Frances Ellen Watkins (E.W.) Harper was a Black American convention activist, author, poet, and abolitionist.

Her radical abolitionism and continuing activism have been compared to that of William Still, John Brown, and Henry Highland Garnet. Harper joined Black women in the 1850s who took strong, radical stances on how to aid fugitives and advocated for self-defense. This group of women also included Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Harriet Tubman [1], [2].

She was an ally of John Brown and Mary Brown. She wrote them letters while Brown was in jail. [3]

In her letter to Brown (via William Still), dated November 25, 1859, Harper addressed Brown as “Dear Friend,” writing that:

“Although the hands of Slavery throw a barrier between you and me, and it may not be my privilege to see you in your prison-house, Virginia has no bolts or bars through which I dread to send you my sympathy” [4].

In this letter, she applauded Brown’s courage and wrote that he and those who fought alongside him “may be only [Universal Freedom’s] first stepping stones to dominion” [5].

 “We may earnestly hope that your fate will not be a vain lesson, that it will intensify our hatred of Slavery and love of freedom, and that your martyr grave will be a sacred alter upon which men will record their vows of undying hatred to that system which tramples on man…” [6]

She ended the letter by reassuring Brown that she has written to his wife, Mary, and sent her some money, and that she would “continue to assist her.” Not only did Harper vow to continue to help Mary, she told Brown that if any of his fellow-prisoners or their families needed any help, to let her know and that she would do what she can to assist them. She signed the letter: “Yours in the cause of freedom, F.E.W.” [7].

In her letter to Mary (also via William Still), dated November 14, 1859, Harper addressed her as “‘My Dear Madam,’” and wrote: “I need not tell you my sympathies are with you. I thank you for the brave words you have spoken” [8].

Not only did Harper acknowledge Brown’s efforts to help Black Americans, she recognized Mary for her role in not only supporting Brown, but in helping the cause in her own right. She also wrote:

“Dear sister, I thank you for the brave and noble words you have spoken. Enclosed I send you a few dollars as a token of my gratitude, reverence, and love. Yours respectfully, Frances Ellen Watkins” [9]

Harper helped Mary during the trial and execution; both were staying at William Still’s home at the time [10].

Some of Brown’s allies, who managed to escape the raid, were also staying at Still’s house, having traveled there via Tubman’s Underground Railroad route [11].

Harper continued to stay with Mary, and to support her financially and emotionally. During this period, Harper also “wrote letters of support and faith to the other men awaiting trial and execution” [12].

One of these letters she wrote was to A.D. Stevens.

She enclosed a copy of her poem “Bury Me In A Free Land” in the letter. Stevens replied and thanked her “for those beautiful verses which go to the inmost parts of my soul.” Before his execution, Stevens copied the poem, and it was found among his possessions after his execution [13].

Harper continued to write and speak for the rest of her life. Three of serialized her novels, Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869), Sowing and Reaping: A Temperance Story (1876-1877), and Trial and Triumph (1888-1889) were “published in The Christian Recorder, an A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] journal” [14].

Her most famous novel, Iola Leory, or Shadows Uplifted, was published in 1892. She gave one of her most well-known speeches, “Woman’s Political Future,” at the Congress of Representative Women Conference in 1893 (which was connected to the Chicago World’s Fair) [15].


Created by Jessica Thelen, PhD student in English, for P. Gabrielle Foreman’s ENGL/HIST 677 class, Spring, 2019. Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman.


[1] Foster, Frances Smith. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. The Feminist Press of the City University of New York, 1990, p. 15.

[2]Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force And Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, p. 8.

[3] Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of France E.W. Harper 1825 – 1911. Wayne State University Press, 1994, p. 49.

[4] Stauffer, John & Todd, Zoe, ed. The Tribunal: Responses To John Brown And The Harpers Ferry Raid. Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 277.

[5] Stauffer et al 278.

[6] Stauffer et al 278.

[7] Stauffer et al 278.

[8] Foster 48.

[9] Foster 49.

[10] Boyd 50.

[11] Boyd 50.

[12] Boyd 50.

[13] Boyd 51.

[14] Boyd 15.

[15] Boyd 17.