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Abolitionist Frances E. W. Harper’s message to young black Bostonians

Anthony W. Neal | 9/4/2013, 11:29 a.m.

One hundred and nineteen years ago, on the evening of Aug. 21, 1894, the interest of Boston’s Colored National League (CNL), “a non-partisan organization devoted to the welfare of the race,” was aroused by the spirited address of African American abolitionist, author and poet Mrs. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper of Philadelphia, Pa.

Nearly 70 years old at the time, Harper had been visiting friends in Boston when she attended a meeting of the CNL at the Charles Street A.M.E. Church.

As the league members listened attentively, she offered the following words of wisdom to “the younger people of the race.”

“There is considerable talk nowadays by the younger people of the race about the old folks taking the back seat,” she said. “I do not agree with them. It is true that I am an old woman now, but the same spirit that urged me years ago, before the majority of the people of this great audience were born, to go forward in the interest of the people I am identified with is still young.

“I tell you plainly tonight, young people, that I for one will not take a back place, because, notwithstanding my age, I feel that my work is not done and that I can still be of some use. If I should happen to pass away I want to be in the harness.”

Though born to free parents in Baltimore, Md., on Sept. 24, 1825, she was left an orphan at the age of three, when her mother died. Young Frances was reared by her aunt and abolitionist uncle, Henrietta and William Watkins. She received a classical education at her uncle’s school, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth.

The Watkins family fled Baltimore following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when conditions for free blacks in Maryland deteriorated. Frances Watkins moved to Ohio, where she taught domestic science as the first woman faculty member at Union Seminary — a school established by the Ohio Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She relocated to Little York, Pa., around 1853 to teach and later worked with abolitionist William Still in Philadelphia, helping fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad on their journey to Canada. She joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and, from 1854 to 1860, lectured throughout the East and Midwest on the evils of slavery.

In 1854, a Boston publishing company published her book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, which contained a preface by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. More than 10,000 copies of the volume were sold. In her poems, the abolitionist assails racism and the oppression of women. At public meetings, she often recited her poetry, including the very popular “Bury Me in a Free Land.”

Frances Watkins married Fenton Harper in 1860 and bore a daughter, Mary, in 1862. Her husband died two years later.

After the Civil War, Harper travelled throughout the South, speaking to large audiences, encouraging emancipated slaves to become educated, and assisting in Reconstruction. She also lectured on temperance and fought for women’s suffrage.