Little is known of the first three years in the life of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper who was born in Baltimore, Maryland the only child of free parents, on September 24, 1825. The names of her parents are not know but they both died in 1828 leaving Frances an orphan. Her maternal aunt and uncle, Hernietta and the Rev. William Watkins raised her. William was the minister at the Sharp Street African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Frances was educated at the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth where her uncle taught. The Rev. Watkins was a civil rights activist and abolitionist and had a major impact and influence on her life and work.
At the age of 14, Frances found work as a seamstress and domestic in a Quaker household, where she was given access to their library and encouraged in her literary aspirations. Her poems appeared in newspapers, and in 1845 a collection of them was printed as Autumn Leaves (also published as Forest Leaves).
When she was 25 the Watkins family fled Baltimore after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. This act was part of the compromise of 1850 between Southern slave- holding interests and the Norther Free-Soilers. It was very controversial and heightened the Northern fears of a Slave power conspiracy. It stated that all escaped slaves, upon capture, would be returned to their masters and that all officials and citizens of free states must comply and cooperate. It was nicknamed the “Bloodhound Law, because of the dogs that were used to track runaway slaves. The Watkin family settled briefly in Ohio but then moved to Pennsylvania in order to work with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, where she began to help slaves along the underground railroad on their way to Canada.
Frances continued to write, and her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, was published in 1854 gaining critical notice. This was her first and biggest commercial success. In these writings she attacked not only racism but also the oppression of women. Most of the earnings from this and her other books went to help free the slaves. In 1854 she also began her lecturing career. She was much in demand on the anti-slavery circuit and she traveled extensively in the years before the Civil War.
After the unsuccessful uprising at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, she gave emotional support and comfort to Mary Brown, John Brown’s wife, during her husbands trial and execution. Watkins wrote to him, "In the name of the young girl sold from the warm clasp of a mother's arms to the clutches of a libertine or profligate,—in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations,—I thank you, that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race.” Somehow these words were smuggled into John Brown’s prison cell.
Harper published 80 poems. In her poem "The Slave Mother" she writes:
"He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother's pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart."
Throughout the two stanzas, Harper demonstrates the restricted relationship between an enslaved mother and her child, while including themes of family, motherhood, humanity and slavery. This work is credited with being the inspiration for Toni Morrisons, Beloved.
In 1858 she refused to give up her seat or ride in the "colored" section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia (100 years before Rosa Parks) and wrote one of her most famous poems, "Bury Me in a Free Land", for The Anti-Slavery Bugle
In 1860, Frances Harper married a widower named Fenton Harper. When he died four years later she was left with their daughter and his children from a previous marriage. Harper died of heart failure on February 22, 1911, at the age of 86.
In 1866, Harper gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including Black women. She stated:
"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro...You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me...While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”
Although busy as a writer and active in public life, Harper continued to engage personally in social concerns at the local level. She worked with a number of churches in the black community of north Philadelphia near her home, feeding the poor, preventing juvenile delinquency, and teaching Sunday School at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.
In 1873 Harper became Superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women's Christian Temperance Union. In 1894 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president, 1895-1911. Along with Ida B. Wells, Harper wrote and lectured against lynching. She was also a member of the Universal Peace Union.
Both Unitarians and the AME church have claimed Harper as a member. She was reluctant to choose between the two. AME was the church she had been raised in. It was family and home to her, and she always remembered where she came from and what her people had been through. Her reasons for joining the Unitarian church, on the other hand, may have been partly political. Although she had had personal and professional contacts in both black and white communities ever since her first book of poems was published, many doors remained closed to her. In a society where color lines were clearly drawn, a Unitarian church provided a rare opportunity for the races to meet. The Unitarians she knew could help to advance the causes she supported in places she could never go.
According to Brent Staples of the New York Times, in his article of February 2, 2019, many African-American women were written out of the history of the woman suffrage movement. Harper was one of those women, because she dared ask white women to treat black women as equals. Historian Alison M. Parker wrote that Harper vexed white women reformers by accusing them “of being directly complicit in the oppression of blacks,” and by demanding that they rid themselves of racism.
“You white women speak here of rights,” Harper said that day in 1866. “I speak of wrongs.” Reciting the litany of humiliations that black women had to endure on public conveyances — not because they were women but because they were black — she asked, “Are there no wrongs to be righted?” Staples says, "The official suffrage history reduces the poet and novelist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to a bit player, even though she was central to the struggles for both African-American and women’s rights."