Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

53 LIBERTY FOR SLAVES

Frances Ellen Watkins

Born of free parents in Baltimore, Frances Ellen Watkins ( 1825- 1911) was a highly acclaimed poet, novelist, organizer, and lecturer. After teaching in New York and Pennsylvania, Watkins became a professional abolitionist lecturer employed by the Maine Anti-Slavery Society to speak throughout the Northeast. "Because she was so articulate and engaging as a public speaker," Hazel Carby writes, "some audiences thought Harper [ Watkins's later married name] must be a man, while others thought she couldn't possibly be black and had to be painted." Few abolitionist writers or speakers could match Watkins's ability to express the horrors and oppressiveness of slavery or the yearning of African Americans for undiminished liberty. In her 1858 poem, "Bury Me in a Free land," Watkins explained that she wanted no slaves around her grave, because

I could not rest if I heard the tread Of a coffee-gang to the shambles led, And the mother's shriek of wild despair Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not rest if I heard the lash Drinking her blood at each fearful gash, And I saw her babes torn from her breast, Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I'd shudder and start, if I heard the bay Of the blood-hounds seizing their human prey: If I heard the captive plead in vain, As they tightened afresh his galling chain.

Watkins married Fenton Harper in 1860 and returned to the lecture circuit upon his death in 1864. An avid promoter of temperance and women's rights, she served the national Women's Christian Temperance Union as head of the Department for Work Among Negroes and was among the organizers of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. For more information, see Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 62-94; Dorothy Sterling, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century ( New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 159-64; Frances Smith Foster, ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader ( New York: Feminist Press, 1990).

The following speech is one of the few surviving examples of

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