An important writer and abolitionist, Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 24, 1825. A free black, she was orphaned at an early age, and raised by an aunt. She attended the William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, which her uncle founded, and developed an interest in literature. Her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves, was published when she was only 20. Moving to Columbus, Ohio when she was 25, Watkins taught domestic science at Union Seminary (now part of Wilberforce University), a school for free Africans founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. There she became committed to the abolitionist cause, and after moving to Philadelphia and giving up teaching, she became a prominent lecturer and activist, especially for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Apparently she was such a powerful lecturer, some people refused to believe that a black woman was capable of this kind of effectiveness, and accused her of being a man dressed as a woman or a white woman painted black. In 1860 she married Fenton Harper, and they had one child, Mary. But Harper was a widow in four years, and returned to traveling and lecturing. She published several collections of poetry, and her only novel in 1892, Iola Leroy or Shadows of the Uplifted (republished by Beacon Press in 1987). She lectured for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, especially fighting against the organization of segregated chapters.
Harper was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women. In 1894 she became the director of the American Association of Educators of Colored Youth. She also became active in the women’s suffrage movement. Although she had a long association with the A.M.E. Church, she was a member of the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, where her funeral was held after she died on February 20, 1911. In her essay, Our Greatest Want, she outlined her spiritual longings, and her dreams of equality and justice. “We want more soul, a higher cultivation of our spiritual faculties. We need more unselfishness, earnestness and integrity. Our greatest need is not gold or silver, talent or genius, but true men and true women.”