Frances Harper's Home: Frances Harper — Poet and Activist
Frances Harper, who lived at 1006 Bainbridge Street, was an African-American poet during the 1800s. Most of the time she used poetry to express her beliefs about race. Her work brought her to Philadelphia, which was the hub of many social movements. She quickly met famous abolitionists of the time, and became involved with the movement. Through them, she met other activists, such as those advocating for temperance and women’s suffrage, and joined those movements as well.
She was born free in September 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. When she was young, her parents died and she went to live with her aunt and uncle. Her uncle had a large influence on her life. He was a schoolteacher and an abolitionist, leading her to attend the Academy for Negro Youth and become an abolitionist herself. At 14, Frances Harper’s interest in literature really took off. She worked for a book merchant who let her read the books in his library and encouraged her to write. Seven years later, she published her first collection of poems.
In 1850, Frances Harper left Maryland for Ohio in order to live in a free state. She became active in the abolitionist movement there after she heard about the misfortune of another Black man. The man had gone to Maryland without knowing it had recently passed a law saying that any free Black found entering the state could be returned to slavery. The man died while attempting to escape.
Harper came to Philadelphia because of the robust abolition movement in the City. Here she met William Still, who introduced her to the Underground Railroad. She went on to travel through the North with the State Anti-Slavery Society of Maine giving abolitionist lectures. Her second book talked about slavery. One of the best-known poems in the collection is titled “Bury me in a Free Land.”
She also wrote about the topic in Fredrick Douglass’s newspaper and other journals. She published a story in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, which was the first short story published by an African-American woman. In 1869, while touring the South, she wrote a serial novel about Blacks in the South during Reconstruction. In 1892, she published Lola Leroy, her only full-length novel. It was about slaves and their struggle for freedom. In the book, she urged Blacks to work to improve their situation.
Harper was also very involved in the women’s rights movement that was blossoming in Philadelphia. In 1866, she made a speech at the National Woman’s Rights Convention. In 1893, Frances Harper went to the Congress of Representative Women in Chicago and made a powerful speech. She told the women: “We stand on the threshold of woman’s era, and woman’s work is grandly constructive. In her hand are possibilities whose use or abuse must tell upon the political life of the nation, and send their influence for good or evil across the track of unborn ages.” She wanted women to be self-sufficient. She noticed that the women’s rights movement often left out Black women. As a result, Harper and other African-American women created the National Association of Colored Women to give themselves a voice.
Her work with the women’s movement soon led her to the temperance movement. In 1873, she became the superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia Women’s Christian Temperance
Union. She worked her way up to vice president. She played roles in many of the clubs run by women, including the International and the National Council of Women, as well as the Northern United States Temperance Union. Frances Harper was an important figure in almost every aspect of social reform during the 1800s.