Black History Month offers an opportunity to celebrate an infinite store of heroines. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper stands tall among them. The mother of African American journalism was a recognized poet, fiction author, orator, and, above all else, activist. Here, she imagines the unimaginable.
The Slave Auction
The sale began—young girls were there,
a Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
a Revealed their anguish and distress.
And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
a And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
a While tyrants bartered them for gold.
And woman, with her love and truth—
a For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
a With anguish none may paint or tell.
And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
a The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
a Were gathered in that mournful band.
Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
a And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
a Whose loved are rudely torn away.
Ye may not know how desolate
a Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
a Will press the life-drops from the heart.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 to 1911)
Source: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was the only child of free African American parents. By the end of her life she had several collections of poetry and novels to her name. Her short story, “The Two Offers,” was the first published by an African American. Early on she supported herself as a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. Later, she helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad and, during Reconstruction, was an activist for civil rights, women’s rights, and educational opportunities for any and all Americans. Her titles included: Superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Co-founder and Vice President of the National Association of Colored Women, and Director of the American Association of Colored Youth. She was also a member of the American Women’s Suffrage Association.
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