Frances E.W. Harper & the Evolution of Radical Culture

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

Melba Joyce Boyd

ON DECEMBER 31, 1994 I was invited to speak at a Kwanzaa celebration at a church in the city of Detroit. In particular, I was asked to speak on the principle, “Kuumba,” which means creativity. Being removed from certain cultural practices not grounded in some real historical experience, I sensed a kind of holiness being conveyed with the lighting of the candles, and it felt more like religion than ideology.

The concept of Kwanzaa was developed by Malaunga Karanga, a Black nationalist; but the seven principles are so broad and the holiday is so vague, it can be embraced by any African-American agenda including “The Frederick Douglass Society” — which happens to be comprised of Black Republicans, but clearly not the ilk of Douglass and the radical republicans of the nineteenth century.

This brings us to the subject of this essay and my “Kuumba” presentation, Frances E.W. Harper. Though unknown to almost all of the people at either of these Kwanzaa programs, Harper operated out of radical principles that were not delineated or limited by seven specific points. Moreover, what one can derive from this appraisal of our contemporary dilemma is that lost history results in lost time and lost consciousness.

Frances Harper (1825-1911) was aware of and spoke to the complexities of a society that was more motivated by cupidity and power than by so-called Christian values or democratic principles. Her insight was not always met with agreement by her peers or her predecessors. Yet she did influence her times with regards to race, gender and class issues and how these factors intersected in the lives of Black women.

The author of eleven books of poetry, four novels (three were serialized in the Christian Recorder), several short stories, and scores of essays delivered a multitude of speeches before black and integrated audiences (by race and gender), Harper was regarded as the “bronze muse” of the abolitionist movement and was a leader throughout the Reconstruction era and in the women’s rights movement.

Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper) was born free on September 24, 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother died when she was three years old, and there is no record of who her father was. She was raised by her maternal uncle, William Watkins, and his wife Henrietta.

Watkins, who was self-educated, a poet and a leader in the abolitionist movement, founded The Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, which Harper attended until she was fourteen years of age. She was a stellar student and demonstrated a particular talent for writing.

After completing her education at the academy, she worked as a domestic for a book merchant; this provided her with an extensive library. During her leisure hours, she continued her studies and published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, in 1845. Concurrently, she published several of these poems in abolitionist publications and developed a considerable reputation as a poet.

In 1850, Harper left Baltimore to be the first woman teacher at the Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, which was a progressive abolitionist community. Though the courses she taught were limited to the domestic sciences, she had been trained in the classics, and was as capable in Greek and Latin as any of her male colleagues.

When the school closed in 1852 because of financial difficulties, she took a teaching appointment in Little York, Pennsylvania, but soon decided to leave teaching for a more challenging calling after she heard about a free man of color, who had been kidnapped and enslaved. After two failed escape attempts, he died still a slave.

In a letter to William Still, the conductor of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, Harper wrote: “Upon that grave I pledged myself to the anti-slavery cause …. It may be that God himself has written upon both my heart and brain a commission to use time, talent and energy in the cause of freedom.”

Harper left for the anti-slavery office in Philadelphia, where she studied the documents and acquainted herself with the industry of the abolitionist movement. In the fall of 1854, her second book of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, was published by J.B. Yerrinton & Son in Boston with an introduction by William Lloyd Garrison, the most feared white abolitionist in the North.

On September 24, 1854, her twenty-ninth birthday, she embarked on the abolitionist lecturing circuit on behalf of “the cause of freedom.” She became one of the most well-known abolitionist speakers, weaving her poems into the fabric of her elocution, and distributing her books while traveling throughout the North and Canada.

During these years, Harper raised funds for the Underground Railroad and became a close cohort to persons connected to the Philadelphia station, including Harriet Tubman. When John Brown organized the raid on Harper Ferry, Tubman had outlined the escape path via the Underground Railroad, which led the survivors to Philadelphia for refuge.

During the trial, Harper wrote to Brown and those awaiting execution. In particular, Aaron Stevens, kept Harper’s poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” as a source of inspiration. Harper returned to Philadelphia to be with Mary, the wife of John Brown, during this period.

In 1860, Harper married Fenton Harper, a widower, whom she possibly first met while she was living in Wilberforce during her tenure at the Ohio Seminary. They settled on a farm near Columbus, where they sold their market goods. They had one daughter, Mary, and together they parented three other children Fenton fathered with his first wife. Despite her domestic demands, Frances Harper continued to write and to lecture in the Ohio area while the Civil War waged.

In 1864, Fenton Harper died. Despite the fact that Frances Harper had invested her own earnings into the farm, women were not allowed to own property in the state of Ohio. Additionally, since her husband died in debt, the property was seized and Frances Harper was left penniless. Unable to support her stepchildren, they remained with relatives in Ohio while she and her daughter Mary returned to Philadelphia.

Harper’s disinheritance underscored her vulnerability as a woman, which had been the subject of many of her poems. Harper realized that sexism is an issue that crosses racial barriers, and as a radical Christian she understood and criticized how sexist interpretations of Biblical text cultivated discriminatory practices.

