About 4-in-5 young adults in the United States live within 100 miles of where they grew up. This latest research from the U.S. Census Bureau supports earlier data suggesting the typical U.S. adult lives near their hometown.
With that context in mind, imagine being born about 100 years ago in Baltimore, Maryland. As a woman.
After attending school until age 13, you become a domestic worker in a Quaker household that had an extensive library. At about age 25, you are the first female professor at the Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. You live in a Pennsylvania Underground Railroad station before traveling the Northeast for two years advocating for abolition on behalf of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society.
And your skin is black.
Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper) was born free in Maryland, a slave state, on 24 September 1825. She attended the “prestigious” Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. William Watkins and his wife raised her after her parents died when she was very young.
Watkins trained his students in precise grammar and diction, demanding inflection “so signally precise that every example in etymology syntax and prosody had to be given as correctly as a sound upon a [piano] keyboard.”
Watkins became an accomplished journalist, lecturer, poet and writer. She was an abolitionist and suffragist who advocated for social justice.
At age 20, she published her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves (1845).
She used proceeds from her second book of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) to help fund the Philadelphia Underground Railroad. The book was “remarkably successful with sales of over 10,000 in three years. During her life, numerous revised editions were published.”
For context, in 1854 there were about 20 million free Americans. That 10,000 today would be about 165,000. To land on the New York Times best seller list, a book reportedly needs 5,000 in sales in one week and a mainstream publisher (not self-published).
Poetry books are not usually best sellers. An exception is the book that is one poem: “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country.” This is the poem that Amanda Gorman delivered on 20 January 2021. She was “the sixth and youngest poet to deliver a poetry reading at a presidential inauguration.”
The Watkins short story, “The Two Offers,” is thought to be the first published by a Black American. It appeared in the June and July 1859 issues of a New York publication, Anglo-African Magazine. She was 33.
The story centers on two cousins, Laura Lagrange and Janette Alston. Laura ponders two offers of marriage. This was about as much choice as many women could exercise at a time when it was considered more important to be “the angel of the house” than the mistress of one’s own life.
A lifetime advocate for social justice, in 1858 Watkins was the only woman delegate at the Cincinnati Colored Convention. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society. [The Civil War began in 1861.]
She described her experience with segregation in a letter to the Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper, on 23 April 1858:
I have been insulted on several railroad cars. The other day, in attempting to ride in one of the city cars, after I had entered, the conductor came to me, and wanted me to go out on the platform. Now, was not that brave and noble? As a matter of course, I did not. Some one interfered, and asked or requested that I might be permitted to sit in a corner. I did not move, but kept the same seat. When I was about to leave, he refused my money, and I threw it down on the car floor, and got out, after I had ridden as far as I wished. Such impudence!
She married Fenton Harper in 1860; they lived on a farm in Ohio. After he died in 1864, Harper supported her family (one child of her own and three stepchildren) though speaking engagements. (The clipping reference below is to Portland, Maine, not Oregon.)
At the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, Harper joined suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in addressing the convention:
“You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”
[M]y husband died in debt; and before he had been in his grave three months, the administrator had swept the very milkcrocks and wash tubs from my hands. I was a farmer’s wife and made butter for the Columbus market; but what could I do, when they had swept all away? They left me one thing—and that was a looking glass! Had I died instead of my husband, how different would have been the result! By this time he would have had another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would have gone into his house, broken up his home, and sold his bed, and taken away his means of support.
And the title of the speech:
[J]ustice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law. We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.
Harper was a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association and, in 1896, co-founder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women. She was also a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
During the course of her career, she experimented with new literary styles; published more than a dozen books and countless articles and essays; and was the most popular Black poet of her time, earning her the nickname “bronze muse.”
The Library of Congress calls Harper “one of the most prominent and active African American women of the nineteenth century.”
She died in 1911 and is buried in Philadelphia.