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African American Women Writers of the 19th Century: Harper-Jacobs

African American Women Writers of the 19th Century guide includes a digital collection of published works by 19th-century black women writers, biographies for each author, citations and much more

Frances E. W. Harper

Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911), born free in Baltimore, Maryland, was not yet three years old when her mother, the only parent she ever knew, died. Frances Ellen was raised for a time by an aunt, and then sent to live with an uncle, Reverend William Watkins, who ran a school in Baltimore. She stayed in Uncle William's charge until she was about thirteen, at which point she was sent out to earn a living.

Young Frances found work as a servant and babysitter, and sewing for the Armstrongs, a white family in Baltimore. Much to Frances's delight, Mr. Armstrong owned a bookstore. Better still, he allowed her free access to books and encouraged her in her love for writing. Around 1846, when she was in her early thirties, Frances became active as an anti-slavery lecturer and published her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves, now extant. Writing remained a passion and she became a most celebrated writer, "the Bronze Muse." In 1860, she married Fenton Harper. The couple had a daughter but Fenton died in 1864. Harper subsequently became the most widely published and recognized writer before and after slavery.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's body of work includes several collections of poetry. Among them are the following, published between 1872 and 1900: Sketches of Southern Life, Moses: A Story of the Nile, Light Beyond Darkness, The Sparrow's Fall, Martyr of Alabama, Atlanta Offerings, and Poems. "The Slave Mother," "The Slave Auction," "The Fugitive's Wife," and "Bury Me in a Free Land," are among her best known poems.

Harper was also a gifted writer of prose. One of her best known essays is "Christianity" (1853). Her most famous short story is "The Two Offers," which first appeared in the Anglo-African in 1859. Known as the first African American woman novelist until recently, Harper's first three novels were serialized in the African Methodist Episcopal Church's Christian Recorder: Minnie's Sacrifice (1869); Sowing and Reaping: A Temperance Story (1876-1877), and Trial and Triumph (1888-1889). In 1892, Harper's best known novel was published: Iola Leroy: or, Shadows Uplifted, the story of a young woman striving to overcome racism during Civil War/Reconstruction America, who commits herself to the cause of racial uplift.

Harper managed her writing life in and around other important work. She was a teacher, an anti-slavery lecturer, a member of the Free Produce and, according to William Still, one of the "ablest" workers on the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, Harper continued a life of activism as a social reformer-especially promoting civil and women's rights. She advanced these causes through her writing, through countless speaking engagements, and through her work with several organizations, including the American Equal Rights Association, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the YMCA, the National Congress of Colored Women, and the National Association of Colored Women, of which she was a founding member.

Josephine D. Heard

Josephine D. Heard (1861-1921?) was born Josephine Delphine Henderson in Salisbury, North Carolina, several months after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was the daughter of Lafayette and Annie M. Henderson who knew a modicum of "freedom" during their days in slavery: they were allowed to hire themselves out and live in Charlotte.

When freedom came, the Hendersons committed themselves to providing their daughter with educational opportunities. So it was that their Josie, who was reading by age five, attended a school in Charlotte, and then Scotia Seminary in nearby Concord and Bethany Institute in New York, all of this, to prepare her for teaching. Her first post was at a school in tiny Mayesville, South Carolina, where the epic Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875. In 1882, twenty-one-year-old Josephine Henderson married the Georgia-born William Henry Heard (1850-1937). Heard had emerged from slavery to be a teacher, a worker for the Republican Party, a railway postal clerk, and then a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. William Henry Heard entered the ministry in 1882, the same year he and Josie married. The couple subsequently relocated to Philadelphia, where in 1890, Josephine published Morning Glories, a collection of seventy-two poems, about love and death, about religion and race, and other subjects, verse that sprang, as she wrote in her preface, "from a heart that desires to encourage and inspire the youth of the Race." This book, expanded and re-released in 1891, carried an introduction from the eminent A.M.E. bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, father of one the first black female physician's Hallie Tanner Dillon and the acclaimed artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Josephine Heard moved frequently in the remaining years of her life, assisting her husband's work. In 1895 President Grover Cleveland appointed William Heard minister resident and consul general to Liberia, where Heard helped start the first A.M.E. Church in Monrovia. In 1908, the year William was made a bishop and sent to West Africa again, Josephine accompanied him. The couple lived there until the onset of World War I. After that, William's job assignments took the couple to Louisiana, Mississippi, and finally, to Philadelphia, where Josephine died. In his autobiography, From Slavery to the Bishopric in the A.M.E. Church, published in the early 1920s, William Henry Heard paid tribute to his wife: "She is scholarly and poetic, and her use of the English language, as well as the criticism of my sermons, have done much in making me the preacher they say I am."

