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   Illustration    Table of Contents     CAROLINE SHERMAN ANDREWS-HILL
  --  1829--1914

Brown, Hallie Q.
Homespun heroines

- FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER -- 1825--1900

FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER
1825--1900


" One of the ablest advocates of the Underground Railroad and of the Slave ."

Frances Ellen Watkins was born in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1825, not of slave parentage but subjected to the oppressive influence which bond and free alike endured under slave laws. Her childhood days were desolate. Sentences from her own pen express the loneliness of those days. "Have I yearned for a mother's love? The grave was my robber. Before three years had scattered their blight around my path death had won my mother from me. Would the strong arm of a brother have been welcome? I was my mother's only child."

She fell into the hands of an aunt who watched over her during those early helpless years. Rev. William Watkins, an uncle taught a school in Baltimore for free colored children to which she was sent until she was thirteen years of age.

After this period she was put out to work to earn her own living. She had many trials to endure, but she evinced an ardent thirst for knowledge and a remarkable talent for composition. This talent was recognized through an article which she wrote, at fourteen years of age, and which attracted the attention of the lady in whose family she was employed. In this situation she was taught sewing, took care of the children, and at the same time, through the kindness of her employer, her thirst for books was satisfied from occasional half hours of leisure. She was noted for her industry and in a few years had written a number of prose and poetic selections which were deemed of sufficient merit to be published in a small volume called "Autumn Leaves."

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Some of her productions found their way into the newspapers and evoked considerable comment. The ability exhibited in some of her productions was so remarkable that some doubted and others denied their originality. Happily many are extent and may be read by all. Her mind was of a strictly religious cast, the effusions from her pen are of a high moral and elevating tone.

About the year 1850 she left Baltimore to seek a home in a free state and resided in Ohio. Here she was called to teach domestic science, being the first colored woman to do vocational work in Columbus, at Union Seminary, with Rev. John M. Brown (late Bishop) as principal. It may be interesting to note here that Union Seminary with its location changed to near Xenia became Wilberforce University. We next find her teaching in Little York, Pennsylvania, but she was sorely oppressed with the thought of conditions of her people in Maryland.

Not infrequently she gave utterances to such expressions as the following: "Not that we have not a right to breathe the air as freely as anybody else in Baltimore, but we are treated worse than aliens among a people whose language we speak, whose religion we profess and whose blood flows and mingles in our veins. Homeless in the land of our birth and worse off than strangers in the home of our nativity."

During her stay in Little York she had frequent opportunities of seeing the fleeing slaves on the Underground Railroad. Alluding to a traveler she wrote--"I saw a passenger by the Underground Railroad. Notwithstanding that abomination of the nineteenth century, the Fugitive Slave Law, men still determine to be free. Notwithstanding all the darkness in which they keep slaves, it seems that somehow light is dawning upon their minds. These poor fugitives are a property that can walk. Just to think that from the rainbow crowned Niagara to the swollen waters of the Mexican Gulf, from the restless murmur of the Atlantic to the ceaseless roar of the Pacific, the poor, half-starved, flying

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fugitive has no resting place for the sole of his foot."

While plying her vocation as a teacher in Little York, she was deeply engrossed in thought as to how she could best promote the welfare of her race. It happened that just about this time she was moved to enter the Anti-Slavery field as a lecturer, substantially by the following circumstances: About the year 1853 Maryland, her native state, had enacted a law forbidding free people of color from the north to come into the state on pain of being imprisoned and sold into slavery. A free man who had unwittingly violated this infamous statute, had recently been imprisoned and sold into slavery. A free man who had unwittingly violated and had escaped thence by secreting himself behind the wheel house of a boat bound northward; but before he reached the desired haven he was discovered and remanded to slavery. It was reported that he died soon after from the effects of exposure and suffering. Referring to this outrage, Mrs. Harper thus 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."

She visited Philadelphia, New Bedford and Boston. She won her way to a favorable position as a lecturer and on September 28, 1854, was engaged by the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine as a permanent lecturer. Every door was opened before her and her gifts were universally recognized as a valuable acquisition to the cause.

For nearly two years she traveled almost continuously in the eastern states, speaking in them with marked success. The following extract clipped from the Portland (Maine) Daily Press respecting the lecture she was invited to deliver after the War by the Mayor, Mr. Washburn, is a fair sample of the many notices from this section of the country.

"She spoke for nearly an hour and a half, her subject being 'The Mission of the War and the Demands of the Colored Race in the Work of Reconstruction' and we have

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seldom seen an audience more attentive, better pleased, or more enthusiastic. Mrs. Harper has a splendid articulation, uses chaste, pure language, has a pleasant voice and allows no one to tire of hearing her. We shall attempt no abstract of her address. None that we could make would do her justice. It was one of which any lecturer might feel proud and her reception by a Portland audience was all that could be desired. We have seen no praises of her that were overdrawn. We have heard Miss Anna Dickinson and do not hesitate to award the palm to her darker colored sister."

From Lewis Centre, Ohio, comes this message from her pen--"You have probably heard of the shameful outrage upon a colored boy named Wagner, who was kidnapped in Ohio and carried across the river and sold for a slave. Ohio has become a kind of Negro hunting ground, a new Congo's coast and Guinea's shore. A man was kidnapped almost under the shadow of our capital. Oh, was it not dreadful? Oh, may the living God prepare me for an earnest and faithful advocacy of the cause of justice and right."

In those days the blows struck by the hero John Brown were agitating the nation. Scarcely was it possible for a living soul to be more deeply affected than Mrs. Harper. She gave material aid as well as heartfelt commiseration. She wrote words of sympathy to John Brown's wife and Brown's comrades who lay in prison under sentence of death. "May God, our own God, sustain you in your hour of trial," she wrote. Later she passed two weeks with Mrs. Brown while she was awaiting the execution of her husband and sympathized with her most deeply. An extract from one of her letters shows her great interest in Brown and his comrades: "Poor, doomed and fated men! Has not this suffering been overshadowed by the glory that gathered around the brave old man. Oh, is it not a privilege 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"?

About this time her health failed and she yearned for

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the home of her childhood days, but she did not desire to die and be buried in a slave state. She says: "I have lived in the midst of oppression and wrong and I am saddened by every captured fugitive in the North; a blow has been struck at my freedom, in every hunted and down-trodden slave in the South. North and South have both been guilty and they that sin must suffer." Again we find the Muse evoked to voice her sentiments:

"Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill,
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves."

The tragic and bloody deed which terminated in the capture and death of Margaret Garner in Ohio called forth the following from her pen: "Rome had her altars where the trembling criminal and the worn and weary slave might fly for an asylum; Judea her cities of refuge; but Ohio with her Bibles and churches, her baptisms and prayers, had not one temple so dedicated to human rights, one altar so consecrated to human liberty, that trampled upon and down