Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
1825 – 1911

A Brighter Coming Day

By Carroll Schleppi

Size:   25”h x 34 ¼”w
Construction: Fused raw edge applique, machine quilting, hand embroidery, hand lettered with ink.
Materials: Cottons, perle cotton, embroidery floss, buttons, tea dyed fabric, grosgrain ribbon. 
Contact: [email protected]                                                              Price: $200

Artist Notes: Because of my lack of background in black history, my initial venture was an internet search for African-American suffragists.  There were many women to consider, but Frances caught my eye, because she was a well-known and loved African-American poet, similar to, but earlier than Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Reading more about her poetry convinced me that Frances was the woman I wanted to know better.

There is not much written about Frances Parker, that is easily accessible.  However, Frances Smith Foster has compiled a collection of her letters, speeches and poetry. I bought a copy of A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader and began reading.      

Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore as a free woman.  The few details that are known of her early life are interesting, but it is her works and words that attracted me.  She was well-educated and schooled in social activism.  In 1852 she published a poem in response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  After living in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Frances moved to Maine and there began her career as a lecturer.  Remember that she was a woman, single, and black.  Even today these can be obstacles to success in any field.   But she had found her vocation.

                                    With courage, strength, and valor 
                                            Your lives and actions brace, 
                                    Shrink not from pain and hardship,
                                             And dangers bravely face.
                                                                  From A Rallying Cry

Frances spoke in favor of abolition, sobriety for the temperance movement, and suffrage for all, blacks and women.  She defied the conventions and law, by refusing to give up her seat on a train in 1858.

Before the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York in May 1866, she delivered We All Stand Together.   In it she recalls her dire circumstances on the sudden death of her husband, Fenton Harper, who left her destitute with her daughter Mary, 3 step-children and no legal rights.

 I say, then, that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law.

Often Frances Harper’s writings seem current.  Consider the last verse of this #MeToo movement poem, A Double Standard.

                                    No golden weights can turn the scale
                                    Of justice in His sight;
                                    And what is wrong in woman’s life
                                    In man’s cannot be right.

This verse in Frances’s hand in the quilt is from John and Jacob – A Dialogue on Women’s Rights, where one man persuades his friend that their wives deserve the right to vote.                                 

Research sources:
A Brighter Day Coming: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, edited by Frances Smith Foster, published by Feminist Press at City University of New York, Graduate Center, 1990  

Carroll Schleppi                                       Suffragists–The Quilts              
Dayton, Ohio