Make me a grave wher'er you will
In a low plain or lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
These simple, powerful words are those of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Baltimore-born abolitionist and feminist who was one of the most important black women of the 19th century, but who today is largely forgotten.
Harper, a social reformer, lecturer and poet, was born in 1825 and reared near Sharp Street, the daughter of middle-class, free black parents.
Orphaned at 3, she grew up in the house of her abolitionist uncle, Willie Watkins, a teacher, who ran Watkins Academy, then one of the largest black schools in Maryland. There she was exposed to distinguished writers and abolitionists who knew her uncle.
As a young woman, she worked as a nursemaid and seamstress for a family that owned a bookstore. There, she was able to indulge her passion for reading and writing poetry. Some of her early poetry was published in periodicals, such as Frederick Douglass' Paper.
In 1845, she published her first book of poems, "Forest Leaves." After working as a sewing teacher in Ohio and Pennsylvania, she moved to Philadelphia in 1854, where she joined an influential circle of black and white abolitionists. During this time, Harper lived in an Underground Railroad Station. Experiencing firsthand the movement of slaves toward freedom affected her deeply and exerted a profound influence on her work.
In 1853, Maryland passed a law allowing for free blacks entering the state to be sold back into slavery. After learning the story of a free black who was sold to a Georgia slave owner and later died, an outraged Harper wrote a friend: "Upon that grave I pledged myself to the anti-slavery cause."
She later became a lecturer for the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine, and toured throughout the East and Canada lecturing on the evils of slavery. Often times, she shared the stage with such noted abolitionists as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
"Her eloquence was such that she was called the 'Bronze Muse.' Even in the largest spaces it was said, her voice was clear and her words vivid and penetrating. One witness declared that 'her manner is marked by dignity and composure. She is never assuming, never theatrical,' " observed Timothy Schoepke, a Washington researcher and writer.
She became an eloquent critic not only of slavery but of racism, feminism and classism.
Speaking in Canada and looking into the faces of former slaves who had struggled to freedom, Harper later wrote of the experience: "Oh, it was a glorious sight to gaze for the first time on a land where a poor slave flying from our glorious land of liberty would in a moment find his fetters broken, his shackles loose, and whatever he was in the land of Washington, beneath the shadow of Bunker Hill Monument or even Plymouth Rock, here he becomes a man and a brother."
She was also the author of "Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects," published in 1854, and in 1860, married Fenton Harper.
After the death of her husband in 1863, she began traveling and lecturing throughout the nation on feminist issues and became allied with suffragist Susan B. Anthony. In 1866, she gave a powerful speech at the National Women's Rights Convention, where she called for equal rights for all women, including black women.
"When black male reformers argued over who should get the vote first -- black men or white women -- Mrs. Harper sided with black men. She said that most of the injustices she suffered were because of her race rather than her sex," reported a 1986 Evening Sun article. "And when this argument led white feminists to disparage black men, Mrs. Harper reminded the feminists that black men had stood beside them in the fight for women's rights even when most white men turned their backs."
Between 1870 and 1890, she became active in the Women's Christian Temperance Movement and headed its department for black citizens. She was named director of the American Association of Education of Colored Youth in 1894 and later helped to organize the National Association of Colored Women.
A prolific author, Harper is also noted for her novel, "Iola Leroy," published in 1892, in which she looked forward to a better future:
There is light beyond the darkness.
Joy beyond the present pain;
There is hope in God's great justice
And the negro's rising brain.
Though the morning seems to linger
O'er the hill-tops far away,
Yet the shadows bear the promise
Of a brighter coming day.
Harper died on Feb. 22, 1911, of heart failure in Philadelphia, and was buried in that city's Eden Cemetery.
In her poem, "Bury Me in a Free Land," she penned her own legacy.
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.
Pub Date: 2/06/99