She loved to read and write and started writing poetry and essays while still a child. When she was thirteen, she left school to work for a bookseller's family. Impressed with her abilities, they gave her access to books and encouraged her to read in her off hours. She took the bold step of sending her poems to local African American publications and soon saw some of them published in Frederick Douglass's Paper. She published her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves, in 1845 when she was twenty years old.
In 1851, Harper left Baltimore to live where she would have more options for education and work. She accepted a job teaching sewing at Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, where there were far fewer restrictions on blacks than there were in Maryland.
In 1854, Maryland passed a law that forced free blacks who came to Maryland from the North into
Very possibly reinforcing her thinking was the radical abolitionist John Brown (not the same John Brown who led the 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry, WV), who headed Union Seminary while Harper was teaching there. Brown went on to lead an 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, for which he was convicted of treason. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the people who comforted Brown's wife as Mrs. Brown awaited her husband's execution.
Hired by a New England anti-slavery group, Harper lectured widely in the East and continued to work on her poetry and essays. She became friends with Susan B. Anthony and spoke on the rights of women. For a time, she lived in a home that served as a station on the Underground Railroad, and she spent many an hour listening to the stories of escapees and giving them comfort. In 1859, the Anglo-African Magazine published her story, "The Two Offers," one of the first short stories by an African American writer published in the United States.
Her experiences found their way into her poetry, essays, stories, and lectures. Her writing and activism slowed in 1860 when she married Fenton Harper and had a child, Mary. After her husband's death in 1863, she returned to the lecture circuit and to her prolific writing career. She had a temporary falling out with some of her colleagues in the suffrage movement when she opined that black men should have priority in getting the vote.
Every mother should endeavor to be a true artist. I do not mean by this that every woman should be a painter, sculptor, musician, poet, or writer, but the artist who will write on the table of childish innocence thoughts she will not blush to see read in the light of eternity and printed amid the archives of heaven . . .
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in 1911 of heart disease. Though popular and well-received in
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