Just Teach One

Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper)’s Forest Leaves (ca. 1846)

Fall 2016 – Just Teach One: Early African American Print no. 3
Edited and introduced by Alex W. Black, Brigitte Fielder, and Johanna Ortner
TEI-encoded by Matthew Bennett, Evan Gilgenbach, Zachary Peasha, Cameron Russell

Forest Leaves (ca. 1846)
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Teaching Reflections

For complete scans of the pages of Forest Leaves,  please see Johanna Ortner’s
Lost no More: Recovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves.


stills_imageoffwhBiography and Publication History

Frances Ellen Watkins, more prominently known by her married name, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, was born free on September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was one of the most well known African American writers of the nineteenth century. Harper published several collections of poetry, including Forest Leaves (ca. 1846), Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869), Poems (1871), Sketches of Southern Life (1872), and Atlanta Offering: Poems (1895). Many of those volumes appeared in more than one edition. Harper’s poems were also reprinted in periodicals such as Frederick Douglass’ Paper, The Liberator, The Anglo-African Magazine, The Christian Recorder, The A.M.E. Church Review, and The New National Era. Harper is credited with writing (what at the time of this publication is believed to be) the first short story published by an African American woman, “The Two Offers,” which appeared in The Anglo-African Magazine in June and July of 1859.[1] Three of Harper’s novels, Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869), Sowing and Reaping (1876-77), and Trial and Triumph (1888), were serialized in The Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and another, Iola Leroy, was published as a monograph in 1892. Harper’s various public speeches were also often published in the abolitionist and black press.

An only child, Harper was orphaned at the age of three and was subsequently raised by her uncle, William Watkins, a minister and a reformer. She studied the Bible and the Classics at his Academy for Negro Youth until she was thirteen years old, when she began to work as a domestic servant. The African American businessman and historian William Still writes that Harper displayed “an ardent thirst for knowledge and a remarkable talent for composition” as early as age fourteen, when she wrote “an article which attracted the attention of the lady in whose family she was employed, and others.” The family owned a bookstore, so “her greed for books was satisfied so far as was possible from occasional half-hours of leisure.”[2]

From Frederick Douglass' Paper (August 24, 1855)

From Frederick Douglass’ Paper (August 24, 1855)

Harper’s education and her family’s relative class privilege afforded her the opportunity to publish Forest Leaves at a relatively young age, and her contemporaries commented on these literary accomplishments. According to African American author William Wells Brown, “What she was deprived of in her younger days in an educational point of view, she made up in after years, and is now considered one of the most scholarly and well-read women of the day. Her poetic genius was early developed, and some of her poems, together with a few prose articles, with the title of ‘Forest Leaves,’ were published, and attracted considerable attention, even before she became known to the public through her able platform orations.”[3] Harper’s impressive oeuvre of writing would span a variety of genres and print venues, making her one of (if not the) most prolific African American women writers of the nineteenth century. As we work on this recently “recovered” text, we note one problem with the language of “recovery” in the fact that Harper was well known during her lifetime and only later was her writing “forgotten” or dismissed. As Still wrote of Harper in 1872, “We feel, therefore, not only glad of the opportunity to present a sketch not merely of the leading colored poet in the United States, but also one of the most liberal contributors, as well as one of the ablest advocates of the Underground Rail Road and of the slave.”[4]

In 1855, a year after her second book of poems was published, the African American printer and historian William Cooper Nell remarked that Harper had “published a small volume of poems, which certainly are very creditable to her, both in a literary and moral point of view, and indicate the possession of a talent, which, if carefully cultivated, and properly encouraged, cannot fail to secure for herself a poetic reputation, and to deepen the interest already so extensively felt in the liberation and enfranchisement of the entire colored race.”[5] That reputation was firmly established by 1892, the same year that Harper published her fourth novel, when the African American author and educator Anna Julia Cooper judged that, “Among the pioneers, Frances Watkins Harper could sing with prophetic exaltation in the darkest days, when as yet there was not a rift in the clouds overhanging her people.”[6] Although some later critics and scholars would discount Harper’s work or omit her in broader discussions of African American literature, we work here from what we regard as a now dominant trend in the field to recognize Harper’s importance.[7] Writing on Harper and Forest Leaves, Eric Gardner reminds us that “American literature, culture, and ideals stand wounded because America has regularly asserted that some lives and literatures—especially Black lives and literatures—matter less than others.”[8] As we work on this edition of Forest Leaves in the midst of still-bubbling excitement over this text’s recovery, we are aware that we have not yet realized the full import of this volume, which continued scholarship will surely show.

