A Voice for Freedom: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection Lesson Plan

A Voice for Freedom: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


by Aisha Madhi, Teacher, School District of Philadelphia, Constitution High School

Lesson Overview

Subject: United States History/African American History
Unit of Study: Antebellum United States History/African American Abolition Movement
Grade Level(s): 9th – 12th 
Duration: 2 60 minute class periods


Essential Question

How did African Americans like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper create a platform to promote the Abolition movement during the antebellum era?


Lesson Overview

At the end of this lesson students will be able to:

  • Explain/describe the life and legacy of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
  • Analyze tone and imagery in the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
  • Identify the main arguments used to oppose slavery
  • Analyze the objectives and strategies used by free African Americans in Philadelphia in the Abolition movement


Background: Frances Ellen Watkins and the Abolition Movement

From the era of American independence to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a socially and economically prominent city that attracted immigrants, working class youth and African Americans with its central location and labor opportunities. Indeed, Philadelphia boasted the largest free African American population in the North before the Civil War.  Although enslaved Africans resided in the region prior to the arrival of William Penn in 1680, by the era of independence, Philadelphia, considered the cradle of liberty, made history by the Gradual Abolition Act, a groundbreaking law that was the first to establish a timeline for abolishing the slave trade and slavery in a state.   African Americans residing in Philadelphia were also expanding the notions of liberty and making their own history by forming their own autonomous religious and social organizations.  In 1787, Philadelphia clergymen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones established the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization funded and supported by African Americans to provide emergency relief to widows, the unemployed and the poor.  Free blacks in Philadelphia challenged discrimination in Philadelphia churches when they established the first independent African American churches – first Absalom Jones started St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church and then Richard Allen founded Mother Bethel AME Church in 1794. 

By the 1830s, the African American community located in the city’s Seventh Ward had become a hub for the abolition and reform movements.  Prominent African American entrepreneurs like sail maker James Forten and lumber dealer Stephen Smith resided in this area, which spanned from Spruce Street to South Street, and from 7th Street to the Schuylkill River. Many African Americans established successful careers as caterers, barbers and musicians.  African Americans schools like the Institute for Colored Youth helped form a new generation of African American leadership. African American leaders participated in interracial reform organizations such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Pennsylvania Female Anti-Slavery Society.  Philadelphia was also a vital link to a network of African American activism that connected leaders in New York, New England, Baltimore and other major cities, particularly through the publication/distribution of newspapers such as Freedom’s Journal and the Colored American. The Abolition Movement was particularly strong in Philadelphia, which continued to attract African Americans to the region. 

Prolific author and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the many African Americans who relocated to Philadelphia in the antebellum era.  Born a free Black in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper received a formal education and used her literary talents to address critical social issues of the time – particularly the evil institution of slavery- in her writing.  Harper served as a faculty member at Union Institute in Ohio before relocating to Philadelphia in 1854.  In Philadelphia, she was instrumental in the Philadelphia region Underground Railroad, a national network that helped transport enslaved Africans to freedom in the North and Canada.  Through powerful poems like, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” Harper offered an emotional appeal against slavery. During the era of Reconstruction, Harper was a force of change, helping to educate newly freed African Americans.  Her publication of a novel, Iola Leroy, distinguished Harper as the first African American woman to publish a novel.  Throughout her life in Philadelphia, Harper continued to use her pen as a platform against racial and gender inequality. 


Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Secondary History
8.1.U.C. - Analyze, synthesize and integrate historical data, creating a product that supports and appropriately illustrates inferences and conclusions drawn from research
8.2.9.A -  Contrast the role groups and individuals from Pennsylvania played in the social, political, cultural, and economic development of the U.S.
8.2.9.D  - Interpret how conflict and cooperation among  groups  and organizations in Pennsylvania have influenced the growth and development of the US.



PBS reading, “Africans in America: Brotherly Love”/Reading Analysis Sheet http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3narr1.html
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Biography Handout
Choice Board Activity Handout
Copy of poems:

"The Slave Mother”  from Harper, F. Ellen Watkins. (1857). Poems on miscellaneous subjects. Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, printers. -  Link to poem at HathiTrust.org

“Bury Me in a Free Land”  from Foster, Frances Smith, ed. (1993). A brighter coming day: a Frances Ellen Watkins Harper reader. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY.  - Link to poem at Google Books

“Dark Browed Martha”  from Afton, Effie. (1854). Eventide: a series of tales and poems. Boston: Fetridge & Co. - Link to poem at Project Gutenberg

Note: Eventide was published in 1854 under the pseudonym of "Effie Afton." This volume is often attributed to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Some scholars have cited the Library of Congress Catalog of Printed Cards , II (1942) in identifying "Effie Afton" as Mrs. Sarah Elizabeth (Harper) Monmouth.

“A Story of the Rebellion”  from Harper, F. Ellen Watkins. (1896). Poems. Philadelphia: [s.n.]., - Link to poem at HathiTrust.org



Day 1

Opening Activity

1. Students will create a written response (3-5 lines) to the questions:

  • Can the arts (music, written or visual) be used to confront problems and/or create change?
  • Identify and describe an artist, musician or writer who used art as a platform for change. What issues did this person address? How did they convey their ideas? What was their impact?

2. Students will discuss their responses in pairs and then as a class. Students will list their responses on the board and group the responses according to genre (music, visual arts, written arts). If there are individuals listed by multiple groups of students, students may discuss why that individual is especially significant. Students will also discuss the importance of artistic expression in confronting problems in our society.

3. The teacher will introduce the topic of slavery before the Civil War and ask students to list forms of resistance used to combat slavery.  The teacher will then ask students how individuals in the northern cities like Philadelphia tried to help end slavery.   The teacher will also ask students what they know about free black communities in major cities like Philadelphia and how they may have helped.


Individual/Group Activity

1. Students will read “Brotherly Love,” a handout on the free black community of Philadelphia during the antebellum period.
HTML link for article: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/narrative.html

2. Students will complete related reading questions. Students will discuss their responses as a class.

3. Students will create their own example of artistic expression that will highlight key themes related to African Americans’ experiences in Philadelphia using a choice-board activity. Choiceboards are activities that allow students to select from a variety of options of tasks that related to the topic.  Student mastery and content knowledge should be reflected.

4. Students will share their responses with class.


Day 2

Opening Activity - Biographical Analysis of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

1. Teacher will introduce the focus for the day- the activism and artistic expressions of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

2. Students will read and complete a biographical analysis of Harper.

3. Students will discuss their responses as a class. Teacher will ask students what experiences and accomplishments made Harper unique for her time period.
The teacher will reintroduce the question from yesterday about artistic expression and social change and have students explain how Harper used writing to challenge slavery, racism and sexism.


Poetry Analysis

1. The teacher will divide the class into groups of four. Each group will read and analyze a different poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.  Students will complete a poetry analysis sheet and then share their responses in their respective groups. Groups will discuss how Harper used imagery and tone to support her anti-slavery position.  Students will also share words or lines that are especially meaningful or powerful.

2. Each group will have a section of the board to report what issues their poem addressed and write their own summary of the poem and important parts of the poem. Students will have an opportunity to ask each group questions about the selected poems.

3. Each group will collaborate to write their own poem about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and her legacy as a writer and abolitionist. Students can share their poems with the class.


Lesson Conclusion

Teacher will conclude the lesson by having students identify the primary opportunities and challenges faced by the African American community in Philadelphia before the war. Students will also explain how Frances Ellen Watkins Harper used literary writing to confront social problems.