Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 24, 1825. Harper, unlike many African-Americans of the 1800s, was born a free person of color. She became an orphan at the age of three after her mother died, and she was raised by her aunt and uncle. She attended the Academy for Negro Youth, which was run by her uncle, Reverend William Watkins. Harper learned to read, write, and do crafts, which led to a job as a seamstress.
Frances Harper was supposed to be the first African-American novelist with her 1892 novel “Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted,” however the books of Harriet E. Wilson and Williams Wells Brown were discovered later. Her first published work was a book of poems called “Forest Leaves” (1845). She went on to have thirteen published works, including “Iola Leroy.” At the age of 75, Harper published her final work, “In Memoriam, William McKinley,” in 1901.
Harper was active in the abolitionist, women’s suffrage, and temperance movements in addition to being a novelist and poet. She became an activist after joining the American Anti-Slavery Society, which gave her the opportunity to tour the country lecturing and fundraising for the Underground Railroad while also providing a source of support for herself and her family. She taught at Union Seminary in Ohio, where she was the first female professor.
Frances Harper was a pioneer in the field of activism. Harper refused to sit in the colored section and give up her seat to white passengers prior to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her place on the bus to a white passenger. This gesture inspired one of her most renowned poems, “Bury Me in a Free Land.” Because she was dissatisfied with the women’s suffrage movement’s exclusion of African-American women’s issues, she formed the National Association of Colored Women with Mary Terrell Church, Ida Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, and others.
She married Fenton Harper and became a stepmother to his three children from a previous marriage. Her marriage to Fenton resulted in one child, Mary Frances. Fenton Harper died after nearly four years of marriage.
Francis Harper died on February 22, 1911, and was predeceased by her daughter in 1908.
She left behind a legacy of activism in aiding the abolition of slavery and educating others about the black experience in America during her time.