Harper’s literary productions were heavily influenced by her own politics. She was a dedicated political activist and leader and prominently involved in major social reform movements of the 1800s, supporting abolition, women’s rights, and temperance. In 1854, she joined the Abolition movement as a traveling anti-slavery lecturer and was employed by the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society until 1860, when she married Fenton Harper and settled in Ohio. After her husband’s death in 1864 and the end of the Civil War, she moved with her only child, Mary, to Philadelphia. Harper continued her social uplift work, traveling throughout the South to see first-hand the conditions of the newly freed African American population and to lecture on the topic of race and citizenship. Continuing her work for women’s rights, Harper co-founded the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Nineteenth-century suffrage debates around the Fifteenth Amendment worked to feed racist ideologies about black people’s fitness to vote, with many white women reformers further alienating black women from the cause. Like other black women reformers, Harper emphasized black women’s centrality to the social justice work in which she participated. Also a proponent of temperance–a project she linked closely to both racial uplift and women’s rights–Harper joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as the Superintendent for Work among African Americans in the 1870s. In 1896, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Women. Her dedication to black civil rights placed her at the forefront of nineteenth-century black political thought as well as in the early African American literary tradition. Harper passed away in Philadelphia on February 22, 1911, after a literary and political career that spanned over half a century.

From Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (Philadelphia 1864).

Forest Leaves Publication and Recovery

The one extant edition of Harper’s Forest Leaves, located at the Maryland Historical Society, bears no date of publication. This fact, and the limitations of available information on the text (some of which we discuss here), makes this collection difficult to date definitively. The Library of Congress notes this uncertainty in its list of “Selected Online Works by Civil War Era African American Women,” giving this date as “1840?,” suggesting that Forest Leaves was published sometime during this decade.[9] Most scholars seem to have relied for their dating of this volume on the biographical essay on Harper with which Still, her close friend and coworker to support self-emancipated people, concludes The Underground Railroad.[10] Still’s mention of the text is, however, vague: “Scarcely had she reached her majority ere she had written a number of prose and poetic pieces which were deemed of sufficient merit to publish in a small volume called ‘Forest Leaves.’”[11] Most scholars have taken this statement about Harper’s “age of majority” to mean that she published this when she was around 20 years old, in 1845.

The printer of Forest Leaves was James Young, whose business was located at the corner of Baltimore and Holliday Streets, according to the pamphlet’s title page. This gives some corroboration for the text’s date. Advertisements and other materials he printed list Young as being located at this address as early as 1840 and as late as 1855.[12] Some sources, however, indicate a different address for Young during this period, creating some confusion as to whether he’d relocated his printing shop during this time.[13] The time span of available dates that list Young’s “corner of Baltimore and Holliday Streets” address suggests that he did operate there over a period of at least a decade and a half. As Johanna Ortner has suggested previously, since Harper left Baltimore in 1851 to teach at Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, Forest Leaves was likely published before that date. It is therefore possible that the volume was published in 1845, as has been previously assumed by most Harper scholars. At this time, we can say, with the most certainty, that Forest Leaves was likely published between 1840 and 1851. We further surmise that the pamphlet probably appeared around the time of what most scholars have regarded as Harper’s “age of majority” (age 20 or 21, depending upon how one interprets Still’s meaning), in 1845 or 1846.

In Johanna Ortner’s essay on her recovery of Forest Leaves and the accompanying roundtable of commentary published in Common-place in 2016, scholars take note of the occasion of recovering a text that was known to have existed, but believed to have been materially lost to us.[14] Just as the content of Harper’s first poetry collection presents opportunities for further scholarship on her writing, the significance of this text’s recovery and the uncertainties about it that still remain offer additional material for research and teaching.

The editors would like to extend their thanks to the following people and institutions for making this edition possible: the Just Teach One: Early African American Print conveners: Nicole Aljoe, Lois Brown, John Ernest, Gabrielle Foreman, Eric Gardner, and Joycelyn Moody; Common-place; the American Antiquarian Society; Molly O’Hagan Hardy; the Maryland Historical Society.

