Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, African American lecturer, author, and suffragist, was the best known Black poet since Phillis Wheatley. Her antislavery verse, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), sold thousands of copies and “The Two Offers”(1859) was the first short story published by an African American. Touring Southern Freedmen’s communities, she lectured on education and morality as racial uplift, and denounced white racial violence. Her suffrage work was long-standing. In the split among suffragists over the 15th Amendment, Harper favored voting rights for Black men; she affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association, and delivered speeches at its conventions.
Born in Baltimore of free Black parents, she was orphaned before she was three. Reared by an uncle, whose school for free Blacks she attended, Harper was first a teacher, then a lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. She married Fenton Harper in 1860, but was widowed within four years and returned to lecturing. Her Southern travels resulted in several narrative poems. She became head of the African American department of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She helped organize the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and became vice-president. She died in Philadelphia at 85.
Songs for the People
Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life's fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o'er life's highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.
Bury Me in a Free Land
Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw 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 bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms ,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
Foster, Frances Smith. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993).
This anthology contains all of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's extant poetry and a generous selection of prose and letters, and provides moving portraits of suffering under slavery, as well as of freedom, love, infidelity, poverty, and heroism. As The New York Times Book Review notes, “This anthology . . . not only provides the first modern biography of Harper, but also illuminates her connection to . . . 20th-century writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.”
Harper, E.W. Harper. Iola Leroy: Or Shadows Uplifted (Oxford University Press, Shomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, 1990).
"Clearly Harper's words prove her awareness of the cultural and political functions of narrative. With its intricate plot, about a mulatto who first assumes she is white, subsequently learns she is the daughter of a slave ('the child follows the condition of its mother') and is therefore black, and who ultimately makes the conscious choice not to pass for white but to live as a black woman, Iola Leroy is a novel filled with the complexities and contradictions of black-and-female existence in America in the nineteenth century. While the success of the novel is indisputable in terms of copies sold, what is harder to measure is the extent to which it altered cultural and racial attitudes." The Women's Review of Books