to Carolina. Kinder, more hospitable, warmer-hearted people, perhaps, you will not find anywhere. I have been to Georgia; but Carolina is my preference. The South is to be a great theatre for the colored man's development and progress. There is brain power here. If any doubt it, let him come into our schools, or even converse with some of our Freedmen, either in their homes or by the way-side."

Mrs. Harper's Philadelphia correspondent had jestingly, suggested to her in one of his letters, that she should be careful not to allow herself to be bought by the rebels." Her reply to this jesting remark is specially interesting, revealing as it does, her wonderful grasp of the grave and intricate situation. She said:

''Now, in reference to being bought by rebels and becoming a Johnsonite, I hold that between the white people and the colored people there is a community of interests, and the sooner they find it out, the better it will be for both parties; but that community of interest does not consist in increasing the privileges of one class, and a curtailing of the rights of the other, but in getting every citizen interested in the welfare, progress and durability of the State. I do not, in lecturing, confine myself to the political side of the question. While I am in favor of Universal Suffrage, yet I know that the colored man needs something more than a vote in his hands; he needs to know the value of a home life; to rightly appreciate and value the marriage relation; to know how to be incited to leave behind him the old shards and shells of slavery and to rise in the scale of character, wealth, and influence. Like the Nautalus outgrowing his home to build for himself more 'stately temples' of social condition. A man landless, ignorant and poor may use the vote against his interests; but with intelligence and land he holds in his hand the basis of power and elements of strength."

Writing from Greenville, Ga., Mrs. Harper says: 'I am now going to have a private meeting with the women of this place, if they will come out. I am going to talk with them about their daughters, and about things connected with the welfare of the nice. Now is the time for our women to begin to try to lift up their heads and plant the roots of progress under the hearthstone. Last night I spoke in a school house, where there was not, to my knowledge, a single window glass: today I write to you in a lowly cabin where the windows in the room are formed by two apertures in the wall. There is a widespread an almost universal appearance of poverty in this State where I have been, but, thus far, I have seen no, or scarcely any pauperism. I am not sure that I have seen any. The climate is so fine, so little cold that people can live off less than they can in the North. Last night my table was adorned with roses although I did not get one cent for mv lecture.

"The political heavens are getting somewhat overcast. Some of this old rebel element, I think, are in favor of taking away the colored man's vote, and if he loses it now it may be generations before he gets it again. Well, after all, perhaps, the colored man, generally, is not really developed enough to value his vote and equality with other races so he gets enough to eat and drink, and be comfortable, perhaps the loss of his vote would not be a serious grievance to many; but his children differently educated and trained by circumstances might feel political inferiority rather a bitter cup. After all, whether they encourage me or discourage me, I belong to this race, and when it is down I belong to a down race; when it is up I belong to a risen race."

Mrs. Harper was not only an educated and queenly woman, but she possessed wonderful self-control, coupled with a remarkable tactfulness. These rare gifts were greatly in evidence in her extensive Southern campaign, after the close of the Civil War. For, the woman who had been so bold and energetic in the Anti-Slavery cause, without delay, took up her work in the South among her recently enfranchised brethren, going in among the most ultra of Southern white people, and compelling their admiration by her wise, gracious, and discriminating good sense. All extended account of her Mobile address is given, for it presents a true grasp of the most intricate situation, and her clever handling of the same. 'It was in the month of July, 1871, in the city of Mobile, Alabama. The extract here presented is by Mr. John Forsyth, Editor of the Mobile, Alabama, Register, and it was published in his paper, at the time, indicating the impression made upon this prominent Southerner, who had attended the "lecture" more out of curiosity than for any other reason.

A Lecture

We received a polite invitation from the trustees of the State St. African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to attend a lecture in that edifice on Thursday evening. Being told that the discourse would be delivered by a female colored lecturer from Maryland, curiosity, as well as interest to see how the colored citizens were managing their own institutions, led us at once to accept the invitation. We found a very spacious church gas light, and the balustrades of the galleries copiously hung with wreaths and festoons of flowers, and a large audience of both sexes, which, both in appearance and behavior, was respectable and decorously observant of the proprieties of the place. The services were opened, as usual, with prayer and a hymn, the latter inspired by powerful lungs, and in which the musical ear at once caught the Negro talent for melody. The lecturer was then introduced as Mrs. F. E. W. Harper, from Maryland. Without a moment's hesitation she started off in the flow of her discourse, which rolled smoothly and uninterruptedly on for nearly two hours. It was very apparent that it was not a cut and dried speech, for she was as fluent and as felicitous in her allusions to circumstances immediately around her as she was when she arose to a more exalted pitch of laudation of the Union or of execration of the old slave system. Her voice was remarkable as sweet as any woman's voice we t ever heard, and so clear and distinct as to pass every syllable to the most distant ear in the house. Without any effort at attentive listening we followed the speaker to the end, not discerning a single grammatical inaccuracy of speech, or the slightest violation of good taste in manner or matter. At times, the current of thoughts flowed in eloquent and poetic expression, and often her quaint humor; would expose the ivory in a half a thousand mouths. We, confess that we began to wonder, and we asked a fine looking man before us, What is her color?' 'Is she dark or light?' He answered: She is mulatto; what they call a red mulatto.' The 'red' was new to us. Our neighbor' asked, 'How do you like her?' We replied: 'She is giving your people the best kind and the very wisest of advice. He rejoined, I wish I had her education. To which we added, that's just what she tells you is your great duty and your need and if you are too old to get it yourself, you must give it to your children."

