Frances Ellen Watkins was born September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was a talented writer and found her niche in writing poetry at a very young age. After her mother died, She was raised by her aunt and attended an all-Black school that her uncle, Reverend William Watkins, operated.
Watkins continued writing poetry throughout her teen years. In 1845, while working for a Quaker family, she published her first collection of poetry, titled ‘Forest Leaves.’ Five years later, she moved to Ohio where she taught domestic skills at Union Seminary, which was run by abolitionist John Brown.
Just a few years after meeting John Brown, Watkins was inspired to join the abolitionist movement. When her home state of Maryland passed a fugitive slave law that subjected all Black people to possible enslavement, she grew angry and decided to speak out against it.
In 1854, Watkins published her second collection of poems, titled ‘Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects.’ This collection featured her famous piece, ‘Bury Me in a Free Land.’ After the publication of this collection, she was asked to lecture on behalf of the abolitionist movement, speaking alongside other prominent abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass.
In 1859, Watkins made history. When she published ‘Two Offers,’ she became the first Black woman to publish a short story. In 1860, she married Fenton Harper and stepped out of the public eye in order to raise her family. She later returned to her role as a lecturer after her husband died in 1864.
Now going by the last name Harper, she continued to lecture and write. She wrote ‘Moses: A Story of the Nile’ (1869) and ‘Sketches of Southern Life’ (1972), which were both long-form poems.
In 1892, Harper published her famous novel, ‘Iola Leroy.’ She later co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) alongside fellow writer Ida B. Wells-Barnett and fellow activist Harriet Tubman.
As Harper grew older, she lectured less and less. She remained vocal, however, in terms of Black women’s suffrage via outlets, like the NACW and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. F. E. W. Harper died of heart failure on February 22, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was 85 years old.
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