Straight Up History is a digital project dedicated to documenting the history of Straight University, one of the first Historically Black Colleges in the state of Louisiana, which later became Dillard University. PRC’s Operation Comeback program is renovating the last remaining structure of the Straight University campus. Read more stories about the history of Straight University here.

On a Monday evening in April 1871, a large group of students gathered at Straight University to hear Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the prolific African-American poet and journalist, lecture on the condition of the United States and the black community before and after the Civil War. The speech, titled, “The Great National Opportunity,” focused on the opportunities afforded through education and enfranchisement for all. An article from the The Weekly Louisianan that reviewed the lecture, notes that Harper advised the students to “…(preserve) not wealth…not fame, but on the foundation of peace, justice, integrity, education and virtue, must we build and elevate ourselves and our race to a higher and better life.” The writer then refers to a wave of anxiety felt by the audience when F.E.W. Harper concluded with a call for “extravagant rights” for women.

F.E.W. Harper was born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland into a free family. As a child she attended her uncle’s academy for free black children, Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. After teaching in Ohio and Pennsylvania for two years, she traveled across the Northeast and Deep South alongside other abolitionists (including Frederick Douglass and William Garrison) to participate in speaking engagements and assist with the Underground Railroad. She was the first black woman to publish a short story. Her numerous collections of poetry, anti-slavery periodicals, novels, and other works of literature were very popular among both whites and African Americans during the nineteenth century. Straight University’s students had the honor of seeing her lecture twice on their campus.

Below is an excerpt from her poem, “Let the Light Enter:”

Heeds he not the gathered laurels,

    Fading slowly from his sight;

All the poet’s aspirations

    Centre in that prayer for light.

Gracious Saviour, when life’s day-dreams

    Melt and vanish from the sight,

May our dim and longing vision

    Then be blessed with light, more light.

F.E.W. Harper was only one of the many activists and intellectuals who lectured at Straight University, making the institution a center for the Civil Rights struggle during Reconstruction.


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