Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: Early African American Civil Rights Activist, Poet and Author

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (b. 9/24/1825 - d. 2/22/1911)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born as a free woman during a time of slavery in the United States of America. She was born to free African parents in Baltimore, Maryland on September 24, 1825.  In 1828, at the age of three, her mother died and she was sent to be raised by her maternal aunt who had married Rev. William Watkins. Rev. Watkins was a notable African Methodist Episcopal Church minister, a civil rights activist and an educator. Harper received her formal education at the family-operated Watkins Academy for Negro Youth.

After coming of age, Harper left the Watkins' residence to become a slavery abolitionist, women suffrage advocate, and writer attributed to a number of great acts. For example, in 1858, at the age of 33 -- and before the U.S. Civil War -- Ms. Harper refused to ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia. This was 100 years before Rosa Parks' great stand for justice in the USA.

Actively involved in the slavery abolishionist movement, Harper was a staunch advocate for equal rights for Africans in the young nation actively involved in trafficking of humans as slaves. She was a sought after orator and spoke on the equality of all races and genders, calling for increased temperance in civil society.



Photo of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in her elder years.
Frances Harper's short story "The Two Offers", first published in June 1859, is historically notable as the first short story published by an American woman of any race or ethnicity. By 1892, Harper would publish Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, which many literary commentators distinguish as the first novel written by an African-American woman.

A prolific poet, Harper published nine volumes of poetry all related to equal rights. Arguably her most famous poem is “Bury Me In A Free Land.” The story behind the poem is that it was written while Ms. Harper was traveling on a lecture tour in the late 1850s. At the time she wrote the poem, she was very ill and may have thought she was writing a last testament to her people. A literary masterpiece, the poem was first published in 1864.

BURY ME IN A FREE LAND
Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.