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Frances Harper

Frances Harper

One of the pioneers of African American women's literature, Frances Harper (1825-1911) used her position as a free Black woman to advocate for the abolition of slavery and women's rights. Harper's poetry, novels, short stories, and essays center around her anti-slavery beliefs and are guided by her Christian faith. Harper was the first African American woman to publish a short story in the United States, and she had an enormous impact on abolition in her words and her actions.

Frances Harper Biography

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1825. Although Maryland was still a slave state at the time, Harper was born to free African American parents. Her parents died when she was only three years old, leaving her in the care of her aunt and uncle, a pastor. Harper attended the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, the school her uncle established, until she was 13.

Christianity plays a large role in many of Harper's works.

At 13, Harper began working as a seamstress for a white Quaker family. Her employers owned a bookshop, where Harper fell in love with literature, reading extensively in her free time. By the time she was 21, Harper had written her first poetry collection, Forest Leaves (also published as Autumn Leaves) (1845). In 1850, she left Maryland to pursue a brief career in teaching in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Frances Harper, Needle, button, and threat, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Harper began reading when she worked as a seamstress for a family who owned a bookstore.

Shortly after leaving her home state, Maryland passed a law prohibiting free African Americans in the North from entering Maryland. Unable to return to her home state under the threat of imprisonment and slavery, Harper devoted all of her attention to promoting abolition and ending slavery. She moved in with her abolitionist friends, including William Still, who was well-known for his work in the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad consisted of a network of routes and safe houses owned by abolitionists that were used to help enslaved people in the South escape to northern free states. The Underground Railroad began around 1800 and ended in 1865, after the end of the Civil War.

Some experts estimate that up to 100,000 enslaved African Americans escaped to freedom using the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman is perhaps the best-known "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, guiding slaves through the routes to freedom.

Harper joined the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1853 and left Pennsylvania the following year to travel across the country lecturing about the need to end slavery. Her first lecture was entitled "The Elevation and Education of Our People" (1854).

During this time, Harper also became a loud supporter of women's suffrage, advocating that for both women and African Americans to be free, both groups needed rights and activism needed to be intersectional. However, many of her contemporaries prioritized one issue over the other, dividing among themselves and weakening their own efforts.

Frances Harper, Black man and white woman holding up peace signs, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Harper argued that the fight for suffrage and equality needed to include African Americans and women in order to be successful.

Harper married in 1860 and had a daughter. Her husband died four years later, at which point Harper threw herself back into her work. Harper helped to found the American Woman Suffrage Association. She continued publishing poems, short stories, novels, and essays about the need for equal rights, especially for African American women. Harper died at the age of 85 from heart failure.

Harper never lived to see her dream of women's suffrage. Women gained the right to vote in 1920, nine years after her death.

Frances Harper Career

Harper's writing career was quite prolific. She started writing when she was 21 and wrote several collections of poetry, essays, and articles, as well as novels. The majority of Harper's work centers around the abolition of slavery and the need for better opportunities for African American women.

From the publication of her first poetry collection in 1845, Harper situated herself firmly in the abolitionist movement. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) was her second poetry collection and an immediate success. It has since been reprinted over 20 times.

Frances Harper, Statue of hands in the air and broken shackles, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Harper focused her career on the abolition of slavery.

Harper published 80 poems in her lifetime, both in poetry collections and in popular magazines. Some of her most famous poems include "The Slave Mother" (1854), "Bury Me in a Free Land" (1858), and "To the Cleveland Union Savers" (1861). She later published several more poetry collections, including Sketches of Southern Life (1872), Poems (1857), and The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (1894).

Harper's 1859 short story "The Two Offers" made her the first African-American woman to publish a short story, and her 1892 novel Iola Leroy was one of the first books published by a Black woman. Harper was also a famous lecturer, well known for her speeches such as "The Elevation and Education of Our People" and "We Are All Bound Up Together" (1866). She supported her family by traveling across the country giving speeches.

Frances E. W. Harper Short Story: "The Two Offers"

Harper is perhaps best known for her short story "The Two Offers" (1859), which was the first short story to be published by an African American woman. It was published in the New York-based Anglo-African Magazine, a publication dedicated to Black writers.

"The Two Offers" centers around two cousins and their romantic relationships. Laura is pondering two marriage proposals, and the brilliant, self-made Janette tells her to choose neither. Laura was raised in a wealthy family and always received everything she wanted. She believes that the worst fate that could befall a woman is to never marry and live as an old maid. Janette was born into a poor but happy family. After both of her parents died and left her alone, Jannette learned how to make a name for herself through writing. Although she is very successful, her lack of a husband and romantic love is seen as a shortcoming.

Frances E. W. Harper, Choice Sign, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Laura must decide between two men to marry.

The short story flashes forward ten years, and Laura is married to one of her suitors. Although she was so happy to be married, her husband was unable to give up gambling and drinking, and their relationship weighs on her. Laura's only happiness was in her baby, who passed away. Her health has declined drastically because of her failed marriage and the loss of her child. Laura is now on her deathbed, and Janette looks at her with nothing but love. Laura hopes her husband will come to say goodbye, but he does not.

Janette is with her cousin when she dies. Janette resolves to continue fighting to make the world a better place. Through her writing and her actions, she changes many lives and advocates for her belief. But because she never has a husband, she is labeled an old maid. When Janette dies, she realizes that the secret to a full life isn't in getting exactly what she wanted out of life but in making herself the best person possible.