A Note on the Text

We have left the vast majority of the text as it appears in the original, including Harper’s alternative spellings of some words, even where those spellings are inconsistent. We recognize that many of these alternative spellings are not errors but represent Harper’s poetic language–indeed, many of the variants are made for the sake of rhythm or rhyme. We only amended the text when we felt it was necessary to preserve its meaning. These changes are marked with brackets.

Harper went on to revise and republish several of the poems included in Forest Leaves later in her career. In our footnotes, we have noted which poems are known to have been revised and where they appeared.


Teaching Reflections


Further Reading

Editions of Harper’s Writings

Foster, Frances Smith, ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1993.

—, ed. Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels. New York: Beacon Press, 1994.

Gates, Henry Louis, ed. Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Graham, Maryemma, ed. Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


On Harper’s Biography

Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper, 1825-1911.Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

Moody, Joycelyn K. and Elizabeth Cali. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” In Oxford Bibliographies in American Literature, edited by Jackson Bryer and Paul Lauter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Washington, Margaret. “Frances Ellen Watkins: Family Legacy and Antebellum Activism” The Journal of African American History 100, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 59-86.


On Forest Leaves

Boyd, Melba Joyce. “The Mystery of Romance in the Life and Poetics of France Ellen Watkins Harper.” 16, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

Gardner, Eric. “Leaves, Trees, and Forests: Frances Ellen Watkins’s Forest Leaves and Recovery.” 16, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

McGill, Meredith L. “Presentiments.” 16, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

Ortner, Johanna. “Lost no More: Recovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves.” 15, no. 4 (Summer 2015).

Peterson, Carla L. “Searching for Frances.” 16, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

Rusert, Britt. “‘Nor wish to live the past again’: Unsettling Origins in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves.” 16, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

Sinha, Manisha. “The Other Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” 16, no. 2 (Winter 2016).


On Harper’s Poetry and Poetics

Barrett, Faith. To Fight Aloud is Very Brave. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. (Especially chapter 3, “The Lyric I and the Poetics of Protest: Julia Ward Howe and Frances Harper,” 87-129.)

Bennett, Michael. Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. (Especially chapter 2, “Bodily Democracy: Frances Ellen Watkins and Walt Whitman Sing the Body Electric,” 45-66.)

Callahan, Monique-Adelle. Between the Lines: Transnationalism and African American Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. (Especially chapter 1, “Translations of Transnational Black Icons in the Poetics of Frances Harper,” 42-58.)

Farrar, Stephanie. “Maternity and Black Women’s Citizenship in Frances Watkins Harper’s Early Poetry and Late Prose” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 40, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 52-75.

Fisher, Rebecka Rutledge. “Remnants of Memory: Testimony and Being in Frances E. W. Harper’s Sketches of Southern Life.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 54 no. 1-4 (2008): 55-74.

Foster, Frances Smith. Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. (Especially chapter 8, “Doers of the Word: The Reconstruction Poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” 131-153.)

Gray, Janet. Race and Time: American Women’s Poetics from Antislavery to Racial Modernity. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004. (Especially chapter 6, “We Women Radicals: Frances Harper’s Poetics of Racial Formation,” 127-145.)

McGill, Meredith L. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the Circuits of Abolitionist Poetry.” In Early African American Print Culture, edited by Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, 53-74. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Petrino, Elizabeth A. “‘We Are Rising as a People’: Frances Harper’s Radical Views on Class and Racial Equality in Sketches of Southern Life.” American Transcendental Quarterly 19, no. 2 (2005): 133-53.

Rutkowski, Alice. “Leaving the Good Mother: Frances E. W. Harper, Lydia Maria Child, and the Literary Politics of Reconstruction.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 25, no. 1 (2008): 83-104.

Williams, Andreá N. “Frances Watkins (Harper), Harriet Tubman and the Rhetoric of Blessed Singleness.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 12, no. 2: 99-122.


