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

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.

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.

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.

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