Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Frances E.W. Harper: Black, Feminist, UU

This has all happened before and it will all happen again. --Battlestar Galactica 
[I delivered this sermon on September 4, 2016, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.]


In May 1866 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper addressed the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention in New York City, where she sat on the platform with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Today’s reading is some excerpts from that speech.

I FEEL I AM SOMETHING of a novice upon this platform. Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life had been spent in battling against those wrongs. But I did not feel as keenly as others, that I had these rights, in common with other women, which are now demanded. About two years ago, I stood within the shadows of my home. A great sorrow had fallen upon my life. My husband had died suddenly, leaving me a widow, with four children, one my own, and the others stepchildren. I tried to keep my children together. But my husband died in debt; and before he had been in his grave three months, the administrator had swept the very milk-crocks and wash tubs from my hands. I was a farmer's wife and made butter for the Columbus market; but what could I do, when they had swept all away? They left me one thing--and that was a looking glass! Had I died instead of my husband, how different would have been the result! By this time he would have had another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would have gone into his house, broken up his home, and sold his bed, and taken away his means of support. . . . I say, then, that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law.

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members. . . .

This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the length and breadth of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.

I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.

You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars--I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia--and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride. . . . Today I am puzzled where to make my home. I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride [a streetcar] in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver. Have women nothing to do with this?

Here ends the reading.

The story goes, “In the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the year 1858, a young black woman entered a streetcar and sat down. The conductor came to her and insisted she leave, but she stayed quietly in her seat. A passenger intervened, asking if the woman in question might be permitted to sit in a corner. She did not move. When she reached her destination, the woman got up and tried to pay the fare, but the conductor refused to take her money. She threw it down on the floor and left.”

At that time her name was Frances Ellen Watkins. Two years later she married a man named Fenton Harper. Six years after that, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper gave that speech at the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention from which you have just heard some excerpts.

In fact, she goes on at length – longer than what I quoted – about her experience of not being allowed to ride the streetcar and being segregated in the train. She also says that Harriet Tubman, who was still alive in 1866, was not allowed to ride the streetcars in the city where she lived. Harriet Tubman.

In 1858 black people were not allowed to use public transportation. In 1958, they had to sit in the back of the bus. Rosa Parks famously refused to do that, 100 years after Frances Watkins insisted on her right to ride the streetcar.

And here we are, not even one hundred years later. To us it seems perfectly obvious that black people should be able to pay their fare, and ride the streetcar, and sit next to white people. What’s the problem with that? How could that be a big deal?

I’m bringing this up because when we look back at history, we tend to assume that things were always simple. But when you’re right in the middle of it, it’s not simple at all, and change seems scary and impossible.

Frances Watkins was born in 1825, in Baltimore to “free” parents. Now Maryland was a slave state but it would seem that most of her family was free. What does that mean, to be a free black person in a slave state? If you’re just walking down the street, how do white people know if you’re “free,” or a slave, or an escaped slave? Their status as free people of color must have seemed rather precarious.

Her parents died when she was about three years old and she was raised by her aunt and uncle. They were well off financially, and they gave her a good education. She started off as a teacher, and went around working in various Northern states.

In 1853, Maryland passed a law allowing for free blacks who entered the state to be captured and sold into slavery. (What was the purpose of that law, except to harass black people?) Frances Watkins was no longer living in Maryland at the time, but she heard about a free black man who accidentally crossed the border into Maryland and was sold to a Georgia slave owner. He managed to escape and get back North, but his “owner” came after him. They went to court, and the court ruled that he was in fact a slave. He was sent back to Georgia and soon died there. Frances Watkins wrote to a friend: "Upon that grave I pledged myself to the anti-slavery cause."

She started giving money to the Underground Railroad. She started touring the North, lecturing on abolition. At this time, women were strongly discouraged from speaking in public, and black women must have been especially discouraged. But they say that Frances Watkins Harper was a great public speaker. Her voice could fill a room. Throughout her life she lectured on various topics. She was also a prolific writer and poet.

