27 pages 54 minutes read

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Learning to Read

Fiction | Poem | YA | Published in 1872

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Summary and Study Guide


Storytelling and memory fueled 19th-century African American poet and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911). Born free, she advocated for racial justice and gender equality throughout her life. She provided an especially vital and persuasive voice for the Abolitionist movement, which fought to end American slavery and free enslaved African American people, before and during the four-year-long American Civil War (1861-1865).

From her work on the Underground Railroad to her newspaper articles, Watkins Harper shared free and enslaved African American people’s stories. Communication, especially reading, served as an effective method to encourage legislative change and to underscore Black people’s humanity and preserve their cultures. These beliefs are especially evident in her narrative poem “Learning to Read.” She published the piece in 1872, seven years after the Civil War.

The poem’s speaker, Mrs. Chloe Fleet (also known as Aunt Chloe), is a reoccurring character. In “Learning to Read,” Aunt Chloe expresses delight in her and her fellow enslaved people’s devotion towards learning to read. They express this devotion both during their imprisonment by white southern slave owners and during the new opportunities offered to freed people after the Civil War’s end.

Like many Black abolitionist writers of the late 1800s, Watkins Harper held the continual pursuit of knowledge in the highest regards. Her desire to educate others speaks to her deep compassion and her keen perception. During a tour of the post-war south in 1867, Watkins Harper wrote, “Some of her [the South] people remind me of hungry persons, with a great cry ringing through their souls, ‘Let me learn—let me learn’” (Koehler, Jana. “Epistolary Politics: A Recovered Letter from Frances E. W. Harper to William Still.” American Literary Realism, 2017).

Poet Biography

African American activist and thinker Frances Ellen Watkins Harper arguably was a prodigy. Born as Frances Ellen Watkins in 1825 to free parents in Maryland, she began writing poetry young and eventually published her first poetry collection Forest Leaves in 1845 at the age of 20. Her uncle and aunt, who raised her after her mother’s death in 1828, cultivated her intellect. Her uncle, Rev. William Watkins, ran the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, a school for free Black children. Watkins Harper attended the school until she was 13 years old. Her passion for learning never abated. She spent most of her leisure time reading during her apprenticeship with a Baltimore bookseller.

With great access to knowledge came the awareness of social ills, especially racism. As an African American woman in the 18th century, she lived when slavery remained legal in all Southern American states. In fact, her birth state of Maryland permitted owning humans until 1864. Her uncle fought for abolition and racial equality as a prominent member of the Baltimore’s free Black community. Besides his academic work, he partnered with Black abolition societies and the African Methodist Episcopal Church to strengthen his community. His niece would follow his example.

Watkins Harper moved to teach, first to Ohio in 1850 and then to Pennsylvania in 1852. Tragically, she would not be able to return to Maryland. In 1853, Maryland essentially exiled any Maryland-based free African American people who moved or left the state. If they returned, they could be legally kidnaped and enslaved under state law. Watkins Harper had always sought the best way to benefit her fellow Black people, but this law acted as a turning point in her career. After hearing a story about a free Black Maryland man who returned to the state and died from the abuses of slavery, she dedicated herself to the abolitionist cause and began working to lead people to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

As time went on, Watkins Harper’s activism evolved into advocacy. At the time, Americans loved and feverously read poetry and attended lectures. Thanks to her gift with words, she excelled at both, using them to raise awareness, offer solace, and share stories.

Watkins Harper served as a writer or contributing editor to publications such as the Repository of Religion and Literature and Science and Art, the Anglo-African Magazine, The Afro-American Press, and the Christian Recorder.

Her speeches drew large audiences and praise. Her peers considered her a “valuable acquisition to the cause” (“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” Archives of Maryland) and the “journalistic mother” of a new generation of women reporters. They dubbed her “the bronze muse.” Her work earned her a permanent lecturer position with the Anti-Slavery Society of Maine, funds for the Underground Railroad and the Anti-Slavery Society, and tours co-headlined with famous activist-intellectuals Fredrick Douglass, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott.

During this time, Watkins Harper completed and published her second poetry collection, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1854. The book became a commercial success. Her 1859 serialized short story, “Two Offers,” made her the first African American woman to publish a short story. This work also foreshadowed much of her work to better incorporate the needs of Black women into the women’s rights movement.

She also married Fenton Harper in 1860, becoming Watkins Harper. She gave birth to their daughter, Mary, and became Harper’s three children’s stepmother. The marriage ended four years later with Harper’s death, leaving her financially insecure and further radicalizing her view of gender equality.

After the Civil War, Watkins Harper carried on working as an in-demand speaker. Notable speaking engagements included the Eleventh Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, her 1867 tour of the South, and the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893.

In addition to civil rights, Watkins Harper campaigned for gender equality, temperance, economic justice, and pacifism. “This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the…American Republic…it will have no privileged class, trampling upon outraging the unprivileged class,” she spoke at the National Women’s Rights Convention (“We Are All Bound up Together-May 1866”). She participated in the Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the American Women’s Suffrage Association.

She applied the lens of race to her participation in the women’s rights movement, and eventually co-founded the National Association of Color Women, where she was Vice President.

She continued to use her writing to highlight the experiences of others. Her 1872 poetry collection, Sketches of Southern Life, explores the south during the Reconstruction era (1863-1877).

Her writing output continually increased. She released Poems in 1857, The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems in 1892, The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems in 1894, and Atlanta Offering in 1895. She even wrote a novel, Iola Leroy (1892).

Community drove Watkins Harper. She mentored future major journalists Ida B. Wells and Kate D. Chapman. She acted as the director of the American Association of Color Youth and participated in the African Methodist Episcopalian and Unitarian churches. Watkins Harper’s daughter followed her mother’s footsteps by serving her community as an educator and volunteer social worker.

Watkins Harper moved into a three-story Philadelphia rowhouse in 1870. She lived there until her death in 1911 at age 86. She and her daughter are buried next to each other at Eden’s Cemetery in Philadelphia.

As with many writers with marginalized identities, Watkins Harper’s writing fell out of popularity and print after her death. In the 1970s, Black feminists worked hard to restore Watkins Harper’s legacy by republishing her works, highlighting her historical significance in American politics and literature, and presenting her ideas as the predecessors of modern social theories and critiques.

Project on the History of Black Writing Founding Director Dr. Maryemma Graham edited The Complete Poems of Frances E. W. Harper, which the Oxford University Press published in 1988. A collection of Watkins Harper’s prose came two years later when The Feminist Press issued A Brighter Day Coming, edited by Dr. Frances Smith Foster.

The house Watkins Harper lived in until her death is now a historic landmark under the National Park Service.

Poem Text

Very soon the Yankee teachers

   Came down and set up school;

But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,—

   It was agin’ their rule.

Our masters always tried to hide

   Book learning from our eyes;

Knowledge didn't agree with slavery—

   ’Twould make us all too wise.

But some of us would try to steal

   A little from the book.

And put the words together,

   And learn by hook or crook.

I remember Uncle Caldwell,

   Who took pot liquor fat

And greased the pages of his book,

   And hid it in his hat.

And had his master ever seen

   The leaves upon his head,

He’d have thought them greasy papers,

   But nothing to be read.

And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben,

   Who heard the children spell,

And picked the words right up by heart,

   And learned to read ‘em well.

Well, the Northern folks kept sending

   The Yankee teachers down;

And they stood right up and helped us,

   Though Rebs did sneer and frown.

And I longed to read my Bible,

   For precious words it said;

But when I begun to learn it,

   Folks just shook their heads,

And said there is no use trying,

   Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;

But as I was rising sixty,

   I had no time to wait.

So I got a pair of glasses,

   And straight to work I went,

And never stopped till I could read

   The hymns and Testament.

Then I got a little cabin

   A place to call my own—

And I felt independent

   As the queen upon her throne.

Watkins Harper, Frances Ellen. “Learning to Read.” 1872. The Poetry Foundation.


Chloe, the poem’s speaker, recounts when the Yankees, a colloquial term for the Union side of the Civil War, send teachers to help educate Black people recently liberated from slavery. “The Rebs,” abbreviated from rebel and referring to the Confederacy’s supporters, hate the initiative since it defies many southern states’ laws prohibiting Black people from receiving an education and symbolically helps deconstruct the notion of white people being better than people of other races.

In the second stanza, Chloe explains that enslaved people recognize literacy as a liberation tool. Their masters try to prevent them from learning since “knowledge didn't agree with slavery— / ‘Twould make us all too wise” (Lines 7-8).

Chloe then recalls that before the war and freedom, enslaved Black people still pursued the written word despite the barriers placed by white slavery proponents.

The next three stanzas detail how two men circumvent the system and their oppressors. Uncle Caldwell disguises book pages with pot liquor fat and then hides them under his hat (Lines 13-16). Even if his master spotted the papers, he would just see them as greasy papers instead of reading material (Lines 17-20). Ben teaches himself to read by listening in on spelling lessons for children (Lines 21-24).

Chloe returns to remembering the North’s educational missionary work after the end of the Civil War in the seventh stanza. She re-iterates the northern teachers’ effectiveness and the rebels’ anger at rising education rates among freed people (Lines 27-28).

In the following two stanzas, Chloe brings the poem to a more intimate tone when she states she yearns to learn since she wants to read her Bible (Line 29). However, many people discourage her from pursuing her dream since they think she is too old to learn (Lines 32-35). Chloe, on the other hand, views her advancing age and mortality as fuel for her desire (Lines 35-36). She dedicates herself to learning to read. Not only does she get to “read the hymns and Testament” (Line 40), but she also implies her literacy gave her the tools to earn enough money to buy her own cabin (Line 41). Chloe celebrates reading as the gateway to her newfound independence. Thanks to her passion and will, she now feels like “the queen upon her throne” (Lines 43-44).