On September 24, 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland to parents who were freed from slavery. Harper was her parent’s only child; not much is known about her father and her mother died when she was three years old. She was orphaned until she was adopted by her aunt Harriet and Uncle Rev. William Watkins; many of Rev. Watkins’ jobs included teaching, head of the Academy for Negro Youth, preaching, shoe making, medicine, and a civil rights activist. Harper was well educated at her uncles Academy for Negro Youth; after graduation she would become a seamstress. Working as a seamstress for a white family she took advantage of her access to the multitude of books and began reading as much as she could. She would soon begin writing poetry which led to her composing and publishing her first book of poems, Forrest Leaves, in 1845. Harper had strong relationships with legendary abolitionist William Still and William Lloyd Garrison which helped her get the best support in publishing and selling her book. She would also become a popular speaker on the anti-slavery lecture tour, her popularity allowed her to earn enough money to contribute to funding the Underground Railroad.
Harper published her second book titled Poems On Miscellaneous Subjects in 1854, which became a very popular book being reprinted a number of times. She published a short story titled “The Two Officers” in Anglo-African Magazine in 1859; this publication would make her the first black woman to publish a short story. Iola Leroy is the name of the book that is considered her first novel which was published in 1888. In 1892 the book was published under a new title, Shadows Uplifted. She used her writings to help bring attention to the social issues the plagued black Americans regularly. Harper would move to Ohio in 1850 and became the first female teacher at the Union Seminary. The Union Seminary was established by the AME Church along with Wilberforce University, which is the first black college in the United States. Harper was able to use her oratory skills once again when becoming a lecturer and member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Her first lecture was so successful that it led to her touring with the society for the next two years, a stint that lasted into the 1860’s.
The abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage were two of the many causes Harper gave her attention to. She was well known for writing her letter to famous abolitionist John Brown and publishing her popular poem “Bury Me In A Free Land”. She refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated trolley in 1858, she became another black woman who was disrespected by white America and forgotten. She was brave enough to make sure she included fighting for the rights of black women in her speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention, in 1866. Usually black women’s rights are overlooked or excluded from the women’s rights fight. She published poems in 1872 titled Sketches of Southern Life which was written to bring attention to the dire living conditions of free blacks.
She became very popular for her activity in many organizations created to help improve the living and social conditions of black Americans. She worked extensively with the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; she believed the organization could manipulate federal power to help her causes. She fought tirelessly for the rights and protection of women, especially black women and became a mentor to influential women such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Kate D. Chapman, Victoria E. Matthews, and Mary Shadd Cary. Harper joined forces with Mary Church Terrell in 1894 to form the National Association of Colored Women. The organization was formed when Harper became disenchanted with white feminist, Frances Willard, because she overlooked black women’s issues for white women’s issues. In 1860, Frances Ellen Watkins married Mr. Fenton Harper and they both lived on their farm in Ohio. Harper was a brave woman who often put the safety of others before her own safety. She would challenge white supremacy as often as she could, with all her might. Harper died in 1911, but left an honorable legacy of elite artistry and social activism. Mrs. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
Mary Eugenia Charles was born on May 15th, 1919 in Pointe Michel, Dominica to parents John Baptiste and Josephine Charles; Eugenia’s family who was considered to be of the black bourgeoisie class. Her father John Baptiste was a successful entrepreneur who started as a small stone mason and farmer, he eventually opened up a successful exporting business where he shipped produce to the United States and Brittan; John Baptiste also owned one of the largest estates on the island of Dominica. He owned The Dominica Co-operative Bank, was appointed to the senate in the Upper House of the Federal Parliament of the West Indies in 1958, and served as the Mayor of the Dominica’s capital city of Roseau. Eugenia would attend the all-girls secondary school the Convent School in Dominica. She would work at the colonial magistrate’s court where she would gain an interest in law which led her to working as an assistant for Sir Alastair Forbes, President of the Courts of Appeal for St Helena, the Falkland Islands and British Antarctic Territories. She attended college at The University of Toronto before moving to the United Kingdom to attend the London School of Economics. Before her graduation college she would become a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.
Eugenia would pass the bar in the United Kingdom then returned home to Dominica to opened her own law firm, this move would make her the first woman on the island of Dominica to practice law. In the 1960’s Eugenia would become active in politics, her first political fight was opposing the islands restrictions on freedom of press. In the 1970’s she was a co-founder of the Dominica Freedom Party, she became the leader of the party from the early days of the party until 1995. In 1970, Eugenia was elected to the House of Assembly and was served when the Island of Dominica gained its independence from Brittan in 1978. During Dominica’s 1980 elections each member of the Dominica Freedom Party was elected to the position they were campaigning for. The party’s very first victory was Eugenia Charles being elected as Prime Minister of the island of Dominica; Eugenia’s election made her Dominica’s first woman Prime Minister, the second woman Prime Minister in the Caribbean, and the first woman government head in the Americas. In addition to serving as Prime Minister she was Dominica’s Foreign Minister and chairperson of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.
Eugenia showed her toughness and resilience when she was able to survive two attempts at a coups d’état. In 1981, Frederick Newton attacked the Roseau police headquarters in an attempt to take control of the headquarters. Newton’s plans eventually failed and he was executed in 1986. Later in 1981, mercenaries from Canada and America joined forces with white supremacist groups and planned to replace Eugenia with Patrick John the former Prime Minister; American federal agents spoiled their plans in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1991 Eugenia was knighted as Dame of the Order of Bath by Queen Elizabeth II at Harare, Zimbabwe during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. Eugenia retired as the Prime Minister of Dominica in 1995, the same year her Dominica Freedom Party lost the general elections. In 2005, Eugenia was hospitalized because of hip-replacement surgery; unfortunately she died from a pulmonary embolism. She was recognized and criticized as the Prime Minister of Dominica, her actions helped the island and she also participated in the United States invasion of Grenada. Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, we stand on your shoulders.
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