Spotlight on 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. While she was still very young, Harper worked as a nursemaid and seamstress for a white family that owned a bookshop. There, she discovered her love for books and filled her free time with reading. 

From there, Watkins grew up to become the first African American woman to publish a short story, and she published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, at age 20. Harper 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. 

The poem below, “Slave Mother,” highlights the painful relationship between motherhood and Blackness that Harper observed during her lifetime. 

Heard you that shriek? It rose

   So wildly on the air,

It seem’d as if a burden’d heart

   Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—

   The bowed and feeble head—

The shuddering of that fragile form—

   That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?

   Its every glance was pain,

As if a storm of agony

   Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,

   Her boy clings to her side,

And in her kyrtle vainly tries

   His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore

   For him a mother’s pains;

He is not hers, although her blood

   Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands

   May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

   That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light

   That o’er her pathway smiled,

A fountain gushing ever new,

   Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone

   Of music round her heart,

Their lives a streamlet blent in one—

   Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,

   Her last and fond embrace.

Oh! never more may her sad eyes

   Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks

   Disturb the listening air:

She is a mother, and her heart

   Is breaking in despair.

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. 


Post by Rigby Philips
History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality
(2021)

New Resource: Black Writers and Artists in Special Collections

Literature and Rare Books in Special Collection and University Archives is a rich resource of works black artists and writers. Explore these items in our new subject guide on Black Writers and Artists!  

Non-fiction writing by black authors covers a wide variety of topics, including pamphlets on politics, racism, activism, and culture in our African American and African pamphlet collection. The subject guide also highlights fiction ranging from children’s books by Chinua Achebe to literary masterpieces by writers such as James Baldwin.  Contributions of black artists and printers to other parts of the bookmaking process, such as illustrators like Cledie Taylor and black owned presses like the Broadside Press, are also included.

Continue reading

New Exhibit: Chester Himes Cover to Cover

If you’re a fan of a good hardboiled detective novel, make sure you stop by the Maryland Room to check out our new exhibit on Chester Himes!  Inspired by the 2019 AHPA annual conference hosted by UMD, “One Press: Many Hands: Diversity in the History of American Printing”, the exhibit displays the work of one of America’s most intriguing crime novelists.

Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, Chester Himes (1909-1984) began writing and publishing short stories while serving a 25 year sentence for armed robbery in Ohio Penitentiary in the 1930s.  His first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go was published in 1945.

Himes moved to Paris in the 1950s, where he was celebrated in literary circles alongside fellow expatriate writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin. While in Paris he began writing pulp detective novels, including the popular Harlem Detective series, and achieved critical acclaim. In 1958, he was awarded France’s most prestigious prize for crime fiction, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, for The Five-Cornered Square (alternate title for For Love of Imabelle).

Himes wrote pulp fiction and protest novels that confronted issues of systemic racism in America. His unique style of noir fiction combined violence, anger, humor, absurdity, social realism, and gritty drama into an entertaining and unflinching portrayal of prejudice and corruption.

Lauded in Europe, Himes found less critical success in America, where his works were frequently published in paperback editions featuring lurid, provocative, and visually striking imagery.  The cover art of these inexpensive paperbacks reveal the unique marketing of pulp fiction titles.  

In response to the cover of the Dell paperback edition of Run Man Run, Himes wrote: “If it is necessary to put this type of cover… on this book in order to sell it to the American people, the American people are really and truly sick.”

Himes passed way on November 12, 1984 in Moira, Spain. Decades later, his works still provides enjoyment and debate. To see the unique and classic pulp fiction cover art featured in many American editions of Himes’ work, stop by the Maryland Room room the next time you are in Hornbake Library.

Explore more literary collections held at Special Collections and University Archive here!

Also, make sure you check out the exhibit by the entrance to the Maryland Room, Women in Print, highlighting the work of women binders, illustrators, and book artists!

Celebrating Black Authors and Poets in Special Collections

To celebrate Black History Month, a new exhibit is on display in Hornbake Library highlighting black authors and poets from our literary collections in Special Collections and University Archives!

On display are landmark 20th century literary works by Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Alex Haley, W.E.B. DuBois, Chester Himes, John A. Williams , and Richard Wright. Also included in the exhibit is poetry by Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, and Ted Joans.

Ranging from signed first editions (Invisible Man, Ellison) to popular trade paperback editions (If He Hollers Let Him Go, Himes), these titles offer a glimpse into the wide variety of African American literature and poetry in our collections.

Also on display is a rare edition of Negro Anthology, edited by activist Nancy Cunard. Published in 1934, Negro Anthology is a collection of poetry, historical studies, music, and other writings documenting Black culture of the era. Artists represented in the book include Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

Visit Hornbake Library to view these impressive works of literature in person, or visit us online to explore more titles in our literary collections.

Have any questions? Contact us!