Biography Frances Ellen Watkins

Frances Ellen Watkins

photo of Frances Ellen Watkins
  • Time Period1825 - 1911
  • Place
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Frances Ellen Watkins was born free in the slave city of Baltimore, Maryland on September 25,1825. She never experienced the hardships of slavery and yet she would devote her entire life to the abolitionist movement, and what she called "a brighter coming day".

After receiving an education at her uncle's school, and working in a book store, she turned to publishing. A book of poetry entitled Forest leaves came out in 1845, no copy of which has survived. Five years later, Watkins left Maryland for Ohio to teach at Union Seminary near Columbus and then in 1852 at Little York, Pennsylvania. In 1854 her second book of poems appeared, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (Boston, 1854) and sold 10,000 copies. That year she lived in Philadelphia at an underground railroad stop, by which slaves were moved north to safety. Her lecture career then flourished: she travelled through New England, Upper Canada, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania until 1861, generally talking on civil rights and education for Afro-Americans, and temperance.

Frances married Fenton Harper in 1860 and they settled on a farm near Columbus until his death in 1864. They had one daughter, Mary. After the civil war, Harper published Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869), another book of poetry, and continued her lecturing. About 1871 she returned to Philadelphia to settle at 1006 Bainbridge Street and to work for the YMCA. A fourth book of poems, Sketches of Southern Life, published in 1872. One year after she published a novel, Iola Leroy (1892), dedicated to her daughter, Harper became director of the American Association of Coloured Youth. Three more books followed quickly: The Sparrow's Fall and Other Poems (1894), Atlanta Offering : Poems and Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (both 1895). She became vice-president of the National Association of Coloured Women in 1896. Harper died on February 22, 1911,she was then 85 years old, surviving her daughter by several years she is buried in Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia.