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Inspiring Thursday: Frances Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

“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.”

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland to free Black parents, but unfortunately became an orphan at 3 years old. She grew up with her uncle who profoundly influenced her life. He was the minister at the Sharp Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, civil rights activist, and in addition the founder of the Watkins Academy where Frances was educated.

During her life, she works as a seamstress, nursemaid, and later a teacher. By the age of 21, she published a book of her collected poetry called Forest Leaves. She also published pieces in antislavery journals and published stories such as The Two Offers in Anglo-African magazine or poem The Slave Mother. The Two Offers was a short story about women’s education and became the first short story published by an African American woman.

Frances Harper was a strong supporter of abolitionism, prohibition, and woman’s suffrage before and after the American Civil War. More than 100 years before Rosa Park, she was the woman who refused to give up her seat or ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia. She gave several lectures about women´s rights, feminism, and minority rights as well as applied these motives into her art.

Harper’s commitment to equality and women´s rights led her to help found the American Woman Suffrage Association as well as becoming a member of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union, co-founder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women. In 1866, Harper spoke with her famous speech at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York. Her speech was called We Are All Bound Up Together and urged to include African American women in the fight for suffrage. She emphasized that Black women have been dealing with the double burden of racism and sexism, therefore the fight has to also include suffrage for African Americans. The next day, the Convention held a meeting to arrange the American Equal Rights Association to work for suffrage for both African Americans and women.

Frances Watkins Harper gave a voice to a lot of women and girls in a hostile environment and was never afraid to do what was right, so that all people have guaranteed freedom and dignity. In these times where racism and suppression of women´s rights are still a thing, we need more than ever (s)heroes like Frances Harper.

Written by Mária Trubanová, WAVE Intern

Sources:
https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/frances-ellen-watkins-harper
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/frances-ellen-watkins-harper
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frances-E-W-Harper
https://www.newamerica.org/better-life-lab/blog/frances-ellen-watkins-harper-suffragist-and-advocate-universal-freedom/
https://www.becauseofthemwecan.com/blogs/news/remembering-revolutionary-poet-abolitionist-frances-ellen-watkins

Getting to know Frances Harper: Pa. activist for civil rights, women’s suffrage