“Get Out the Vote” Spotlight – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Let me make the songs for the people, 
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.


Not for the clashing of sabres
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life. 

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget. 


Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway. 


I would sing for the poor and aged,  
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,  
Where there shall be no night. 


Our world, so worn and weary,  
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords  
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong. 


Music to soothe all its sorrow,  
Till war and crime shall cease; 
And the hearts of men grown tender  
Girdle the world with peace.

Songs for the People. By Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and acclaimed poet born in Baltimore in 1825. Born to free parents and orphaned at three, Watkins was raised by her maternal uncle Rev. William Watkins, an abolitionist and civil rights activist, and his wife Henrietta. She was educated at her uncle’s school, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth.

Watkins published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, at the age of 20. She went on to publish another book of poetry, many short stories, and several novels, including her most popular work Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. Watkins’ writing often addressed issues of race, gender, and their intersections. In her discussions of intersectionality, Watkins alienated many white suffragists. She criticized the racism and selfishness of their refusal to support the 15th Amendment.  

In response, she helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which actively supported the 15th Amendment. She was also active in the “Colored Section” of Philadelphia’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Later, Watkins helped organize the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW focused on both black and women’s issues such as women’s suffrage, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, and became the most prominent organization of the African American Women’s Suffrage Movement. 

On display in the exhibit Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America is Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, by Frances Ellen Watkins.
Philadelphia, Merrihew & Thompson, printers, 1857. You can view a digitized version online in the Internet Archive:

At the heart of the Special Collections & University Archives exhibit Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America are advocates and grassroots organizations who have fought for expanding the right to vote. Their individual and collective voices have driven major changes to American voting rights, moving the nation closer to the ideal of “one person, one vote.”

Visit the Maryland Room Exhibit Gallery in Hornbake Library to view the exhibit Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America or explore the exhibit online.

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