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(1875) Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “The Great Problem to be Solved”

After the Civil War Frances Ellen Watkins Harper worked among African Americans as a representative of the Womens Christian Temperance Union. From her new position Harper publicized the violence and intimidation in the South directed at the freedpeople. She argued African Americans must organize to complete the work of Reconstruction rather than relying on political parties or organizations. To that end black women must play an important role in these crucial efforts.

On April 14, 1875, Harper delivered an address in Philadelphia at the Centennial Anniversary of the nation’s oldest abolitionist society, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery outlining the work yet to be done in the cause of African American freedom. That speech appears below.

Ladies and Gentlemen: The great problem to be solved by the American people, if I understand it, is this: Whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people but lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom; and upon the right solution of this question depends in a large measure the future strength, progress and durability of our nation. The most important question before us colored people is not simply what the Democratic party may do against us or the Republican party do for us; but what are we going to do for ourselves? What shall we do toward developing our character, adding our quota to the civilization and strength of the country, diversifying our industry, and practicing those lordly virtues that conquer success and turn the worlds dread laugh into admiring recognition? The white race has yet work to do in making practical the political axiom of equal rights and the Christian idea of human brotherhood; but while I lift mine eyes to the future I would not ungratefully ignore the past. One hundred years ago and Africa was the privileged hunting ground to Europe and America,

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