The Prescience of William Still
Preserved the Biography of the Philadelphia Poet: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
by Dr. Regina Jennings
The freeborn poet, fiction writer, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) fought against enslavement for African-Americans and was inspired and assisted by William Still to continue and deepen her abolitionism. Because Still recorded her letters in his book The Underground Railroad (1872) we can trace how this poet for freedom developed and fortified her commitment to social change. With this sense of obligation instilled in her by an aunt and uncle, Harper from childhood was encouraged into activism. Her uncle Reverend William Watkins founded and operated the Academy for Negro Youth which young Harper attended. She was a student among a significant population of children who were the offspring of White masters and enslaved Black servants. The curriculum of the Academy consisted of ‘Christianity, European classics, ethics, and liberty for negroes.’ In this educational environment, young Frances learned early that she had a responsibility beyond her individual life and circumstances. She learned that she was to embrace her spirituality as a shield and a sword in order to correct the Eurocentric inhumanity that composed the nature and culture of America during the epoch of chattel slavery.
With this inner mandate, she was assisted into action by the indefatigable, unprecedented, and unique abolitionism of the Philadelphian, William Still, a stationmaster for the Underground Railroad. When young Frances Ellen matured into womanhood, she travelled to Philadelphia from Baltimore to become a member of the Underground Railroad; therefore, she spent much time with William Still and other station activists. During this thrilling and unsalaried work, Harper heard and saw firsthand the dismal plight of her brethren in bondage for life. This experience gave her the privilege to help her people in every way possible and to create linguistic and verbal artistry that aided in the fight for ending slavery. One of the first Black women to be paid a salary by the female abolitionist society, as she travelled throughout the United States and Canada preaching and reciting poetry against human bondage, she stayed in touch with her dear life-long friend and mentor William Still. An excerpt from one of her letters to Still illustrates her grueling speaking schedule and her poetic gifts. Harper wrote:
My health is not very strong, and I may have to give up before long. I may have
to yield on account of my voice, which I think has become somewhat affected.
I might be so glad if it was only so that I could go home among my own kindred
and people, but slavery comes up like a dark shadow between me and the home
of my childhood. Well, perhaps it is my lot to die from home and be buried
among strangers; and yet I do not regret that I espoused this cause; perhaps I
have been of some service to the cause of human rights, and I hope the con-
sciousness that I have not lived in vain will be a halo of peace around my
dying bed, a heavenly sunshine lighting up the dark valley and shadow of
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.
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; North and South have
both been guilty, and they that sin must suffer.[i]
Through both art and activism and throughout her entire life, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black Nationalist of the highest order, fought the good fight for her people. She employed the themes of freedom and human rights in an impressive body of literature that includes the first short story to be published by an African-American entitled “The Two Offers.” Her poetry book Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) was extremely popular and was published in twenty editions and whenever I teach African-American literature I make her novel Iola Leroy (1892) one of the required readings. Her poetry, prose, and political essays were published in newspapers and journals, including: The Anglo African Weekly, The African Methodist Review, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, The Englishwoman’s Review, The Liberator, The New National Era, The New York Independent, The Philadelphia Tribune, The Provincial Freeman, The Christian Recorder, and other periodicals.
Despite her impressive body of literature, her work is often disregarded in American Literature courses. Yet presciently, the astute Black Panther Party officer in Los Angeles during the 1960s, John Huggins (1945-1969), often used a phrase that Harper uttered in the nineteenth century. In her first anti-slavery speech she said “educate to elevate.” Somehow, centuries later, Huggins heard this song on the wind and repeated it: “educate to elevate.” John Huggins, along with Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, was assassinated by those influenced by the Federal Bureau of Intelligence’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) when he participated in a meeting to set up the first Black Studies Department at the University of California in Los Angeles.[ii]
Because of the writings of William Still, the legacy of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper continues to live metaphysically, affecting activists of the 1960s and contemporary researchers and scholars such as Melba Boyd and Frances Smith Foster who have collected and given critical attention to the corpus of Harper’s writing. Her “consciousness” did not and never will die “in vain.”
[i]N.d., Quoted in Melba Joyce Boyd. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper 1825-1911. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 34.
[ii] Regina Jennings. Poetry of the Black Panther Party and the Ghost in Hip Hop. In Progress.
To learn more about the legacy of William Still, please see:
- The Life and Times of William Still
- William Still's Contemporaries
- Links to related websites, including links to William Still's books and other digitized resources
- View William Still's family photographs, correspondence, and related primary source materials by Searching the Collections