Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911
First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
Harper was involved in not one, but five movements: the abolitionist, suffrage, temperance, children’s and literary movements. She was a member of both Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.
Harper was one of the first paid lecturers hired by abolitionist associations to represent anti-slavery organizations and lecture around the country. She was also one of the first Black women known to publish a short story (The Two Offers in 1859), and the second to publish a novel (Iola Leroy in 1892). She was a gifted writer and speaker whose essays, speeches, and poems appeared regularly in all the prominent Black periodicals. Some Unitarians disassociated themselves from John Brown after his failed attempt to seize the arsenal at Harpers Ferry to fund an insurrection against slave holders in October of 1859. Harper did just the opposite. She corresponded with Brown, and sent money to him and at least one of his surviving followers when they were arrested. She also provided emotional support to Brown’s wife Mary and their two daughters during the trial.
On September 27, 1992, the Continental Congress of African American Unitarian Universalists traveled to Philadelphia, and visited Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. It is the oldest existing Black-owned cemetery in the United States and is where Harper and her daughter Mary are buried, along with her friend William Still, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Underground Railroad. Once there, the UUs discovered a previously existing headstone that had somehow gotten dislodged and buried in the soil. Nevertheless, they placed a newly commissioned headstone on Harper’s gravesite.