Reading on the Life of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Marjory H. Odessky
UNIVERSALIST WOMEN’S HERITAGE SOCIETY
Presented at the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn,
as part of
a Women’s History Worship Service on March 19, 1995.
cast: Narrators--Suzanne Granfield and Marjory R. Odessky
Frances Ellen Watkins Earper --Andree Peart and Pat Whittingham
CAST: 2 Narrators, 2
Voices of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
NARRATOR A Today we
celebrate in an unconventional way the 75th anniversary of the 1920
passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that finally secured the right to
vote for women--by considering the most profound ethical dilemma that
arose during the suffragists’ struggle for women’s
rights. At the same time, we will reclaim the voice of one of the
leading African-American women intellectuals of the nineteenth
century who participated in that ethical conflict, and whose name has
been lost from the collective American consciousness.
NARRATOR B We’d
like you to meet FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER. She was a writer and
public speaker, she was a leader in the abolitionist movement, in the
woman’s suffrage movement, and in the temperance movement—-and
she was a Unitarian.
NARRATOR A In 1825,
Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore to a free woman of color.
Her father’s identity is not known--he may have been white.
When Frances Ellen was 3 years old, her mother died, and the orphan
girl was taken in by her mother’s sister and her husband, the
Rev. William Watkins.
NARRATOR B The
three-year-old had chosen her foster parents well. The Rev. Watkins
ran a private school for black boys and girls, and he insisted upon
the highest intellectual standards in the study of the Bible, Greek,
Latin, mathematics, and the English language. Frances Ellen was among
his star pupils.
NARRATOR A She also
chose her first employer well. Her first paid job at age 14 was as a
domestic servant to a couple who owned a bookstore, so that she had
the opportunity to read extensively in her spare moments.
NARRATOR B She soon
began to write as well as to read, writing poems and articles for
magazines. Her first book of poetry was reported to have been
published in 1845, called Forest Leaves. All copies of that work have
NARRATOR A The year
1850 brought a significant threat to the safety of people of color in
Maryland. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, even free-born
blacks were vulnerable to being picked up by slave-catchers. Local
officials forced the Rev. Watkins to discontinue and sell his school,
and he emigrated to Canada with his family.
NARRATOR B Frances
Ellen Watkins left Baltimore at this time to take a job as a teacher
in Columbus, Ohio, at a school run by the African Methodist Episcopal
Church. Throughout her whole life, she maintained close ties with the
Methodists, even though she later became a member of the First
Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.
NARRATOR A In 1854,
Frances Ellen Watkins relocated to Philadelphia, where she came in
close contact with active abolitionists. She now emphasized
anti-slavery themes in her prose and poetry. Her earliest published
poem that remains available in print used “Ethiopia’t as
a poetic metaphor for the suffering people of color in the United
FRANCES E. W. HARPER 1
Ethiopia yet shall stretch
bleeding hands abroad.
cry of agony shall reach
burning throne of God.
tyrant’s yoke from of f her neck,
fetters from her soul,
mighty hand of God shall break
spurn the base control.
from dust and freed from chains,
sons shall lift their eyes;
cloud-capt hills and verdant plains
shouts of triumph rise.
NARRATOR A Frances
Watkins’ poetry was written in the popular nineteenth-century
style of James Greenleaf Whittier or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To
our late twentieth-century ears, these poems sound old-fashioned,
sentimental. But in her own time, they were enormously popular. Her
published books of poetry sold thousands of copies.
NARRATOR B And her
poems pointed the direction from Phyllis Wheatley, the earliest
African-American poet, to the next generation of black poets like
Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen.
NARRATOR A One of her
poems foreshadows the central event in Toni Morrison’s novel,
Beloved. It was based on a real incident reported in Ohio newspapers
involving an escaping slave woman. Here is a part of her poem, “The
F.E.W.H. 2: I have but
four, the treasures of my soul,
lie like doves around my heart.
tremble lest some cruel hand
tear my household wreaths apart.
playful boys, could I forget,
home might seem a joyous spot;
with their sunshine mirth I blend
darkness of their future lot.
