Brown, Hallie Q.
|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."
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
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
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
"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-trodden innocence knew that it could find protection for a night, or shelter for a day."
In 1860, in the city of Cincinnati, Mrs. Harper was married to Fenton Harper, a widower, and resident of Ohio. As a home maker she was compelled to give up her travels but did not cease from literary and Anti-Slavery labors. Her retirement was of short duration for on May 23, 1864, death deprived her of her husband.
She entered heartily into the cause of freedom being waged in the Civil War and lost no opportunity to speak, write or serve the cause of freedom. She writes: "We may look upon it as God's controversy with the nation, His arising to plead by fire and blood the cause of His poor and needy people." When the long looked for Emancipation Proclamation came Mrs. Harper was in great demand as a platform speaker. In the days of reconstruction she began her
"You would be amused,' she wrote a friend, "to hear some of the remarks which my lectures call forth. 'She is a man,' again "She is not colored, she is white. She is painted.' I am constantly talking and how tired I am some of the time. Still I am standing with my race on the threshold of a new era and though some may be far past me in the learning of the schools, yet today, with my limited and fragmentary knowledge, I may help the race forward a little. Some of our people remind me of sheep without a shepherd. I am going to have a private meeting with the women. I am going to talk with them about their daughters and about things connected with the welfare of the race. Now is the time for our women to begin to try to lift up their heads and plant the roots of progress under the hearthstone."
Grace Greenwood in the New York Independent commenting on a Course of Lectures in which Mrs. Harper spoke in Philadelphia pays tribute to her:
"Next of the course was Mrs. Harper, a colored woman, about as colored as some of the Cuban belles I have met with at Saratoga. She has a noble head, this bronze must; a strong face, with a shadowed glow upon it indicative of thought and of a nature most femininely sensitive, but not in the least morbid. Her form is delicate, her hands daintily small. She stands quietly beside her desk and speaks without notes, with gestures few and fitting. Her manner is marked by dignity and composure. She is never assuming, never theatrical. In the first part of her lecture she was most impressive in her pleading for the race with
Her prose and poetry are extant and attest her literary skill. Among the best known productions are "Moses." A Story of the Nile," "The Dying Bondsman," "Eliza Harris Crossing the Ice." Mrs. Harper was the first woman of the race to write a novel, entitled, "Iola Leroy. The Shadows Uplifted."
After peace was established and for many years prior to her death Mrs. Harper devoted her entire time to the work of temperance. Her grasp and mastery of the subject--her forensic ability and devotion to the cause made her the peer of effective orators of her day. At the World's W. C. T. U. held in Philadelphia, November, 1922, although long since dead, she was accorded a signal honor, when her life-long services were recognized and her name placed on the Red Letter Calendar so that wherever, around the world, the name of Frances E. Willard, the Lady Henry Somerset, with other staunch supporters of temperance are spoken, there too, will be heard the name of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper .