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.Frances Harper, We Are All Bound Up Together, 1866
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a voice of Black Suffragists. She was born in 1825 in Maryland to free African American parents. Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised by her aunt and uncle. By the age of 21, she had written her first small book of poetry, Forest Leaves and ultimately published 80 poems. More than a decade later she became the first African American woman to have published a short story, The Two Offers. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s clubs.
While working as a teacher in Pennsylvania, a law was passed that free African Americans in the North were no longer allowed into Maryland, her home state. They would be imprisoned and enslaved.
She refused to give up her seat on the trolley, and only got up when she reached her destination as chronicled in The Liberator, page 3 as seen below.
Her famous speech, We Are All Bound Up Together, read in 1866 at the Eleventh Women’s Rights Convention held in New York City, can be read here.
She spoke at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York, held in 1866. The organization split over the suffrage of African American women and were opposed to supporting the fifteenth amendment. Harper left the group, and with Frederick Douglass and others supporting the amendment joined together to form the American Woman Suffrage Association. She was often the only Black woman at the women’s conferences. Through her life, she continued her advocacy for intersectionality (see- it’s not a new idea) in suffrage.
She spent the remainder of her life teaching and encouraging equal rights and education for African American women and founded and/or directed several clubs and organizations for African American women, including the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Some of her writings include:
- Forest Leaves, poetry, 1845
- Bury Me in a Free Land, poetry, 1858
- Moses: A Story of the Nile, 1869
- Light Beyond the Darkness, 1890
- In Memoriam, Wm. McKinley, 1901
- Trial and Triumph was one of three novels originally published between 1868-1888 as a serial.
Her first novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted was published in 1892. It was thought sentimental, but it also highlighted several serious social issues at the time, some of which remain today.
As a writer, I am always drawn to the writing lives of the people I choose to profile, and I was pleased to see that Harper was a mentor to other African American writers, including Mary Shadd Cary, Ida B. Wells, Victoria Earle Matthews, and Kate D. Chapman.
More information on Frances Harper can be found: National Women’s History Museum and Lift Every Voice, African-American Poetry