She challenged these beliefs with the same conviction she engaged when she redressed racist doctrine derived by so-called Christians to support the institution of slavery. At the 1866 Woman’s Rights Convention in New York, Harper addressed the double jeopardy of being Black and female in a racist, sexist society by relaying tales of injustice perpetrated against her and Harriet Tubman:

“You white women speak of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which had made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars — I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia — and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride…

“We have a woman in our country who has received the name of ‘Moses,’ not by lying about it, but by acting it out — a woman who has gone down into the Egypt of slavery and brought out hundreds of our people into liberty. The last time I saw that woman, her hands were swollen. That woman who had led one of Montgomery’s most successful expeditions, who was brave enough and secretive enough to act as a scout for the American army, had her hands all swollen from a conflict with a brutal conductor, who undertook to eject her from her place. That woman, whose courage and bravery won a recognition from our army and from every black man in the land, is excluded from every thoroughfare of travel. Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on. It is a normal school, and the white women of this country need it. 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 nothing and selfishness, it is the white women of America.“

Harper’s position in the women’s movement was one of respect, and she was regarded as a leader and served as an officer in the Equal Rights Association, which grew out of this conference in 1866. But in 1869, in a debate over the Fifteenth Amendment with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, which led to the end the organization, Harper sided with Frederick Douglass to waylay the women’s suffrage in order to secure the black male vote.

Her Reconstruction experiences in the South and her experiences in broader historical terms had determined the need to secure some racial advantage despite her belief in women’s suffrage. However, in her novel Minnie’s Sacrifice, published that same year, the Black woman protagonist (who is lynched by the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the novel) argues with her husband on behalf of women’s suffrage.

Harper was known for her direct language and firm positions despite the complexity of political relationships or historical uncertainty. Her poetry was written with similar clarity and purpose. Unlike many of her contemporaries, who still aspired to accomplish traditional European verse, Harper preferred the ballad. Her imagery and allusions were derived from American life and biblical scripture. Moreover, her multifaceted imagery deconstructed racism, patriarchy, and class privilege by refracting their oppressive commonalties.

In addition to her popular ballads, she wrote complex and difficult innovative verse. Moses, A Story of the Nile (1869) is a long poem written in blank verse. In this regard, she expanded the grounding of Black American culture in the Biblical tale that represents the underpinnings of the culture.

Moses, and the deliverance of the Hebrews, was the foundation for liberation theology adapted by American slaves for cultural expression and political thought. Harper’s rendition, which includes the woman’s perspective by giving voice to Moses’s Hebrew mother and his Egyptian foster mother, provides the literary grounding for a cultural motif that continues to appear in Black American songs and literature into the next century.

During the Reconstruction era, Harper carried “Moses” and “Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects” into Freedmen Schools in the South. She viewed this time as the “building of the Promised Land.” She lectured to Black and white audiences, and took a special interest in educating women with an enlightened vision that encouraged them to become educated, to participate in political life, and to pursue economic independence.

By 1872, she had published another major work of poetry, Sketches of Southern Life (1871), and according to William Still, by 1874 there more than 50,000 copies of Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in print. Sketches of Southern Life was another landmark book because it was written in a Black dialect in advance of her times. Her characters are based in folk culture and she adapts the slave narrative for her poetic format. She also wrote Black English in a manner that reflects character rather than caricature, and intelligence rather than ignorance.

Harper and her daughter Mary lived in Philadelphia and worked with radical movements and educational projects. During the next decades, Harper published two more serialized novels in the Christian Recorder, an African Methodist Episcopal publication. Though she converted to Unitarianism, she had been reared in the A.M.E. Church by her uncle and her work was often published in A.M.E. journals.

She worked with both Black organizations and progressive whites. She campaigned against lynching in her work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Council of Women of the United States. Likewise, she promoted this as a woman’s issue in her leadership role in The National League of Colored Women and The National Association of Colored Women.

In 1892 she published Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, which became immensely popular because of the rise of black feminism and the book’s activist theme. Working with women such as Ida B. Wells, Hallie Q, Brown, Anna Julia Cooper and others, Harper led the Black women’s movement into the twentieth century.

On February 22, 1911, Frances E. W. Harper died. In the autumn of 1992 another headstone was placed at her grave, for the original had sunken beneath the earth. Likewise, Harper’s work had been buried. Her papers had been accidentally discarded as rubbish and most of her writing had almost disappeared from print.

The recent emergence of Black women’s scholarship, however, has resulted in the retrieval of Harper’s life and the resurrection of her literature. Hopefully, in the years to come our community will not grapple for answers in abstract rituals, but will seek credible wisdom and principles grounded in ideology and a history of radical struggle.

Selected Bibliography

Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825-1911. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

Foster, Frances Smith. ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Reader. New York: Feminist Press, 1990.

Foster, Frances Smith. ed. Three Novels by Frances E. W. Harper. New York: Beacon Press, 1994.

Graham, Maryemma. ed. Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Harper, Frances E.W., Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, 1892. Reprint. New York: Beacon Press, 1987.

ATC 55, March-April 1995