Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

Antislavery lecturer, writer, poet, temperance reformer and Underground Railroad conductor

Former Home Address: 1006 and Bainbridge Street

For more information about Frances Ellen Watkins and her poetry, see Dr. Regina Jennings' essay on The Prescience of William Still.

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances Harper was the first African-American woman instructor in vocational education at the African Methodist Episcopal Union Seminary near Columbus, Ohio, where she taught domestic science. This remarkable self-educated woman was referred to as the "Brown Muse," and described as "a petite, dignified woman whose sharp black eyes and attractive face reveal her sensitive nature."

Forced into exile by an 1853 Maryland law forbidding free blacks to enter the state, she pledged herself to the anti-slavery movement. Harper came to Philadelphia, lived in an Underground Railroad station, and ultimately became a conductor. William Still wrote that she was "one of the most liberal contributors as well as one of the ablest advocates for the Underground Railroad and the slave." As a lecturer for the antislavery movement, Harper was so effective that the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society hired her. She served as superintendent of the colored branch of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania chapters of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She was also an active member of the National Council of Women, the American Women's Suffrage Association and the American Association for Education of Colored Youth. In 1893, Harper, with her colleagues (Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Sarah J Earley, and Hallie Q. Brown), charged the international gathering of women at the World's Congress of Representative Women in Chicago with indifference to the needs and concerns of African-American women. As a result, she was active in the establishment of the National Association of Colored Women and became its vice president. Her contributions as a writer and poet were numerous and include her famous poems The Slave Mother and Bury Me in a Free Land.

(From: Blockson, Charles L. Philadelphia's Guide: African-American State Historical Markers. Philadelphia: Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection / William Penn Foundation, 1992.)