Harper cared about women’s rights just as much as the rights of black people. In fact she had some conflicts with white feminists over the question of what we today call “intersectionality.” You’ve heard how she spoke at the women’s rights convention. How she said “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”

In fact, when she talked about how Harriet Tubman was not allowed to ride the streetcar, she said that if white women did not care about Tubman then they were selfish. She called them out. She said “I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”

When she gave that speech, in 1866, the 14th Amendment was coming up for ratification. This Amendment granted voting rights to black men. Not black women. Not white women. Some white feminists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who were on the stage with Harper that day, opposed the 14th Amendment. They thought it was unfair to give the vote to black men and not white women.

This happens often in politics, where you have to decide whether or not to support a law that doesn’t give you everything you want. As for Harper, she was willing to compromise. She wanted some black people to get the vote.

As it turns out, since she died in 1911 she never did get the right to vote.

There is not much biographical information about Harper. So I thought this was going to be a rather short sermon. As far as I can tell, no one has ever written a full-length biography of her. This causes me to reflect on the implacable nature of history. In her time, she was very well known. Then she was forgotten. How many of us will be remembered in any historical records after we are gone?

One of the things we don’t know is why she became a Unitarian, or what Unitarianism meant to her. We only know a few facts.

We know that in 1870, when she was 45 years old, Harper joined the First Congregational Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. We know that two years earlier her friend and fellow activist, Peter H. Clark, had joined the First Congregational Church (Unitarian) of Cincinnati. Perhaps it was his example which convinced her that Unitarianism had something to offer African-Americans.

We know that the minister of the Philadelphia church, Rev. William Henry Furness, was a well-known abolitionist. In fact, before the Civil War, he preached so many controversial anti-slavery sermons that some members of his church tried to get him removed. I am getting this information from a paper written by Jane Rosencrans. She writes:
“First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia was home to numerous merchants and wealthy businessmen who worried about the effects of the abolition movement on trade, while others believed that politics had no place in a church.”
Politics has no place in a church. I still hear some UUs say that today.

Harper had been raised in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and she continued her association with that church. Notably, much of her writing was published in the Christian Recorder, which was the AME weekly newspaper.

Given that Harper was such a prolific writer, and so much of her work was published in the Christian Recorder, I find it odd that the Unitarians never asked her to write anything for them. Maybe they did. Maybe those documents have yet to be discovered.

Rosencrans writes:
“At the center of AME religious ideals was the notion of a “liberating gospel” through word and deed, and much of its work has always been grounded in what later became known as the “social gospel” – work in the areas of poverty, hunger, unemployment, and the needs of those in prisons, mental institutions, and hospitals. In this sense, the AME church shared much in common with American Unitarianism, which also centered its core religious tenets on social reform, and both denominations shared an opposition to slavery and support for women’s equality, two issues for which Harper worked much of her life.”
The last thing we know about Harper is that she died at the age of 85 in 1911. Her funeral took place at First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.

In closing, I would like to recommend her novels. They are written in a simple, straightforward style. And although they deal with serious issues, I personally do not find them very depressing. I believe that Harper wanted her novels to be uplifting and to provide positive role models.

There’s a line in one of her books that has stayed with me ever since I read it about seven years ago. A black woman is telling a white woman about some of the problems she has faced, and the white woman says 'Well, Sarah, I really pity you.' And the black woman answers, 'it is not pity we want, it is justice.' -- Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869)

To me that epitomizes social justice (and after all, we call it social justice, not social pity.)


1866 speech: http://www.blackpast.org/1866-frances-ellen-watkins-harper-we-are-all-bound-together-0

1858 streetcar incident: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/ethics/workshop4/harper

1853 slavery law: http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/bal-blackhistory-harper-story.html

Harper and Unitarianism: http://www.test.uucollegium.org/Research%20papers/07paper_Rosecrans.pdf

First UU Philadelphia page for Harper: http://www.philauu.org/page/frances-e-w-harper

My blog post with short reviews of Harper's three novels: http://citynature.blogspot.com/2009/03/three-novels-by-frances-ew-harper.html

Update: I came across her tombstone on Find A Grave. It says "Novelist, Poet, Abolitionist, Unitarian."

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