Image of Frances E. W. Harper. Date Issued 1893.

Frances E. W. Harper

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Frances E. W. Harper" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1893.

Pauline E. Hopkins

Pauline E. Hopkins (1859-1930), the daughter of Sarah A. Allen and Northrup Hopkins, was born in Portland Maine, and raised in Boston. This child of promise, whose family tree included Boston's famous Paul family (Reverends Nathaniel, Thomas, and activist Susan) and poet James Whitfield, committed herself a life of writing when she was young. At age fifteen, Pauline won a ten dollar gold prize for her essay "Evils of Intemperance and Their Remedies" in a contest sponsored by William Wells Brown, father of Josephine Brown. After graduating from Boston's Girls High School, Pauline was even more intent on making it as writer. Her early efforts include a musical drama Slaves' Escape; or the Underground Railroad, which drew applause during its brief run in Boston in 1880. Aware of what a precarious passage a writing life could be, Hopkins made sure she had a skill that would allow her to support herself: stenography. Indeed, it was as a stenographer, for individuals and for the government, that she supported herself from 1892 to 1899. Nevertheless, throughout this period she continued to write. In 1900 her novel, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life in the North and South, was published by the Colored Co-Operative Publishing Company. This firm owned the Colored American magazine, which hired Hopkins as literary editor following the publication of Contending Forces.

A fair amount of Hopkins's prose appeared in the pages of Colored American: more than twenty biographies of eminent black Americans; over half a dozen short stories; and three novels, Hagar's Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice, Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest; and Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self Ball serialized between 1901 and 1903, and written under the pseudonym Sarah Allen. In 1904, Hopkins left the Colored American, after a Booker T. Washington proxy took over the magazine.

Hopkins went on to write for a few other publications, including J. Max Barber's militant Voice of the Negro. She also started a publishing company, P.E. Hopkins, which in 1905 put out her booklet A Primer of Facts Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendants, With Epilogue. In 1916, Hopkins became editor of the short-lived New Era magazine. After the magazine folded Hopkins withdrew from a literary life, eventually dying in obscurity. It was not until scholar Ann Allen Shockley rediscovered her work and shared the first fruits of her research in the article "Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: A Biographical Excursion into Obscurity," (Phylon 1972) that Pauline E. Hopkins began to receive the attention she deserves.

Harriet A. Jacobs

Harriet A. Jacobs (1813-1897), born in slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, and until she was around eleven years old, was owned by Margaret Horniblow, who taught her to read and sew. When Horniblow died, Harriet and her brother came under the control of Mrs. Horniblow's brother, Dr. James Norcom, who proved to be a lecherous fiend.

Subsequent events in the life of Harriet Jacobs include her decision to have two children with a single white man who was not her owner; escape from Dr. Norcom in 1835; and, after nearly seven years of hiding out in a crawlspace in her grandmother's house, escape to New York City, where she was a domestic worker for the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis. All of this is fleshed out in Jacobs's autobiographical narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), in which Jacobs's did not use peoples' real names and claimed the pseudonym Linda Brent for herself.

For most of the twentieth century, Linda Brent was thought to be a white woman, and Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, a work of pure fiction. It was not until the 1980s that Harriet A. Jacobs's authorship was reestablished. Today, it is regarded as the most in-depth and textured pre-Civil War slave narrative written by a black woman in America.

The rediscovery of Jacobs led to the uncovering of events in her life after 1861. These include serving as a relief worker during the Civil War, working as a clerk for the New England Women's Club, operating a boardinghouse that catered to students and faculty at Harvard University, and doing social work among the needy freedpeople in Washington, D.C., where she died.


Author Biographies by Tonya Bolden

©2000 The New York Public Library