chapter  1
‘In the Sunny South’: Reconstructing Frances Harper as Southern
Pages 35

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s travels in the South are historic, mapping geographical space and her own sense of “place” as a Southerner. From about 1867 to 1871, she was busy with the work of Reconstruction, volunteering to assess the socioeconomic conditions in the region and to assist freed populations. She visited almost all the Confederate states except Texas and Arkansas, with stops in remote towns and urban areas. She spoke before audiences of black and white Southerners-including former slaves and “Rebs,” conducted smaller seminars for local black women, and shared her message of racial progress and regional politics with Northern readers of the liberal press. Harper’s assignment was similar to other black women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Keckley, and Charlotte Forten (later Grimké): “they had to confront racism [and sexism] . . . that infl uenced their assignments, and that regularly allocated them less salary and their projects smaller budgets” (Brighter 121). Former slaves Truth and Jacobs worked with communities in Virginia and, with her daughter Louisa, Jacobs also traveled to Savannah, Georgia. Forten, whose relatives were among the leading black abolitionists, bravely volunteered for the “Port Royal experiment” of Northern educators dispatched to South Carolina. When the Union army captured Port Royal harbor in 1861, many slaveholders abandoned their plantations and slaves. The federal government and Northern abolitionists seized the opportunity to domesticate the contrabands and make them self-suffi cient. Historians view this project as one of a few “rehearsals” for Reconstruction.1 Forten documents her Sea Island experiences in diary entries from 1862 to 1864, revealing that the Port Royal mission was twofold: it was an early social experiment to uplift the masses and, for a naïve, passionate young woman the “journey south was a physical displacement that, while forging a public exposure of the body, also enabled the discovery of a site of self-authorization” (Peterson 190). Harper went south under much different circumstances than Forten though their trips yielded similar results. The older lecturer and poet returned to local sites under reconstruction, in the guise of a familiar public persona-that of a human rights activist-and reclaims the South as “home” in multiple texts.