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Poet Profiles: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

By Ethan Shea

"Frances Ellen Watkins Harper"

Engraving of Frances E.W. Harper from The Underground Railroad by William Still. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

To celebrate National Poetry Month, this recurring Poet Profiles segment will draw attention to some of the amazing poetry available through Falvey.

This week, I’d like to introduce you to a poet of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. In addition to being an accomplished poet, Harper is also a lecturer, author, women’s rights activist, and outspoken voice of the American anti-slavery movement.

Harper was born in Maryland, but by the age of 26, Harper left her state of origin to teach in Ohio and Pennsylvania. While away, Maryland passed a law prohibiting free African Americans from entering the state under threat of enslavement. As a Black woman, Harper could not return home. Moving forward, Harper dedicated her life to the abolitionist movement.

Harper is also the first African American woman to publish a short story in the United States. Additionally, by the age of 21, she had already written a volume of poetry titled Forest Leaves which was considered lost for more than 100 years but was eventually rediscovered.

As a member of the Women Christian Temperance Union, Harper was also an advocate for temperance, or abstaining from alcoholics drinks.

Frances E.W. Harper’s literature is intertwined with her activism and religious beliefs, making the experience of reading her work all the more rewarding from both a political and academic perspective.

Some of Harper’s most prominent pieces are her poem “Eliza Harris,” her 1866 speech “We Are All Bound Up Together,” and her short story “The Two Offers.”

Here are some resources where you can learn more about the life and work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper:

If there are any poets you would like to see a poet profile about, please let us know in the comments!

Headshot of Ethan SheaEthan Shea is a second-year graduate student in the English Department and Graduate Assistant at Falvey Library.

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Last Modified: April 13, 2023

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