Frances Ellen Watkins

Frances Ellen Watkins was an author, poet, and lecturer of the nineteenth century. She is credited as being the first African American woman to publish a short story. Along with her literary work, Watkins was a known abolitionist. Her poem "Songs for the People" has been set to music by Mason Bynes and Rosephanye Powell.

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    Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland to free African American parents. At the age of three, she was orphaned and began living with her aunt and uncle, Henrietta and William Watkins. William was an abolitionist and established a school in his name, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. Frances took after her uncle’s activism, and attended Watkins Academy until she was thirteen years old, after which she joined the workforce. 

    During her time working for a family that owned a bookshop, she developed a love for literature, writing a collection of poems entitled Forest Leaves at the age of twenty-one. By the time she was twenty-six, she worked as the first female instructor at the Union Seminary in Ohio. Shortly after she moved to Pennsylvania to teach. It was during that time Maryland passed a law prohibiting free African Americans from entering the state from the north. Watkins began taking more of a stance in anti-slavery efforts, with her poem “Eliza Harris,” detailing the evil of slavery. The poem was published in both The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. 

    Watkins began touring Canada and the U.S. sharing abolitionist speeches and writing speeches for various organizations. She wrote and published the short story “The Two Offers,”  about women’s education. It was the first short story by an African American woman to ever be published. Watkins would soon after marry Fenton Harper and have a daughter. Following her husbands death, she would return to touring. It was during this second tour that she wrote her speech“We Are All Bound Up Together,” which served as a call to action for Black women to fight for their suffrage. Towards the end of her life, Watkins helped found the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and became the director of the American Association of Colored Youth. Her legacy lives on through her contributions and literature.

    -Lucy Koukoudian

    This profile was created during the 2023-2024 academic year as part of the Song of America Fellowship Program, a project of the Classic Song Research Initiative between the Hampsong Foundation and the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.

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