When I get to talking about Baltimore’s history, it’s never very long before I’m going on about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Born here in 1825, she left her mark on the world as an educator, poet, anti-slavery lecturer, suffragist, temperance advocate and the author of the still widely read novel, “Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted.” Along the way, widowed and on her own, Harper also raised her daughter Mary to be a highly accomplished elocutionist.
If you scour our city’s historical landscape, in search of some sign of this remarkable life, you might well be disappointed. But with the 200th anniversary of her birth coming up in 2025, we have an opportunity to claim this daughter of Baltimore and honor her appropriately.
If you know me, even if only through reading my work, you might be aware that Harper has influenced my writing more so than any other figure from the past. The title of my first book, “All Bound Up Together,” is directly borrowed from a Harper speech on the rights of women. A next book on the Constitution and citizenship featured her as one of the earliest Black women to speak publicly on the subject. Most recently, in a book about Black women and voting rights, “Vanguard,” I explain how Harper’s intersectional thinking about where Black women fit in the nation’s body politic was a critical turning point in a story that stretches from the 1820s to the 2020s.
I’m quick to introduce Harper, though not to point to my work. I’m more eager to make certain that you, if you haven’t already, discover Harper for yourself. You can check out an anthology of her poems from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, including Frances Smith Foster’s collection, “A Brighter Day Coming.” Or hold in your hands the only surviving copy of Harper’s first book, “Forest Leaves,” which was discovered not so long ago in the collection of the Maryland Center for History and Culture. Melba Joyce Boyd’s biography, “Discarded Legacy,” is a fascinating look at Harper’s literary career. And just this past February, The New York Times, as part of its “Overlooked No More” series, published an obituary that, with great care, remembers the whole of Harper’s life, even if it comes more than a century after her death in 1911.
I expect that some of you are by now wondering, “Why didn’t I already know about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper?” Harper herself knew the answer to that question as early as the 1860s, when she was face to face with such thinkers as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton during debates about the future of women’s rights. Harper understood, even then, that Black women were in danger of being written out of our national story, while Black men and some white women were writing themselves into it. Harper knew that racism and sexism together were a formidable force against Black women’s full citizenship and that those same forces would keep them mostly out of the history books for a long time to come.
So Harper wrote poems, essays, speeches, novels and more. She wrote herself into the historical record. And then she took to the road to make sure others heard her. In 1865, for example, her schedule was nothing short of grueling. She covered hundreds of miles between New York City, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. She crisscrossed New England: Boston, Roxbury, Framingham and Lowell in Massachusetts; Pawtucket and Providence in Rhode Island; and beyond. In a Philadelphia series, her lecture followed those by figures no less illustrious than William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. One newspaper editor, Mary Ann Shadd Cary of the Provincial Freeman, dubbed Harper “the greatest female speaker ever.”
Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore in 1825, to a free family in a growing community of formerly enslaved people and their descendants. Her uncle, William Watkins — the educator, minister, legal activist and newspaper commentator — raised Harper in his home and saw to her early education. Initially relegated to domestic employment, Harper left Baltimore to teach, but she soon found herself penning poetry and then taking to anti-slavery podiums. After the Civil War, Harper returned to Baltimore, by then a celebrated public figure. But she never again lived in the city of her birth, settling instead just to the north in Philadelphia.
Still, in the wake of Harper’s death in 1911, Baltimoreans quickly moved to keep her memory alive. She was, notably, one of only two women included by Episcopal minister and civil rights leader George Freeman Bragg in his 1914 book, “Men of Maryland.” Not only did Bragg feature her image along with those of Frederick Douglass and Bishop James Theodore Holley in the frontispiece, but he chronicled the political career of “an educated and queenly woman [who] possessed wonderful self-control, coupled with remarkable tactfulness.” Bragg urged that if Douglass was Maryland’s “Grand Old Man,” then Harper should be regarded as the state’s “Grand Old Woman.” He predicted that “the redeemed and uplifted womanhood of the race will lovingly revert to the precious memories of the past and rise up and call her blessed of the Lord.”
Bragg was prescient. Black women directly drew inspiration from Harper’s example, and they became keepers of her memory. They named their social and civil organizations for her. Savannah, Georgia, was home to the Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Literary and Social Circle. In St. Joseph, Missouri, the Frances Ellen Watkins Harper League worked in her name. Women in Pittsburgh and Alleghany, Pennslvania, joined forces to operate a Frances Ellen Watkins Harper League. Under the auspices of the Frances E.W. Harper Club, women in Springfield, Massachusetts, gathered. In Jersey City, New Jersey; Schenectady, New York; and Washington, D.C., they met as the Frances E.W. Harper Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Visit the historical issues of Baltimore’s Afro-American, and you’ll discover that in some important quarters we never forgot Harper. Black Baltimoreans, including Bragg, have always done their part to keep her name and her deeds alive. By 1913, residents of the city were organizing to name a public school in her honor, and in 1931, school number 111 was renamed for Harper. By the 1920s, the women of the F.E.W. Harper Temple 429 of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order Elks of the World began to carry out their “good work” in Harper’s name, efforts that continue today.
In 1977, when the U.S. Department of Interior set out to designate more than 30 historic landmarks in honor of Black Americans, Harper’s home in Philadelphia, where she spent the last half-century of her life, was chosen. I’ve visited there and seen the marker that celebrates her life as “an author, lecturer, and social activist” who “devoted her life to championing the rights of slaves and free Blacks. She advocated education as a way of advancement for Black Americans.”
I knew that Maryland had inducted Harper into the state’s Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987. Still, when I wanted to pay a personal tribute to her, I headed to Pennsylvania with my friend, journalist Errin Haynes, another Harper devotee. We headed not to a site in Maryland but instead to Pennsylvania. First to Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, where Harper is buried alongside her daughter Mary, and then on to that Philadelphia rowhouse, leaving flowers in honor of a woman who in her lifetime and through her example has inspired us and so many others.
In 2025, we will have the chance to honor Harper 200 years since her birth here in Baltimore. But how will we honor her? Will we recognize her courage in seizing the education she could here and then setting out on her own? Will we appreciate the audacity of her taking pen to paper with the grace and eloquence of a poet? Will we understand the enduring danger and indignity of the anti-slavery lecture circuit? Will we see how she championed intersectional women’s rights – a human rights vision that rejected both racism and sexism – long before that became fashionable? Will we honor her for never forgetting the extent to which Black Americans suffered, through enslavement and its legacy of racism? Will we applaud her for being a model for us: writer, activist, mother, friend and more all at once?
Honor her, I’m certain we must. Let’s have that conversation now about how.
Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, professor of history, and a professor at the SNF Agora Institute at the Johns Hopkins University. She is a legal and cultural historian whose work examines how Black Americans have shaped American democracy.
Her work includes the books “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America” and “All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900,” and she is a co-editor of “Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women.”