Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook

By Denise D. Knight | Go to book overview
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FANCES E. W. HARPER (1825-1911)

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina


Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to free, middle-class black parents who both died by the time she was three. She was taken in and raised by her aunt and uncle, Henrietta and William Watkins, who were educated, free blacks living in Baltimore and part of its abolitionist community. A shoemaker by trade, as well as an African Methodist Episcopal minister who ran a black literary society, her uncle founded a school, the Watkins Academy, in 1820, where Frances was educated in all the standard academic subjects. She was also a friend to and influence upon the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison ( Bacon22-23).

At fourteen, Frances left the Watkins Academy and went to work for a white family named Armstrong. Although she was employed as a seamstress and nursemaid, she had the run of the Armstrongs' bookshop and their encouragement in her interest in writing. At the age of twenty or twenty-one she collected her poems into a volume called Forest Leaves, no copies of which survive.

In 1850 or 1851, she moved to Ohio to teach sewing at another school for free blacks, Union Seminary outside of Columbus, which would later move and become Wilberforce University. There she was the first female instructor, and as with her earlier employment, she was hired for her domestic rather than academic or literary skills. A year or two later she moved to another teaching position in York or Little York, Pennsylvania.

Her lifelong involvement with abolitionism, and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and Fugitive Slave Law in the 1850s, led her to question whether her real calling lay in teaching or activism, and she finally wrote to the antislavery activist William Still that she chose the latter ( Still757). For two years Harper


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