Before Rosa Parks: Frances Watkins Harper

Many people consider the 1950s the "beginning" of the Civil Rights Movement, creating a void between the abolition of slavery and Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, a void exists in women's history between the Seneca Falls Convention and the 19th Amendment. The intersection of black and female involvement in both suffrage and civil rights activism offers a view of history deserving exploration. Frances Watkins Harper challenged power structures in the South by talking to free former slaves about voting, land ownership, and education. Both her life story and an excerpt from one of her speeches help to fill the void. Coincidentally, Harper also spent significant time in Alabama and struggled with segregation on public transportation, which makes a brief glance at her life and work an interesting precursor to thinking about Rosa Parks' experience with Alabama public transportation almost 100 years later. 
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to

• read and analyze the rhetorical strategies Frances Watkins Harper used, such as tone, emotional appeal and descriptive language

• write answers to discussion questions based on comments that Frances Watkins Harper made at a women’s rights convention in 1866.

• discuss the women’s suffrage movement, the abolition movement and reconstruction.

Essential Questions
  • How are civil rights and women’s rights similar?
  • How might you describe some efforts that helped build a movement to support civil rights and women’s rights?
  • Enduring Understandings:
    • Civil rights and women’s rights are similar in that they both represent rights that all people should have, regardless of color or gender.
    • People took many kinds of actions to build a movement to support civil rights and women’s rights. These actions included writing stories and articles to influence public opinion; presenting speeches to gain support; and rejecting and resisting unfair laws — for example, protesting laws that dictated where certain people were permitted to eat, go to school, or travel using public transportation.

Teacher/Student Handout (Note: Material for students is on pages 1-3. Page 4 is intended for teachers.)


• impudence [im-pyuh-duh ns] (noun) the state of behaving in an offensively bold or rude manner

• Ku Klux Klan [koo kluhks klan] (noun) a secret organization in the U.S., active for several years after the Civil War, which aimed to suppress the newly acquired rights of African Americans and to support white supremacy

• woman suffrage [wuh-min suhf-rij](noun) women’s right to vote in elections


Suggested Procedure

Part I

  • Explain to students that they are going to analyze part of a speech by Frances Harper, a 19th century black woman activist who, like Rosa Parks, struggled against segregation.
  • Distribute the handout, asking for a volunteer to read the brief biographical description of Harper on page 1. Before distributing, remove page 4 (intended solely for teachers).
  • Ask pupils what they know about the woman suffrage movement and the abolition movement. Record their responses on a board. Students might mention the Seneca Falls Convention, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Frederick Douglass. (Give brief background about suffrage and abolition, if necessary.)


Part II

  • Ask students to read the excerpt from the speech on handout (page 2) independently. Then select members of the class to take turns reading aloud the entire speech.
  • Read the first discussion question to the class and ask students for responses. Record responses on an easel or white board. Ask students to work in three groups. Assign two questions to each group, and ask one student in each group to record the responses. Let one student share her or his group’s responses to the discussion questions. Then have students take turns sharing their responses to the questions. (The responses should include the section of the speech pertaining to each question.)

Common Core State Standards Literacy CCSS R.1, R.2, R.5, R.6, W.2, W.9, SL.4, L.4