Mrs. Harper, paying it forward

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born free in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1825. Her story is covered in an earlier post (Oct 18, 2018) on HistoricalNovelsRUs on Facebook. But what about life aside from her writing? For many African Americans, life in the north was hard – few jobs, lots of prejudice, and an uncertain future.

What is Frances Harper famous for?

Frances Harper poetry, like Forest Leaves, made a name for her. It was difficult for African-Americans to publish, but Frances wasn’t one to be pessimistic or bound by limitations. Less well known are her efforts in aid of abolition and freedom. In fact, she was so enthusiastic about freedom, she allocated part of her wages to helping others north, and generally aiding the abolitionist cause. Once, when travelers on the Underground were captured and thrown into prison, Frances reached out to help.

What did Frances Ellen Harper do?

From a letter dated Lewis Centre, Ohio, we copy the following characteristic extract: “Yesterday I sent you thirty dollars. Take five of it for the rescuers (who were in prison), and the rest pay away on the books. My offering is not large; but if you need more, send me word. Also, how comes on the Underground Rail Road? Do you need anything for that? You have probably heard of the shameful outrage of a colored man or boy named Wagner, who was kidnapped in Ohio and carried across the river and sold for a slave…. Ohio has become a kind of a negro hunting ground, a new Congo’s coast, and Guinea’s shore. A man was kidnapped almost under the shadow of our capital. Oh, was it not dreadful?… Oh, may the living God prepare me for an earnest and faithful advocacy of the cause of justice and right!”

On another occasion in writing from the lecturing field hundreds of miles away from Philadelphia, the sympathy she felt for the fugitives found expression in the following language: “How fared the girl who came robed in male attire? Do write me every time you write how many come to your house; and, my dear friend, if you have that much in hand of mine from my books, will you please pay the Vigilance Committee two or three dollars for me to help carry on the glorious enterprise. Now, please do not write back that you are not going to do any such thing. Let me explain a few matters to you. In the first place, I am able to give something. In the second place, I am willing to do so…. Oh, life is fading away, and we have but an hour of time! Should we not, therefore, endeavor to let its history gladden the earth? The nearer we ally ourselves to the wants and woes of humanity in the spirit of Christ, the closer we get to the great heart of God; the nearer we stand by the beating of the pulse of universal love.”

Frances Watkins Harper

Frances continued in this spirit during most of her life. She died in 1911.

Source: William Still, Underground Railroad, 1872