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Remember the Ladies: Frances Harper

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Frances Ellen Watkins September 24, 1825

Frances Ellen Watkins
September 24, 1825

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was an African-American abolitionist, poet and author. She was also active in other types of social reform and was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which advocated the federal government taking a role in progressive reform.

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, she had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry at age 20 and her widely praised Iola Leroy, at age 67. In 1850, she became the first woman to teach sewing at the Union Seminary. In 1851, alongside William Still, chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, she helped escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. She began her career as a public speaker and political activist after joining the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1853.

Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) became her biggest commercial success. Her short story “Two Offers” was published in the Anglo-African in 1859. She published Sketches of Southern Life in 1872. It detailed her experience touring the South and meeting newly freed blacks. In these poems she described the harsh living conditions of many. After the Civil War she continued to fight for the rights of women, African Americans, and many other social causes.

She helped or held high office in several national progressive organizations. In 1873 Harper became superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1894 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president. Harper died February 22, 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote. Her funeral service was held at the Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. She was buried in Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter, who had died two years before.

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