Select Page

Harper attended the 1858 Convention as a Watkins before she met and married her husband Fenton Harper.  Although the proceedings note that Watkins was only “requested to take part in the convention,  Watkins’s significant financial contributions and her speeches denouncing the Fugitive Slave Law underscore her importance and influence. 

Frances Ellen Watkins [Harper] was the convention’s sole woman delegate even though Ohio state conventions had directly debated women’s participation in the 1840s. She requested that she be named a delegate, advocating for herself to become an integral part of of the proceedings. The official Convention minutes minimize her role, acknowledging her when absolutely necessary. For example, in the discussion on emigration, two different newspapers note that she’s one of the primary speakers, but the Convention minutes only record the opinions of male speakers. The 1858 Convention was likely the first time Watkins served as a delegate, but it was not the last. She would go on to address other Conventions such as the 1864 national convention in Syracuse. In Ohio, Frances Ellen Watkins also joined a committee committed to raising five hundred dollars for the Society. Miss Frances E. Watkins was listed with alongside newspaper editor and Oberlin graduate H. Ford Douglass and Wallace Shelton as a “speaker of distinction” in a notice advertising the First Anniversary of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. (1) Watkins’s financial contribution situates her as an active participant in the movement. Moreover, Watkins strategically made her presence known knowing that donations were recorded in meeting minutes. Watkins’s donation of $10 (now $311.64) and the act of raising $500 challenges protocols that downplayed Black women’s influence and power. Raising funds is one way of  demonstrating active participation in the movement.


Two years before Watkins’s speech at the 1858 Ohio Convention, The Wilmington Republican (Delaware) covered a similar 1856 speech. While the title of the speech is unknown, the writer of the article emphasizes Watkins’s “distinctness and enunciation, and clearness of argument” as she discussed the “condition of the African race in our country.” (2) Watkins addressed the “degrading tendency of slavery, cursing both white and black. . . She complained of the laws of slave States in regard to free colored persons.” (3)  Although she gave this address two years before the 1858 Convention, we can imagine that she continued to give similar speeches denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act and further encroachments on free Black rights in places like Maryland.


“She alluded to the degrading tendency of slavery, cursing both the white and black, and even the soil.”


A few weeks before her appearance at the1858 Convention, the Anti-Slavery Bugle reports that Watkins spoke on October 30, 1858 at the Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Friends of Human Progress. The evening session of the “Minutes and  Proceedings” note “the meeting was addressed by Frances Ellen Watkins upon the subject of slavery. In a most eloquent and thrilling speech.” (4) The article is also sure to mention Watkins’s position on the Business Committee, again highlighting her status and importance within the meeting.


Spanning over three days (Friday evening, Saturday evening, and Sunday), “Miss Watkins at New Lisbon” highlights that Watkins gave her speech in the Methodist Episcopal Church to a crowd of “attentive and interested listeners.” (5) The article stresses the large turnout of women who attended Watkins’s speech, revealing her influence to other women at an early stage in her career. The writer of the article is amazed of Watkins’s presence and admits “Never before…could the M.E. Church be had to hold an anti-slavery lecture in of the character of Miss Watkins favored us with.” (6)

“Our women turned out pretty largely to hear her, and I doubt not they sympathized with all she said. If the women once get right, and to moving, you may be sure it will not be without its influence upon the man.”

Only a few days before the 1858 Convention, J.D. Copeland sends a letter to the Anti-Slavery Bugle praising Watkins’s lecture at Cool Spring on November 17, 1858. Copeland acknowledges that “[he is] happy to have the privilege of saying for our citizens, that there has never, to [his] recollection been any disposition manifested here to interrupt meetings in this way.  Her meeting in this place was well attended, and very orderly.” (7) Through the praise and detail of Watkins’s lectures at these various locations before her participation at the 1858 Convention, we understand the impact of her presence and words on audience members especially on the subject of anti-slavery. Watkins made a name for herself early in her lecture and activist career, allowing her opportunities to speak at places like the 1858 Convention.



Use the gallery of images below to view news coverage of Watkins’s speeches!



[1] Convention of the Colored Men of Ohio (1858 : Cincinnati, OH), “Proceedings of a Convention of the Colored Men of Ohio, Held in the City of Cincinnati, on the 23d, 24th, 25th and 26th days of November, 1858.,”

[2] Wilmington Republican. “Frances E. Watkins.”Liberator [Boston, Massachusetts] 19 Dec. 1856: 203. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Anti-slavery bugle. [volume] (New-Lisbon, Ohio), 30 Oct. 1858. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

[5] Anti-slavery bugle. [volume] (New-Lisbon, Ohio), 30 Oct. 1858. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Anti-slavery bugle. [volume] (New-Lisbon, Ohio), 20 Nov. 1858. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.


Edited by: Dr. Gabrielle Foreman.