(Part one was posted yesterday)
In 1859 Watkins's tale "The Two Offers" appeared in the Anglo-African, the first short story to be published by an African-American. Although cast in fictional form, the piece is actually a sermon on the important life choices made by young people, women in particular.
The tale relates the tragedy of a woman who mistakenly thinks romance and married love to be the only goal and center of her life. "Talk as you will of woman's deep capacity for loving," Watkins preached, "of the strength of her affectional nature. I do not deny it; but will the mere possession of any human love, fully satisfy all the demands of her whole being? . . . But woman—the true woman—if you would render her happy, it needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature.
Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties."
In 1860, Frances Watkins married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children, and moved to Ohio. Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1862. Fenton died in 1864. After the war was over, Frances Harper toured the South, speaking to large audiences, encouraging education for freed slaves, and aiding in reconstruction.
With slavery a thing of the past, Harper turned her energy to women's rights. She spoke up for the empowerment of women and worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to secure votes for women.
Unlike Anthony and Stanton, Harper supported the Fourteenth Amendment, which, together with the Fifteenth, granted the vote to black men but not to women. Recognizing the ever-present danger of lynching,
she reasoned that the African-American community needed an immediate political voice. With that would come the possibility of securing further legal and civil rights.
During the next few decades, Harper wrote a great deal and had her works published frequently. Because of her many magazine articles, she was called the mother of African-American journalism. At the same time she also wrote for periodicals with a mainly white circulation.
The poems in Harper's Sketches of Southern Life, 1872, present the story of Reconstruction, as told by a wise and engaging elderly former slave, Aunt Chloe. Harper's serialized novel, "Sowing and Reaping," in the Christian Recorder, 1876-77, expanded on the theme of "The Two Offers." In "Trial and Triumph," 1888-89, the most autobiographical of her novels, Harper presented her program for progress through personal development, altruism, non-discrimination, and racial pride.
In 1873 Harper became Superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women's Christian Temperance Union. In 1894 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president, 1895-1911. Along with Ida B. Wells, Harper wrote and lectured against lynching. She was also a member of the Universal Peace Union.
Although busy as a writer and active in public life, Harper continued to engage personally in social concerns at the local level. She worked with a number of churches in the black community of north Philadelphia near her home, feeding the poor, preventing juvenile delinquency, and teaching Sunday School at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.
Harper died on 22 February 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote. Her funeral service was held at the Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. She was buried in Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter, who had died two years before.
Although an extremely popular writer during her lifetime, Harper was not acclaimed by literary critics. Following her death W.E.B. Du Bois, whose ideal of high style was Henry James, eulogized her with faint praise: "She was not a great singer, but she had some sense of song; she was not a great writer, but she wrote much worth reading."
Shortly after, Harper's communicative and intentionally popular style was dismissed as sentimental hackwork by African-American male critics and her message held in suspicion because her mixed-race protagonists were not sufficiently black.
Text Attribution: Unitarian Universalist Historical Society