1: And thou, my babe, my darling one,
last, my loved, my precious child.
when I think upon thy doom,
heart grows faint and then throbs wild.
Ohio’s bridged and spanned with ice,
northern star is shining bright;
take the nestlings of my heart
search for freedom by its light.
F.E.W.H. 2: But Ohio
had no sacred fane,
human rights so consecrate
thou may’st shield thy hapless ones
their darkly gathering fate.
F.E.W.H. 1: Then, said
the mournful mother,
Ohio cannot save,
will do a deed for freedom
shall find each child a grave.
will save my precious children
their darkly threatened doom.
will hew their path to freedom
the portals of the tomb.
F.E.W.H. 2: A moment
in the sunlight,
held a glimmering knife,
next moment she had bathed it
the crimson fount of life.
snatched the fatal knife,
boys shrieked wild with dread.
baby girl was pale and cold.
raised her up--the child was dead.2
NARRATOR A There is no
doubt that changing fashions in poetic style contributed to Frances
Ellen Watkins’ growing obscurity, but her literary fate was
sealed by some negative criticism by W. E. B. DuBois in his eulogy on
her death in 1911:
NARRATOR B “She
was not a great singer, but she had some sense of song; she was not a
great writer, but she wrote some words worth reading. She was, above
NARRATOR A As the
saying goes--with friends like that, who needs enemies?
NARRATOR B At the age
of 67, she wrote her one novel, Iola Leroy, a fictional
treatment of the life of a mixed-race woman in the South after the
Civil War. After its original publication in 1893, it was never
republished in paperback until 1987. The action of Iola Leroy begins
in the heart of the South, while the Civil War is in progress:
F.E.W.H. 1: “Good
mornin’, Bob, how’s butter dis mornin’?”
F.E.W.H. 2: “Fresh,
just as fresh, as fresh as can be.”
F.E.W.H. 1: “Oh
glory,” said the questioner, whom we shall call Thomas
Anderson, although he was known among his acquaintances as Mister
F.E.W.H. 2: His
informant regarding the condition of the market was Robert Johnson,
who had been separated from his mother in his childhood and reared by
his mistress as a favorite slave. She had fondled him as one might a
pet animal, and even taught him to read.
F.EW.H. 1: As Robert
Johnson and Thomas Anderson passed homeward from the market, having
brought provisions for their respective homes, they seemed to be very
light—hearted and careless, chatting and joking with each
other; but every now and then, after looking furtively around, one
would drop into the ears of the other some news of the battle then
raging between the North and South which like two great millstones,
were grinding slavery to powder. As they passed along, they were met
by another servant, who said in hurried tones, but with a glad accent
in the voice:
F.E.W.H. 2: “Did
you see de fish in de market dis mornin’? Oh, but dey war
splendid, us’ as fresh as fresh kin be.”
F.E.W.H. 1: “That’s
the ticket,” said Robert, as a broad smile overspread his face.
“I’ll see you later,”
F.EW.H. 2: “Good
mornin’ boys,” said another servant on the way to market.
“How’s eggs dis mornin’?”
F.E.W.H. 1: “Fust
rate, fust rate,” said Tom Anderson.
F.E.W.H. 2: There
seemed to be an unusual interest manifested by these men in the state
of the produce market, and a unanimous report of its good condition.
Surely there was nothing in the primeness of the butter or the
freshness of the eggs to change careless looking faces into
expressions of gratification, or to light dull eyes with such
gladness. What did it mean?
F.E.W.H. 1: During the
dark days of the Rebellion, when the bondman was turning his eyes to
the American flag, and learning to hail it as a sign of deliverance,
some of the shrewder slaves, coming in contact with their masters and
overhearing their conversations, invented a phraseology to convey in
the most unsuspected manner news to each other from the battlefield.
