Black American Women Poets and Dramatists

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Frances E. W. Harper
c. 1825-1911

FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER, civil rights leader, abolitionist, suffragette, and poet, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, most probably in 1825, although some records indicate it may have been 1824. Although Maryland was a slave state at the time, Harper was bom free to free parents. Her mother died when she was three or four years of age, and Harper moved in with her aunt, attending a school for free blacks owned by her uncle. Her formal education ended when she reached her teens, but she took a position in a Baltimore bookstore and used the opportunity to read widely.

Harper's first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves, was probably published in 1845. No copies of the book exist today, but it is thought that Harper republished the poems that appeared in it in later poetry collections. In 1850, wishing to move to a free state, Harper took a position at Union Seminary, a new school for free blacks founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and located near Columbus, Ohio. Harper did not enjoy teaching and wanted to be more directly involved in social activism. She moved to Little York, Pennsylvania, a town on the Underground Railroad, where she met and was deeply influenced by abolitionist and orator William Grant Still.

In 1853 Harper relinquished her teaching position, and in 1854 published her successful Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (with a preface by William Lloyd Garrison) and gave her first abolitionist lecture. She became a professional lecturer for the abolitionist movement and was supported by various antislavery societies as she traveled from town to town, lecturing and reading her poems. Her poetry, not surprisingly, is written in an oral style and uses biblical themes and imagery familiar to her nineteenth-century audience. Harper created lyrical and emotional poems while maintaining the formal construction of the rhymed quatrain.

In 1860 she married Fenton Harper, a widower from Cincinnati, settled on a farm near Columbus, and had a daughter named Mary. Fenton Harper died in 1864, and Frances Harper resumed lecturing and toured the South

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