Section I: Legacy
“The Bronze Muse: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper”
Quilt media: Quilted nylon fiber
Quilt dimensions: 6.5 ft. x 45 in.
‘the Bronze Muse’: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, written by herself
“Did not the whole nation consent to our abasement?”
–Iola Leroy in Iola Leroy, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)
“. . . it is the women of a country who help to mold its character, and to influence if not determine its destiny; and in the political future of our nation woman will not have done what she could if she does not endeavor to have our republic stand foremost among the nations of the earth. ”
-“We Are All Bound Up Together” – the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866 – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1824-1911)
“Little did Columbus imagine . . . the glorious possibilities of a land where the sun should be our engraver. . . so to woman comes the opportunity to strive for richer and grander discoveries than ever gladdened the eye of the Genoese mariner. Not the opportunity of discovering new worlds, but that of filling this Old World with fairer and higher aims than the greed of gold and the lust of power, is hers. Through weary, wasting years men have destroyed, dashed in pieces, and overthrown, but to-day we stand on the threshold of woman’s era, and woman’s work is grandly constructive.”
–Woman’s Political Future, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
The seminal life and work of Frances Harper is the focus of the Quilted Chronicle, ‘The Bronze Muse’: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Frances ranks among courageous black women like Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth who performed tireless acts of resistance confronting the impact of slavery as model advocates for the cause of human and civil rights. Pauline Hopkins, Anna Julia Cooper, Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper are included with these mostly obscure and unsung heroines.
Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, novelist, poet, orator and abolitionist, one of the best-known black women of her time, Harper was referred to as ‘the Bronze Muse’. During the Victorian era when few women dared to speak in the public realm’s mixed audiences, she was a much admired and sought after activist, hired by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, working with William Still and the Maine Anti-Slavery Society as official lecturer and agent, traveling throughout the United States and Canada.1
Frances was orphaned at an early age and cared for by her uncle, Rev. William Watkins, founder of a school for black children that she attended. Her fine education and entrepreneurial efforts are evidenced in the sale of over 50,000 copies of her numerous published works that feature concepts of citizenship and nationhood that critique existing society and created models of reform2. Her poem “The Slave Mother” denounces slavery’s compromise to the powerful bond of mother and child.
“He is not hers, for cruel hand
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart…
…Oh Father, must they part?”
-Excerpted from The Slave Mother
Harper’s activism as a black woman compelled her to prioritize racism above sexism. “We Are All Bound Up Together” delivered at the eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866 and “Women’s Political Future,” presented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 highlight her activism. Harper is one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women, serving as its vice president in 1896.
Harper suggested that African American writers must present their own stories to break the cycle of mis-representation that contributes to the oppression of black Americans, the act of telling one’s own story to affirm one’s right to justice as illustrated in her 1892 novel Iola Leroy, her poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, and the recently rediscovered Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph.
Harper spoke on the same themes about which she wrote – abolition, equal rights, politics, temperance, education, community service, morality and personal integrity for numerous organizations and movements including the Underground Railroad, the National Association of Colored Women, the American Equal Rights Association. Harper lectured alongside advocates Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Visiting thirteen southern states she addressed Sunday schools, women’s groups, and mixed audiences on topics such as ‘The Demands of the Colored Race in the Work of Reconstruction,’ ‘Enlightened Motherhood’, and ‘Racial Literature’. 3
In 1850 Harper served as a vocational teacher in Columbus, Ohio at the new Union Seminary school for Negro children where she met the famous abolitionist, John Brown, principal of the school. She was supportive of Brown and his wife until his death. She moved to Pennsylvania when in 1854 the fugitive slave law prevented her from returning to her home state of Maryland as a free woman.
The quilt presents narrative image incidents of her story with the scenes of a Philadelphia horse-drawn streetcar and Boston’s African Meeting House where she delivered lectures in 1854 and 1864.
She moved to Pennsylvania when in 1854 the fugitive slave law prevented her from returning to her home state of Maryland as a free woman. Harper’s sit-in efforts to integrate Philadelphia’s horse drawn street cars in 1858 are related in her words as she describes the prejudice encountered while traveling from Washington to Baltimore, “they put me in the smoking car!. . . “I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver.” “One day I took my seat in a car, and the conductor came to me and told me to take another seat. I just screamed ‘murder.’ The man said if I was black I ought to behave myself.” Harper asks, “ Have women nothing to do with this?” as she further describes her encounter with racism on the street cars.4
Defying strictures against public speaking for women, notable on her lecture circuit prior to the Civil War were her presentations at Boston’s African Meeting House. She decries:
“I spoke in Boston on Monday night. . .Well, I am but one, but can do something, and God helping me, I will try.”5
- The Liberator , February 24, 1860, “LECTURES BY MISS WATKINS”, Boston, Massachusetts, and Sacred Land Regained: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and “ The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth,” A Lost Poem. Donald Yacovone, Massachusetts Historical Society. Winter 1995. Page90.
- Waters and Conaway, ed. Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking Their Minds, University Press of New England, Burlington, VT, pp. 174- 203.
- Archives of Maryland, Biographical Series, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)
- Ibid., Waters and Conaway, pp. 174 – 203.
- Ibid., The Liberator, February 24, 1860.