On this day in 1897, Frances E. W. Harper used her voice to express a hopeful view of the Black family in society, anchored by the African-American mother.
Delivered just thirty years after Emancipation, her little-known speech on “The Afro-American Mother” makes a powerful argument for the centrality of marriage, home, and motherhood to the progress of her people.
Harper’s message was tailored to an audience of mostly white women. Some 2,000 attendees had gathered in the banquet hall of the Arlington Hotel in Washington DC for the founding of the National Congress of Mothers, the organization that would become the national Parent-Teacher Association, or PTA.
It was founded by educator Alice McLellan Birney and philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst to “promote intelligent motherhood” and discuss the the best methods of housekeeping and raising children.
The speaker roster was a who’s who of prominent educators and leaders. But Harper was the only Black speaker — not unusual for her. She was often the only Black woman at the progressive conferences she attended.
She makes her case for the foundational role of a strong marriage, home life, and faith, and “an enlightened parenthood.”
She herself had begun her professional life as a teacher, at Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. But within a few years she’d joined the American Anti-Slavery and began writing abolitionist materials, then launched her public speaking career.
For Harper, her public voice was a powerful advocacy tool and political strategy to be used on behalf of her people.
In her remarks to the Mother’s Congress, she speaks directly to all the white women in the audience —”born to an inheritance of privileges” — asking them for compassion, justice, and open hearts towards Black women.
Her public voice was a powerful advocacy tool and political strategy to be used on behalf of her people.
She makes it clear she’s not asking for “special favor” — only equality. “Let us be tried by the same rules and judged by the same standards as are other people,” she says.
And to Black women, she makes her case for the foundational role of a strong marriage, home life, religious faith, and “an enlightened parenthood.”
To the professional educators in the room, she describes with pride the rapid progress made by newly-freed Blacks in literacy and enrollment in elementary school.
Elsewhere in her writing, on other platforms, Harper expressed worry about the subjection of women, even physical abuse, by their husbands. But on this day she paints a hopeful vision for Black Americans, and for the “community of interests” that binds all women together.
Harper herself had been a mother to four children — her daughter Mary and three other children from her husband’s previous marriage.
She also had a successful literary career as a poet, essayist, and novelist.
With her public voice, she left a powerful record of advocacy on behalf of abolition, woman’s suffrage, the rights of African Americans, and elevation of the nation.
There are 11 speeches by Frances E. W. Harper in the Speaking While Female Speech Bank.
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