Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

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

98 THE GREAT PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper ( 1825-1911), distinguished poet, novelist, and antislavery lecturer and agent, was born in Baltimore of free parents. She was educated at her uncle's school for black children, moved to Ohio in 1850, and taught domestic science at Union Seminary, at Columbia. In 1853 she went to Little York, Pennsylvania, to work with the Underground Railroad. She was engaged as a full-time lecturer in 1854 by the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine. Her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, was published the same year. Her books of antislavery and religious verse sold widely, and her novel, Iola Leroy; or, The Shadows Uplifted, is among the most important American literary works of the Reconstruction era. After the Civil War, Harper worked as a representative of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, specializing in work among African Americans.

On April 14, 1875, Harper delivered an address at the Centennial Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, held in Philadelphia. She spoke at a time when blacks in the South were being massacred and otherwise intimidated by illegal organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Leagues. Harper argues that African Americans must organize to complete the work of Reconstruction rather than relying on political parties or organizations and that black women should play an important role in these efforts.

The speech was originally published in Centennial Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery ( Philadelphia: Grant, Faires and Rodgers, 1876), 29-32, and was reprinted in Alice Moore Dunbar , ed., Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence ( New York: Bookery, 1914), 101-6. For further information, see Frances Smith Foster, ed., A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader ( New York: Feminist Press, 1990).

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN : The great problem to be solved by the American people, if I understand it, is this: Whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people but lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom; and upon the right solution of this question depends in a large measure the future strength, progress and durability of our nation. The most important question before us colored people is not simply what the Democratic party may do against us or the Republican party do for us; but what are we going to do for ourselves? What shall we do toward develop-

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