The speaker left the impression on our mind that she was not only intelligent and educated, but the great end of education she was enlightened. She comprehends perfectly the situation of her people, to whose interests she seems ardently devoted. The main theme of her discourse, the one string to the harmony of which all the others were attuned, was the grand opportunity that emancipation had afforded to the black race to lift itself to the level of the duties and responsibilities enjoined by it. "You have muscle power and brain power," she said; ''you must' utilize them, or be content to remain forever the inferior race. Get land, every one that can, and as fast as you can. A landless people must be dependent upon the landed people. A few acres to till for food and a roof, however humble, over your head, are the castle of your independence, and when you have it you are fortified to act and vote independently whenever your interests are at stake."

That part of her lecture (and there was much of it) that dwelt on the moral duties and domestic relations of the colored people was pitched on the highest key of sound morality. She urged the cultivation of the home life," the sanctity of the marriage state (a happy contrast to her strong-minded, free love, white sisters of the North), and the duties of mothers to their daughters. "Why," said she in a voice of much surprise. "I have actually heard since I have been South that sometimes colored husbands positively beat their wives. I do not mean to insinuate for a moment that such things can possibly happen in Mobile. The very appearance of this congregation forbids it; but I did hear of one terrible husband defending himself for the unmanly practice with, well, I have got to whip her or leave her.' "

There were parts of the lecturer's discourse that grated a little on a white Southern ear, but it was lost and forgiven in the genuine earnestness and profound good sense with which the woman spoke to her kind in words of sound advice.

"On the whole, we are very glad that we accepted the Zion's invitation. It gave us much food for new thought. It reminded us, perhaps, of neglected duties to these colored people, and it impressed strongly on our minds that these people are getting along, getting onward, and progress was a star becoming familiar to their gaze and their desires. Whatever the Negroes have done in the path of advancement, they have done largely without white aid. But politics and white pride have kept the white people aloof from offering that earnest and moral assistance which would be so useful to a people just starting from infancy into a life of self-dependence."

Mrs. Harper, the same year, writing from the same State says:

"While in Talladega I was entertained, and well entertained, at the house of one of our new citizens. He is living in the house of his former master. He is a brick-maker by trade, and I rather think, mason also. He was worth to his owner, it was reckoned, fifteen hundred, or about that, a year. He worked with him seven years; and in that seven years he remembers receiving from him, fifty cents. Now mark the contrast. That man is now free, owns the home of his former master, has I think, more than sixty acres of land, and his master is in the poor-house. I heard of another such case not long since. A woman was cruelly treated once, or more than once. She escaped and ran naked into town. The villain in whose clutch she found herself was trying to draw her downward to his own low level of impurity, and at last she fell. She was poorly fed, so that she was tempted to sell her person. Even scraps thrown to the dogs she was hunger-bitten enough to aim for. Poor thing, was there anything in the future for her? Had not hunger, and cruelty, and prostitution, done their work, and left her an entire wreck for life? It seems not. Freedom came and with it dawned a new era upon that poor, over-shadowed, and sin-darkened life. Freedom brought opportunity for work and wages combined. She went to work, and gotten dollars a month.

She has contrived to get some education, and has since been teaching school. "While her former mistress has been to her for help.

"'Do not the mills of the gods grind exceedingly fine?' And she has helped that mistress, and so has the colored man given money, from what I heard, to his former master. After all, friends, do we not belong to one of the best branches of the human race? And yet, how have our people been murdered in the South, and their bones scattered at the grave's mouth. Oh, when will we have a government strong enough to make human life safe?''

Fifty thousand copies, or more, of the four volumes by Mrs. Harper have been sold. During her later years she published her greatest work, "Iola Leroy, or Shadowy Up-lifted." Before the Civil War she was in the service of the Anti-Slavery Society; since, then, by appointment of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, she held the office of "Superintendent of Colored Work'' for years. She also held the office of one of the Directors of the Women's Congress of the United States. Under the auspices of these influential associations, she has often been seen on their platforms with the leading women orators of the nation.

Grace Greenwood, in the Independent, in noticing a course of Lectures in which Mrs. Harper participated (in Philadelphia) thus portrays her:

"Next on the course was Mrs. Harper, a colored woman, about as colored as some of the Cuban belles I have met at Saratoga. She has a noble head, this bronze muse: in a strong face with a shadowed glow upon it, indicative of thoughtful fervor and of a nature most femininely sensitive, but not in the least morbid. Her form is delicate, her hands daintily small. She stands quietly besides her desk, and speaks without notes, with gestures few and fitting.' Her manner is marked by dignity and composure. She is never assuming, never theatrical. In the first part of her lecture she was most impressive in her pleading for the race with whom her lot is cast. There was something touching in her attitude as their representative. The woe of two hundred years sighed through her tones. Every glance of her sad eyes was a mournful remonstrance against injustice and wrong. Feeling on her soul, as she must have felt it, the chilling weight of caste, she seemed to say,
'I lift my heavy heart up solemnly.

As once Electra her sepulchral urn.

As I listened to her, there swept over me, in a chill wave of horror, the realization that this noble woman had she not been rescued from her mother's condition, might have been sold on the auction block, to the highest bidder, her intellect, fancy, eloquence, the flashing wit, that might make the delight of a Parisian saloon, and her pure Christian character all thrown in, the recollection that women like her could be dragged out of public conveyances in our own city, or frowned out of fashionable churches by Anglo-Saxon saints."

The author esteems it a special and sacred privilege to have personally known Mrs. Harper, and, in her later years, to be regarded by her, a most devoted friend. As Frederick Douglass is often spoken of as the "Grand Old Man'' of Maryland, in like manner, it is eminently fitting to think of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as the "Grand Old Woman" of Maryland. In the ages yet to come, the redeemed and uplifted womanhood of the race will lovingly revert to the precious memories of the past, and rise up and call her blessed of the Lord.

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.

 

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