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"Then and Now"


A long poem on the history of the antislavery movement, published in 1900 by African American abolitionist, social activist and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was an African American abolitionist, writer, educator, feminist, and temperance organizer. For further on her life, see Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994) and Frances Smith Foster’s introduction to A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (New York: Feminist Press, 1990) 3-40.

“Then and Now,” published in 1900, is a poem that historicizes the abolitionist movement in the United States.  It expresses a consciousness of historical continuity and appreciates the efforts of previous generations in behalf of freedom.  Harper’s poem joins a tradition of antislavery poems, such as Joseph Samson’s “A Poetical Epistle to the Enslaved Africans” (1790) and various retrospective or memorial poems by John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell, that review historical figures and moments of the antislavery movement.  Writing as the twentieth century opened, Harper was one of a dwindling number who had been active in that antebellum movement.  

Harper represents the American nation as fulfilling a divine command, but erroneously through greed, crime and violence against Indians and Africans.  Thus it faced God’s judgment, the Civil War that freed the slaves. (lines 25-32)  The consequence of this historical passage is a nation “Where freedom dwells as a welcome guest.” (48) and “Where haughty tyrants once bore rule / Are ballot-box and public school.” (54-55)  Harper mentions the names of those who contributed to this development through their stands against slavery: Benjamin Lundy, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglas, Gov. John Andrew, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sumner, Abraham Lincoln, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, and the Underground Railroad.  Harper employs recitation of this historical record to call for dedication to similar ideals of freedom in the future.  Her tone is optimistic: for Harper, the end of slavery created a nation where “Our flag floats o’er a country free.” (112)  

- Joe Lockard