On Teaching Harper’s Poetry

De Lancey, Frenzella E. “Teaching Four African American Female Poets in Context: Lucy Terry, Phillis Wheatley, Frances E. W. Harper, and Sonia Sanchez.” In Teaching African American Women’s Writing, edited by Gina Wisker, 75-86. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Foster, Frances Smith and Valerie L. Ruffin. “Teaching African American Poetry of the Reconstruction Era: Frances E. W. Harper’s Moses: A Story of the Nile.” In Teaching Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by Paula Bernat Bennett and Karen L. Kilcup, 142-50. New York: Modern Language Association, 2007.


On Harper and Nineteenth-Century African American Literature and Culture

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. (Especially chapter 3, “Reading White Slavery, Sexuality, and Embedded History in Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy,” 73-112.)

Gardner, Eric. “African American Women’s Poetry in the Christian Recorder, 1855-1865: A Bio-Bibliography with Sample Poems” African American Review 40, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 813-83.

—. Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture.New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Hack, Daniel. Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. (Especially chapter 3, “Affiliating with George Eliot,” 76-101.)

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. Representing the Race. A New Political History of African American Literature.New York: New York University Press, 2011. (Especially chapter 1, “The Politics of Early African American Literature,” 21-48.)

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies.Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Peterson, Carla L. Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers & Writers in the North (1830-1880). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Wright, Nazera Sadiq. Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century.Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016. (Especially chapter 4, “Moving the Boundaries: Black Girlhood and Public Careers in Frances E. W. Harper’s Trial and Triumph, 118-145.)


[1] The first short story known to have been published by an African American is, at the time of our writing, Victor Séjour’s “Le Mulâtre” (“The Mulatto”), published in the Parisian journal La Revue des Colonies in 1837. Scholars such as Frances Smith Foster, Jean Lee Cole, and Marlene Daut have also speculated that the anonymously published “Theresa, a Haytien Tale,” serialized in Freedom’s Journal in 1828, was likely written by an African American author.

[2] William Still, The Underground Rail Road, A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, Or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872), 756.

[3] William Wells Brown, The Rising Son; or, The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race. (Boston: A. G. Brown and Company, 1874), 524.

[4] Still, The Underground Railroad, 755.

[5] William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which is Added a Brief Survey of the Conditions and Prospects of Colored Americans. (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), 212.

[6] Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South. (Xenia, OH: The Aldine Printing House, 1892), 140. Cooper goes on here to quote Harper’s “Ethiopia,” the opening poem of Forest Leaves.

[7] See, for example, Paul Lauter’s discussion of debates around Harper’s value in “Is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Good Enough To Teach?” Legacy 5.1 (Spring 1988): 27-32.

[8] Eric Gardner, “Leaves, Trees, and Forests: Frances Ellen Watkins’s Forest Leaves and Recovery” Roundtable On the Recovery of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves: Archives, Origins and African American Literature Common-place Vol. 16 No. 2 Winter 2016.

[9] See At this time, the editors have not been able to trace where the Library of Congress’ date originated.

[10] Carla L. Peterson discusses Daniel P. Murray’s alternative, and uncited, dating of the piece in 1852. See Carla L. Peterson, “Searching for Frances.” Roundtable On the Recovery of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves: Archives, Origins and African American Literature Common-place Vol. 16 No. 2 Winter 2016.

[11] William Still, The Underground Rail Road, 756.

[12] Examples of publications that confirm this address include Nathaniel Hickman. The Politician’s Register (Baltimore: James Young, Printer, South West Corner of Baltimore and Holliday streets, 1840) and John Purviance, Catalogues of the very large and valuable law and miscellaneous library of late judge Purviance of Baltimore (Baltimore: From James Young’s Steam Printing Establishment, corner of Baltimore and Holliday streets, 1855).
Meredith McGill discusses James Young’s other publications. See Meredith L. McGill, “Presentiments.” Roundtable On the Recovery of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves: Archives, Origins and African American Literature Common-place Vol. 16 No. 2 Winter 2016.

[13] For example, an advertisement in the Baltimore Wholesale Business Directory for the year 1845 listed James Young’s printing press at No. 3 South Gay Street in Baltimore and in 1846, Young printed an almanac published by J. Moore, citing his Gay Street address.

[14] See Johanna Ortner, “Lost no More: Recovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves” and the Roundtable On the Recovery of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves: Archives, Origins and African American Literature Common-place Vol. 16 No. 2 Winter 2016.

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