A Reading on the Life of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Created by Marjory H. Odessky
June, 1995

First Presented at the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn,
as part of a Women’s History Worship Service on March 19, 1995.
Original cast: Narrators--Suzanne Granfield and Marjory R. Odessky
Voices of 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 been lost.

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 States:

Yes! Ethiopia yet shall stretch
Her bleeding hands abroad.
Her cry of agony shall reach
The burning throne of God.

The tyrant’s yoke from of f her neck,
His fetters from her soul,
The mighty hand of God shall break
And spurn the base control.

Redeemed from dust and freed from chains,
Her sons shall lift their eyes;
From cloud-capt hills and verdant plains
Shall 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 Slave Mother”:

F.E.W.H. 2: I have but four, the treasures of my soul,
They lie like doves around my heart.
I tremble lest some cruel hand
Should tear my household wreaths apart.

My playful boys, could I forget,
My home might seem a joyous spot;
But with their sunshine mirth I blend
The darkness of their future lot.

F.E.W.H. 1: And thou, my babe, my darling one,
My last, my loved, my precious child.
Oh! when I think upon thy doom,
My heart grows faint and then throbs wild.

The Ohio’s bridged and spanned with ice,
The northern star is shining bright;
I’ll take the nestlings of my heart
And search for freedom by its light.

F.E.W.H. 2: But Ohio had no sacred fane,
To human rights so consecrate
Where thou may’st shield thy hapless ones
From their darkly gathering fate.

F.E.W.H. 1: Then, said the mournful mother,
If Ohio cannot save,
I will do a deed for freedom
And shall find each child a grave.

I will save my precious children
From their darkly threatened doom.
I will hew their path to freedom
Through the portals of the tomb.

F.E.W.H. 2: A moment in the sunlight,
She held a glimmering knife,
The next moment she had bathed it
In the crimson fount of life.

They snatched the fatal knife,
The boys shrieked wild with dread.
The baby girl was pale and cold.
They 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 all, sincere.”3

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 Anderson’s Tom.

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 easy garment
O’er it no toiling slave
Wept tears of hopeless anguish
In his passage to the grave.

And from its ample folds
Shall rise no cry to God,
Upon its warp and woof
Shall 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,
Ye bells, that call to praise;
Let every heart with gladness thrill,
And songs of joyful triumph raise.

Shake of f the dust, O rising race!
Crowned as a brother and a man.
Justice today asserts her claim,
And from thy brow fades out the ban.

O ransomed race! Give God the praise
Who led thee through a crimson sea,
And ‘mid the storm of fire and blood,
Turned 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 Clubs.

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
Upon her husband’s track.
When he sold his vote for rations,
She made him take ‘em back.

Day after day did Milly Green
Just follow after Joe,
And told him if he voted wrong,
To take his rags and go.

I think that Colonel Johnson said.
His side had won the day,
Had not we women radicals
Just 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 accomplished.

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 Eden Cemetery.

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 p. 96.
14 ”Harper Resurrected”, (The World, March/April, 1993), pp. 38-39.


Flexner, Eleanor. 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, 1990.

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 Press, 1988.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1971.

The World. “Harper Resurrected.” March/April, 1993.

Yee, Shirley J. Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.