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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

By Polly Peterson, originally published in Stirring the Nation's Heart: Eighteen Stories of Prophetic Unitarians and Universalists of the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 2010).

In the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the year 1858, a young woman entered a streetcar and sat down. The conductor came to her and insisted she leave, but she stayed quietly in her seat. A passenger intervened, asking if the woman in question might be permitted to sit in a corner. She did not move. When she reached her destination, the woman got up and tried to pay the fare, but the conductor refused to take her money. She threw it down on the floor and left.

What was that all about?

It was all about racism. The white conductor was giving the woman on the streetcar, Frances Ellen Watkins, a hard time because she was African American, and Watkins was having none of it. She believed in equality. She believed in treating all people with dignity and respect. Her work obliged her to travel from place to place, and she was used to enduring prejudice and injustice. She had the courage not to let it stop her.

Frances Ellen Watkins was born in 1825 in Maryland, when slavery was still legal. Born to free parents, she was never a slave. But by the age of three, she was an orphan, living with relatives in Baltimore. Her sad situation had one fortunate outcome. Her uncle William Watkins ran a school called the Academy for Negro Youth, and Frances received an excellent classical education there. Such schools for blacks were very rare.

By the age of fourteen, Frances had to leave school and go to work. She became a domestic servant. But this unfortunate situation also offered an opportunity. The Quaker family she worked for owned a bookshop and also had books in the house. Whenever time allowed, they gave her free access to all those books. She was an avid reader and soon became known as a writer too. By the age of twenty, she had written enough poems and essays to publish a small book.

Life for free blacks in Maryland was difficult and became worse after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. William Watkins was forced to close his school. He moved to Canada with some of the family, but Frances, at age twenty-five, moved to the free state of Ohio, where she took a job teaching sewing. Two years later, she moved to Pennsylvania, where she continued to teach. Her heart told her that educating black children was the most important work in the world, but she soon realized that managing fifty-three unruly pupils in rural Pennsylvania was not the right job for her.

While she considered what to do next, events in her home state gave her a new aspiration. Maryland passed a law saying that any free person of color who entered the state would be arrested and sold into slavery. Frances Watkins heard about a young man who unwittingly crossed into Maryland and was sold to a Georgia slaveholder. He escaped but was recaptured and sent back to Georgia, where he soon died. "Upon that grave," Watkins wrote to a friend, "I pledged myself to the Anti-Slavery cause."

Watkins moved to Philadelphia, where there was a substantial community of well-educated and successful blacks. Homeless and friendless, she found her way to William Still, a leader in the African American community. Still was chairman of the Vigilance Committee, organized to assist runaway slaves passing through Philadelphia. His home was the busiest station on the Underground Railroad—a place where people fleeing from slavery could rest and find assistance. Watkins met many fugitives there and heard their heartrending stories.

For Watkins, the antislavery cause opened a whole new career. Abolitionist papers began publishing her work, and, in 1854, she gave a public lecture on "The Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race." She gave several more lectures that same week, and soon she had a full-time job as a traveling lecturer for the State Anti-Slavery Society of Maine. She drew large audiences, and judging from newspaper accounts and reviews, she did not disappoint them. New Englanders had long disapproved of women who spoke in public, but opinions were beginning to change, and Frances Watkins was a novelty. Audiences, whether black or white, male or female, wanted to hear this eloquent woman of color who outshone nearly all other orators on the circuit. They were charmed by her musical voice, her well-reasoned arguments, and her poetic language. She published a book of poems in 1854, and thousands of people who attended her lectures bought her book after hearing her speak.

She donated most of the money she earned from her books to the antislavery cause. Whenever she could, she sent a few dollars to William Still for the Vigilance Committee and the fugitives. At one point, he must have admonished Watkins to keep more of her earnings for herself. She wrote back, "Let me explain a few matters to you. In the first place, I am able to give something. In the second place, I am willing to do so." In fact, she was more than willing and able. To her, helping humanity was a sacred calling, and she felt blessed to be able to do it. "Oh, is it not a privilege," she wrote to a friend, "if you are sisterless and lonely, to be a sister to the human race, and to place your heart where it may throb close to down-trodden humanity?"

Watkins supported a movement called Free Produce, which encouraged people to boycott all products tied to slave labor. "Oh, could slavery exist long if it did not sit on a commercial throne?" she wrote. "Our moral influence against slavery must be weakened, our testimony diluted if . . . we are constantly demanding rice from the swamps, cotton from the plantations, and sugar from the deadly mills."

She hoped that blacks would establish a network of schools, newspapers, and churches dedicated to the betterment of themselves and each other. She believed that an important goal of antislavery work was to teach her people "how to build up a character for themselves—a character that will challenge respect in spite of opposition and prejudice; to develop their own souls, intellect and genius, and thus verify their credentials."

In 1860, Frances Ellen Watkins married Fenton Harper. When war broke out between the North and the South, she was living on a small farm in Ohio. But her husband died after less than four years of marriage, leaving Frances with a little daughter. She returned to the lecture circuit and traveled throughout the North, supporting the war effort and encouraging the Union Army to allow black troops to join them in the fight.

The Civil War ended slavery in America, leaving blacks with great hopes but also enormous problems. Frances Harper continued to give speeches and lectures, working in the South now, as well as the North. She did all she could to defend, support, and educate the newly freed blacks.

Frances Harper advocated for equality and reforms for the rest of her life. The racist rhetoric of her day was ugly and white people who harmed or even murdered blacks usually went unpunished, yet she did not give in to anger or despair. Her words helped Americans across racial lines understand their common humanity and common yearnings. She believed she could contribute to the betterment of society by uplifting her listeners, and she hoped that her life might "gladden the earth." She shone a light on injustice so that others might see it more clearly—but she remained confident that some day, there would be liberty and justice for all.

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Last updated on Thursday, January 19, 2012.

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