F.E.W.H. 2: In
conveying tidings of the war, if they wished to announce a victory of
the Union army, they said the butter was fresh, or that the fish and
eggs were in good condition. If defeat befell them, then the butter
and other produce were rancid or stale.4 [---Brief pause, or
interrupt narrative here---)
NARRATOR A Frances
Ellen Watkins’ role as a writer was only one of her
accomplishments. She made her first public address as a speaker for
abolition in 1854, and was hired by the State of Maine Anti-Slavery
Society as a paid traveling lecturer against slavery.
NARRATOR B She was a
contemporary of Sojourner Truth. Like the few other black women who
spoke publicly, she was suspect. Some said, “She is not a
woman, she is a man,” or “She is not colored, but painted
to look colored.”5 The abolitionists described her as someone
whose “arguments are forcible, her logic fervent, her delivery
original and easy, and her voice soft and musical.”6
NARRATOR A She aligned
herself with that minority of abolitionists who advocated boycotting
goods made by slave labor, in a movement called Free Produce, very
much like people today who refuse to buy goods manufactured by
political prisoners or by child labor.
F.E.W.H. 1: I wear an
it no toiling slave
tears of hopeless anguish
his passage to the grave.
from its ample folds
rise no cry to God,
its warp and woof
be no stains of blood.7
NARRATOR A At the age
of 35, Frances Ellen Watkins married a man named Fenton Harper, a man
with three children, and settled down to be a farmer’s wife.
She gave birth to one daughter Mary.
NARRATOR B Four years
later, her husband died, and she was dispossessed. She went back to
the lecture circuit to support herself. In an address before a
Woman’s Rights Convention in 1866, she linked her personal
experience to that of all women:
F.E.W.H. 2: Born of a
race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life
had been spent in battling against those wrongs. But I did not feel
as keenly as others that I had these rights in common with other
women, which are now demanded.
F.E.W.H. 1: About two
years ago, I stood within the shadows of my home. A great sorrow had
fallen upon my life. My husband had died suddenly, leaving me a widow
with four children, one my own, and the other stepchildren. I tried
to keep my children together. But my husband died in debt, and before
he had been in his grave three months, the administrator had swept
the very milk-crocks and washtubs from my hands.
F.E.W.H. 2: I was a
farmer’s wife and made butter for the Columbus market; but what
could I do, when they had swept all away! Had I died instead of my
husband, how different would have been the result! By this time he
would have had another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would
have gone into his house, broken up his home, and sold his bed, and
taken away his means of support.8
NARRATOR B Frances
Ellen--now, Harper--was one of the few women of color who was active
in both the abolitionist and the suffragist causes, as well as in the
temperance movement, in which she was one of very few black women
leaders, but her adherence to the cause of votes for women was
fraught with conflict.
NARRATOR A The split
within the ranks of the suffragist movement came right after the end
of the Civil War when the political experts decided that it was
impossible to pass both woman suffrage and the votes for black men at
the same time.
NARRATOR B The
agitation for votes for women would have to be set aside temporarily.
The woman suffrage movement was torn apart. Taking the side of
fighting for both causes at the same time, despite the advice of the
political strategists, were Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others.
NARRATOR A On the side
of getting the vote secured for black men first were Frances Ellen
Harper, Lucy Brown, and Julia Ward Howe. This was no simple issue--it
was the great moral dilemma of the woman’ s rights movement.
NARRATOR B There were
good people, men and women, black and white, on both sides. Frederick
Douglass, one of the earliest supporters of the call for women’s
rights, said now:
FE.W.H. 1: “When
women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of
New York and New Orleans, when they are dragged from their houses and
hung upon lamp posts, . .when they are objects of insult and outrage
at every turn, when they are in danger of having their homes burnt
down over their heads; ... then they will have an urgency to obtain
the ballot equal to our men.”9
F.E.W.H. 2: Douglas was
countered by another black abolitionist, Charles Remond, who said:
“In an hour like this I repudiate the idea of expediency. All I
claim for myself I ask for my wife and sister. “ 10
NARRATOR A It was the
vote only for black men, and not for women, black or white, that
prevailed. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment was seen as a great
victory for the former slaves. Frances Ellen Harper celebrated the
event in a published poem:
FE.W.H. 1: Ring out!
