Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Poetry

A Story of the Rebellion

The treacherous sands had caught our boat,
And held it with a strong embrace
And death at our imprisoned crew
Was sternly looking face to face.

With anxious hearts, but failing strength,
We strove to push the boat from shore;
But all in vain, for there we lay 
With bated breath and useless oar.

Around us in a fearful storm
The fiery hail fell thick and fast;
And we engirded by the sand,
Could not return the dreadful blast.

When one arose upon whose brow
The ardent sun had left his trace,
A noble purpose strong and high
Uplighting all his dusky face.

Perchance within that fateful hour
The wrongs of ages thronged apace;
But with it came the glorious hope
Of swift deliverance to his race.

Of galling chains asunder rent,
Of severed hearts again made one,
Of freedom crowning all the land
Through battles gained and victories won.

With steady hands he grasped the boat,
And boldly pushed it from the shore;
Then fell by rebel bullets pierced,
His life work grandly, nobly o'er.

Our boat was rescued from the sands
And launched in safety on the tide;
But he our comrade good and grand, 
In our defence had bravely died.


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


Bury Me in a Free Land

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadows above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from her parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive pleading in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest sight;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves 
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.


“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


The Slave Mother


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?


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


Dark Browed Martha

When the frost-king clothed the forests
In a flood of gorgeous dyes,
Death called little dark-browed Martha
To her mansion in the skies.
'Twas a calm October Sabbath

When the bell with solemn sound
Knelled her to her quiet slumbers
Low down in the darksome ground.

Far away, where sun and summer
Reign in glory all the year,
Was the land she left behind her,
To her simple heart so dear.
There a mother and a brother,
Meeting oft at close of day,
Spoke in tender, tearful whispers
Of the loved one far away.

'I am thinking,' said the mother,
'How much Martha'll get to know,
And how smart and bright 'twill make her,
Travellin' round the country so.
'Spect she'll be a mighty lady,
Shinin' jewels in her ears;
But I hope she won't forget us,--
Dat is what dis poor heart fears.

''Deed she won't,' 
then spoke the brother,

'Martha'll love us just as well

As before she parted from us,--
Trust me, mammy, I can tell.'
Then he passed a hand in silence
O'er his damp and swarthy brow,
Brushed a tear from off the eyelid,--
'O that she were with us now!'

'Pshaw! don't cry, Lem,' said the mother,
'There's no need of that at all;
Massa said he'd bring her to us
When the nuts began to fall.
The pecans will soon be rattling
From the tall plantation trees,
She'll be here to help us pick them,
Brisk and merry as you please.'

'Pshaw! don't cry, Lem,' said the mother,
'There's no need of that at all;
Massa said he'd bring her to us
When the nuts began to fall.
The pecans will soon be rattling

From the tall plantation trees,
She'll be here to help us pick them,
Brisk and merry as you please.'

Thus they talked, while she they waited
From the earth had passed away;
Walked no more in pleasant places,
Saw no more the light of day;
Knew no more of toilsome labor,
Spiteful threats or angry blows;
For the Heavenly One had called her
Early from a life of woes.

Folded we the tiny fingers
On the cold, unmoving breast;
Robed her in a decent garment,
For her long and dreamless rest;
And when o'er the tranquil Sabbath
Evening's rays began to fall,
Followed her with heavy footsteps
To the home that waits us all.

As we paused beside the churchyard,
Where the tall green maples rise,
Strangers came and viewed the sleeper,
With sad wonder in their eyes;
While my thoughts flew to that mother,
And that brother far away:
How they'd weep and wail, if conscious
This was Martha's burial day!

When the coffin had been lowered
Carefully into the ground,
And the heavy sods fell on it
With a cold and hollowed sound,
Thought, as we hastened homewards,
By the day’s expiring light,
Martha never slept so sweetly
As she’ll sleep this Sabbath night.



“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.