Abolitionist Frances E. W. Harper’s message to young black Bostonians
Anthony W. Neal | 9/4/2013, 11:29 a.m.
In 1870, Harper and her daughter settled down in Philadelphia, where she attended both the First Unitarian Church and the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. From 1883 to 1890, she held positions of leadership in the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in November of 1874.
At the age of 67, Harper published Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892). It was the first published novel by a black author after the Civil War.
Two years later, Harper was in Boston and attended the meeting of the Colored National League. Her speech on what would now be called the “generation gap” is still relevant today.
“Old folks are often a great deal of use to young people,” she told the gathering at Charles Street A.M.E. Church. “And it is the calm advice gathered by the experience of time that we are able to speak to you who are so full of ambition to do something for yourself and your race.
“When I was a young woman the conditions which surrounded the race were far different from what they are today. We did not dream of the great opportunities that now lay before you awaiting your development. You have many things in your favor which we did not have in ours. But, few as these opportunities were, we made the best of them, and in so doing laid the foundation of your future development.
“We now expect you, with the advantages of classical, mechanical and commercial education that are so immensely superior to those which we enjoyed, to do something that will prove to us old people, who have made such tremendous sacrifices for you that our labor, time, money and other sacrifices were not in vain.
“We know full well that you have to contend against a prejudice that seems almost insurmountable. This prejudice, notwithstanding the assertions of certain narrow-minded people to the contrary, will be overcome with time. That it is slowly dying is shown by the prevalence of a fairer play toward our colored students in the highest educational institutions in our country.
“What the younger people of the race want is not Southern care or Northern indignation, not English sympathy, but American justice. American justice is broad. It is willing to give justice to those who can prove that they are really deserving of it.
“Instead of bothering yourselves about lynchings and getting up meetings to condemn them, you should be forming among yourselves associations for moral and mental advancement. I admit that the lynching of innocent colored men, women and children in the South for supposed crimes is the blackest blot that has befouled the escutcheon of our country since the foul blot of slavery was washed away, but this curse will be wiped out by the rising indignation of the justice-loving American people.
“While I still linger with you, remember that I shall never consider myself too old to work in the interest of my race.”
In July of 1896, Harper helped Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and others establish the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and became the association’s vice president in 1897.
Harper died in Philadelphia on Feb. 22, 1911.