UU Minute #108

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Born Frances Ellen Watkins in 1825 in Baltimore, she became a great writer, lecturer, activist, abolitionist, and suffragist. Educated at Baltimore’s Academy for Negro Youth, her poems began appearing in newspapers, and her first collection of them was published when she was 20.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made conditions for free blacks in Maryland untenable. Frances, then age 25, moved on her own to Ohio, and a year later to Pennsylvania where, as part of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, she helped people escaping enslavement along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada.

In 1854, her second book of poems attracted critical notice and commercial success. Her poems attacked both racism and the oppression of women. She was now also in demand as a lecturer on the anti-slavery circuit.

In 1860, when she was age 35, she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children, and moved again to Ohio. They had a daughter together before Fenton died in 1864.

Raised in the AME Church, Frances had become acquainted with Unitarians through their support of abolition and the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, in 1870, she and her daughter settled in Philadelphia, and Frances joined the First Unitarian Church there. She was now devoting her energy to women's rights, campaigning for suffrage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was both an AME and a Unitarian. AME was the church she had been raised in – her family and her home. As a Unitarian, she could meet white allies who could help advance the causes she supported in places she could never go. And her faith was Unitarian Christian. For her, Jesus was a role model for a way of being any one could attain. When she died in 1911, her funeral service was at the Philadelphia Unitarian Church.

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