This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
When it comes to the suffrage movement, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s place in history isn’t as obscure and as difficult to find as many other African American heroines.
Much has been written about the poet, fiction writer, journalist and activist.
Harper was born in Baltimore on Sept. 25, 1825. She was the only child of free African American parents, according to poetryfoundation.org.
“[Harper] was raised by her aunt and uncle after her mother died when Frances was three years old,” researchers for Poetry Foundation wrote. “She attended the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by her uncle, until the age of 13, and then found domestic work in a Quaker household, where she had access to a wide range of literature.”
After teaching for two years in Ohio and Pennsylvania, she embarked on a career as a traveling speaker on the abolitionist circuit.
Harper helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and wrote frequently for anti-slavery newspapers, earning her a reputation as the mother of African American journalism.
In a piece for the Women’s Media Center, English professor Koritha Mitchell exhorts the reader to learn about Harper.
As recounted on the website, suffrageandthemedia.org, Mitchell’s piece on Harper’s life is a good place to start that education.
Harper was a dedicated activist, poet, public speaker and author who fought for suffrage, the abolition of slavery and civil rights, the site noted.
Mitchell highlights Harper’s split with suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She writes:
“Even though she commanded considerable audiences, Watkins Harper remained subject to racism, making her refusal to abandon predominantly white organizations all the more admirable.
“In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton effectively left the American Equal Rights Association because it was supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which would institute black male suffrage before white women won the vote. Refusing to follow Anthony and Stanton, Watkins Harper noted that she could not rely on white women to prioritize the concerns of their nonwhite sisters.
“Indeed, Stanton had drawn a clear line years earlier, in the December 1865 issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. She explained that white women had been staunch supporters of securing ‘freedom for the Negro.’
“However, in light of emancipation, the Negro is no longer ‘lowest in the scale of being,’ and ‘it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.’”
According to suffrageandthemedia.org, such remarks may have sparked Harper’s 1866 observation: “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.”
Always uncompromising, Harper continued to command respect. She spoke at the 1888 International Council of Women convention.
According to blackpast.org, after her husband’s death saddled Harper with a large debt, she resumed lecturing for the antislavery cause, teaching and writing poetry and novels in order to support herself and her family.
Iola Leroy, published in 1892, may have been Harper’s last lengthy literary work, according to blackpast.org.
In addition to antislavery, Harper was also active in the temperance movement. She wrote numerous poems on the evils of alcohol.
Harper died Feb. 20, 1911, and was buried in Edenton Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.