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



francesharperFrances 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.

 Image via Wikipedia Commons

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  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson February 18, 2013 at 9:58 am

    May I reprint this on my website with credit to you?

  • Tobysgirl February 17, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Let us remember the rending apart of families continues to this day with The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander). After slavery came the kidnapping of African-American men to be used as slave labor; now we deprive men of their civic rights, education, housing, and livelihood by imprisoning them for virtually nothing in the name of the drug war. Please don’t scoff at this notion until you have educated yourself about the continuing violence visited upon the African-American community.