Frances Harper Books

Harper is famous for her poetry collections, especially Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), and her novel Iola Leroy (1892)

Iola Leroy (1892)

Iola Leroy is one of the first novels published by an African American woman. Although the novel was published in 1892, the setting is the Civil War. It examines social issues like abolition, women's rights, religion, and racial passing.

Racial passing is when a person (typically Black or Brown) is accepted as a member of another racial group. This term often refers to light-skinned people of color who appear white and can benefit from white privilege.

At the start of the novel, a group of runaway slaves joins the Union army to fight for their freedom. The slaves are led by Robert Johnson. The soldiers learn of a young woman being held as a slave in a nearby town and rescue her.

The novel then flashes back to give more context to the woman, Iola Leroy. Her mother, Marie, was a slave who nursed her owner, Eugene Leroy, back to health when he was deathly ill. Eugene set Marie free, married her, and had three children with her. The children, including Iola and her brother Harry, were so light-skinned they passed for white. Iola and Harry were never told of their Black ancestry, and they were sent to school in the North so they would never find out. As Iola is away at school and getting ready for graduation, her father dies.

Iola had been defending the institution of slavery at seminary school before she learns that her mother was a slave. What is this an example of?

Eugene's cousin, Alfred Lorraine, is eager to inherit the money Eugene left behind. Lorraine has a judge revoke Marie's freedom, making her and her children slaves again. When Iola returns home under the guise that her father is dying (in reality, he was already dead), she is sold into slavery. That is where she is when Robert and the Union soldiers find her.

Robert and the slaves join the Union army to fight for their freedom, while Iola volunteers as a nurse. Iola cares for Robert when he's wounded. The two discover that they might be related and go out searching for his mother. They find Robert's mother and Harry, who had enlisted in the Union army in a Black regiment.

Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)

Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, originally published in 1854, is Harper's second collection of poetry. It contains 18 poems and three short prose pieces. Reflecting on themes like Christianity, slavery, and womanhood, the collection contains biblical allusions and responds to the contemporary novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This collection was a massive success and was reprinted 20 times within Harper's lifetime alone.

Frances Harper Impact

Harper was one of the loudest proponents of abolition in the literary world. From before the Civil War and well into Reconstruction, she advocated for the rights of African Americans and the necessity for better jobs, education, and opportunities. She also fought for women to get the right to vote and finally be social equals to their male counterparts. Her essays, lectures, and creative pieces provide some of the strongest arguments against slavery, written by a Black woman herself. Harper was also a trailblazer in terms of literature written by Black women. She paved the way for countless others to follow in her footsteps.

More than a literary voice, Harper also took direct action to make a difference. In 1896, Harper co-founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and served as its president. The NACWC still exists today and continues to advocate for Harper's vision of racial harmony and the empowerment of women. Harper was also instrumental in furthering the efforts of the American Association of Colored Youth, where she served as director.

Frances Harper - Key takeaways

  • France Harper was born in Maryland in 1825.
  • Although she was born in a slave state, Harper was born a free Black woman.
  • She dedicated her career to advocating for abolition and women's suffrage
  • Harper is famous for being the first African American woman to have a published short story, "The Two Offers," in 1859.
  • Her other famous books include the novel Iola Leroy (1892) and Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854).

Frequently Asked Questions about Frances Harper

Harper was an African American novelist, poet, short story writer, lecturer, and advocate, who was a loud advocate for abolition and women's suffrage. 

Harper died of heart failure. She was 85.

Harper was a famous writer and presenter in her own time. She is well known for her contributions to the abolitionist movement and for being an advocate for women's suffrage. 

She changed the world as the first African American woman to publish a short story. 

Harper contributed to the movement in her literature as well as her anti-slavery lectures. 

Final Frances Harper Quiz

Question

Who was Frances Harper?

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Answer

Frances Harper was an African American poet, novelist, essayist, lecturer, and short story writer in the mid 19th century. 

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Question

True or false: Harper was born a slave

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Answer

False

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What religion greatly influenced Frances Harper? 

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Answer

Christianity

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What is Harper famous for? 

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Answer

Harper is the first African American woman to publish a short story. 

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How did Harper die? 

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Answer

She died of heart failure. 

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Question

True or false: Harper NEVER saw women's suffrage 

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Answer

True

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What were the two main issues that Harper was passionate about? 

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Answer

Women's suffrage

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What are two of Harper's most well-known books? 

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Answer

 The novel Iola Leroy (1892) and Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)

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What is the title of Harper's famous short story?

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"The Two Offers" 

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What is the setting of her novel Iola Leroy

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Answer

The Civil War, specifically North Carolina 

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Who wrote Iola Leroy

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Answer

Iola Leroy was written by Frances Harper. 

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When was Iola Leroy published?

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Answer

It was published in 1892.

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Which historical event is Iola Leroy set during? 

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The Civil War

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Who is Iola Leroy? 

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Answer

Iola Leroy is a biracial girl, born to a slave owner and his slave-turned-wife. She is raised believing that she is white. 

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True or false: Iola argues for the institution of slavery at first

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True

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Who is Robert Johnson? 

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Robert Johnson is a former slave as well as a lieutenant in the Black unit of the Union army. Later in the novel, he and Iola realize he is her long-lost uncle. 

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Why is Iola sold into slavery?

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Answer

After her father's death, her white uncle has her parents' marriage and her mother's freedom nullified. 

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True or false: Frances Harper was born into slavery

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False

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How does Iola continue to face oppression even after the war? 

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She struggles with the housing market and finding a job because of her race and gender. 

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What are the main themes in Iola Leroy

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Answer

The main themes are racial oppression and gender limitations and the fight for freedom. 

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