Ring out! your sweetest chimes,
bells, that call to praise;
every heart with gladness thrill,
songs of joyful triumph raise.
of f the dust, O rising race!
as a brother and a man.
today asserts her claim,
from thy brow fades out the ban.
ransomed race! Give God the praise
led thee through a crimson sea,
‘mid the storm of fire and blood,
out the war-cloud’s light for thee.11
NARRATOR B It took
another 52 years from the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment giving
black men the vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920
gave the vote to women.
NARRATOR A Throughout
all that time, while the white-led suffragist movement was continuing
to fight for votes for women, African-American women were actively
working as well. There were black suffrage clubs in Tuskegee, St.
Louis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Boston, Charleston, and New Orleans.
NARRATOR B The NAACP
had a woman’s suffrage department, as did the national
organization of the National Association of Colored Women’s
NARRATOR A Frances
Ellen Harper argued that black women should make sure that black men
would use their vote wisely--not sell it to the highest bidder:
F.E.W.H. 2: You’d
laugh to see Lucinda Grange
her husband’s track.
he sold his vote for rations,
made him take ‘em back.
after day did Milly Green
follow after Joe,
told him if he voted wrong,
take his rags and go.
think that Colonel Johnson said.
side had won the day,
not we women radicals
got right in the way.’2
NARRATOR A In the
years after the Civil War, Frances Ellen Harper toured the South,
teaching moral uplift, advocating education for the ex-slaves, and
emphasizing the important role of black women:
F.E.W.H. 1: Now is the
time for our women to lift up their heads and plant the roots of
progress under the hearthstone.... China compressed the feet of her
women, and thereby retarded the steps of her men. The world cannot
move without women’s sharing in the movement. If the fifteenth
century discovered America to the Old World, the nineteenth century
is discovering woman to herself.13
NARRATOR B Frances
Ellen Harper died in 1911, nine years before the vote for women was
NARRATOR A In 1992,
African-American and other Unitarian Universalists gathered from
across the continent to remember her and to dedicate a headstone for
what was thought to be her unmarked grave in Philadelphia’s
NARRATOR B As the new
headstone was being set in place, an earlier headstone that had
toppled over was unearthed. The Unitarian Universalists present at
the ceremony found the discovery of the fallen headstone a fitting
symbol for the resurrection of the work and the words of Francis
Ellen Watkins Harper.14
1 Frances Smith Foster,
ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader
(New York: The Feminist Press of the City University of New York,
1990), P. 62.
2 Foster, pp. 84-85.
3 Foster, p. 25.
4 Frances E. W. Harper,
Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1988), pp. 7-9.
5 Foster, p. 127.
6 Foster, p. 15.
7 Foster, p. 81.
8 Foster, p. 217.
9 Paula Giddings, When
and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in
America (New York: Bantam Books, 1985), p. 67.
10 Giddings, p. 68.
11 Foster, pp. 189-190.
12 Foster, p. 204.
13 Giddings, p. 71 and
Resurrected”, (The World, March/April, 1993), pp. 38-39.
Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the
United States. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of the Harvard
University Press, 1959.
Foster, Frances Smith,
ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader.
New York: The Feminist Press of the City University of New York,
Giddings, Paula. When
and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in
America. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
Harper, Frances E. W.
Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. New York: Oxford University
James, Edward T., ed.
Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge, Mass.: The
Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1971.
“Harper Resurrected.” March/April, 1993.
Yee, Shirley J. Black
Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860. Knoxville:
University of Tennessee Press, 1992.