Watkins, Frances Ellen

Watkins, Frances Ellen (1825 - 1911)


Frances Ellen Watkins was born September 25, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. After receiving an education at her uncle's school, and working in a book store, she turned to publishing. A book of poetry entitled Forest leaves came out in 1845, no copy of which has survived. Five years later, Watkins left Maryland for Ohio to teach at Union Seminary near Columbus and then in 1852 at Little York, Pennsylvania. In 1854 her second book of poems appeared, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (Boston, 1854) and sold 10,000 copies. That year she lived in Philadelphia at an underground railroad stop, by which slaves were moved north to safety. Her lecture career then flourished: she travelled through New England, Upper Canada, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania until 1861, generally talking on civil rights and education for Afro-Americans, and temperance. Watkins married Fenton Harper in 1860 and they settled on a farm near Columbus until his death in 1864. They had one daughter, Mary. After the civil war, Harper published Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869), another book of poetry, and continued her lecturing. About 1871 she returned to Philadelphia to settle at 1006 Bainbridge Street and to work for the YMCA. A fourth book of poems, Sketches of Southern Life, came out in 1872. One year after she published a novel, Iola Leroy (1892), dedicated to her daughter, Harper became director of the American Association of Colored Youth. Three more books followed quickly: The Sparrow's Fall and Other Poems (1894), Atlanta Offering: Poems and Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems (both 1895). She became vice-president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. At 85 years old, Harper died on February 22, 1911, several years after Mary's decease, and she was buried in Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia.

  • Filler, Louis. "Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins." Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Ed. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer II. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971. 137-39. Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum.
  • Locke, Mamie E. "Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins." American National Biography Online. American Council of Learned Societies: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Given Name
Frances Ellen Watkins
Family Name
Birth Date
September 24, 1825
Death Date
February 22, 1911
Literary Period
Literary Movement