September 2019

Iola and Treemonisha: The Artistic Activism of Frances E.W. Harper and Scott Joplin

The poet/novelist Harper along with the composer/librettist Scott Joplin embodied a form of activism that was expressed through the arts, rather than more-overt forms of political rhetoric.

By M.J. Smith

In a scene from Francis E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, the title character is chatting with her friend Dr. Latimer:

Image 1: Pages 262 and 263 in Francis E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted.

As Harper made clear in the voice of her characters, there was a strong need, and ample desire and creative talent, to use artistic expression to address the racial inequality of the late-nineteenth century.  The poet/novelist Harper along with the composer/librettist Scott Joplin embodied a form of activism that was expressed through the arts, rather than more-overt forms of political rhetoric.  Their eponymous characters Iola Leroy and Treemonisha were fictional creations who reflected the critical intersection of two currents of discrimination:  race and gender.  In exploring the lives of their characters these authors demonstrate the role of the arts in antiracist activism. 

In 1892, Harper published her novel, Iola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifted.  The title character is a young mixed race woman who is raised white, but later is sold into slavery.  Harper uses Iola’s experience to address conditions faced by both African Americans and women at the end of the century.  Joplin, well-known as the “king” of ragtime music, published his opera Treemonisha in 1911.  Set in a small Black community and former plantation, Joplin’s libretto recounts how the title character becomes a leader who confronts the old ideas in the new, post-emancipation world. 

Although they are very different forms of cultural expression, both Harper and Joplin had their female protagonists work in opposition to the dominant social ideology of racism.  Both characters were strong women who benefited from and championed education as a means of racial uplift.  Iola and Treemonisha are attractive and appealing characters giving them power to speak against the status quo of racism while entertaining readers and audiences in a comfortable format. Still, the characters created by Harper and Joplin strike out in words and actions against the conditions in which Blacks in general, and Black women in particular, found themselves in the late-nineteenth century.  Equally important, is that both works were the creations of African Americans and they dealt with important aspects of African American life. 

Iola Leroy and Treemonisha were written in and set during a particularly critical time.  The Jim Crow of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries era reflected pernicious attempts to keep Blacks marginalized politically and socially.  By the 1890s there were strong calls for both racial and gender equality, expressed by suffragists and civil rights activists.  Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, and Booker T. Washington are among the most well-known of the activists who used words and organization to call for racial uplift and equality.  Their speeches and writings confronted the problem directly and sometimes confrontationally.  Currents of anger and frustration can be sensed in their work. Frances Harper and Scott Joplin are less well known and they used cultural expression rather than overtly-activist, or “political,” rhetoric to carry their messages.  Nevertheless, both authors helped blaze a trail for later activists who used art and literature to further a cause.

Image 2: E.W. Harper and Scott Joplin.

Artistic activism, as a concept, combines the creative expression of the arts with the transformative power of activism.  The arts call for an emotional or affective response.  The arts can challenge existing structures on an emotional level and “remap cognitive patterns” to provide an opening for questioning power, politics, and social relations.  Although a single work of art or literature can move single person to act, a society generally requires an admixture of imagery, language, music, or performance to create long-term change.  The Center for Artistic Activism notes that artistic activism can be applied in a political regime where more-overt forms of protest are prohibited or restricted. (2) It also works well in a social milieu that frowns upon sectors that might be deemed “uppity” or “rabble rousers” for daring to use confrontational behavior.  Artistic expression generally is accepted or even attractive.  The message may make the powers-that-be uncomfortable, but, as cultural expression, it can attract an audience and open doors.

Frances Harper embodied activism in her life and in her writing.  An ardent abolitionist and suffragist, Harper spoke out publicly against discrimination in both race and gender.  Her activism is evident in Iola Leroy.  As shown in the excerpt above, Iola Leroy confronted the debate over the status of Black Americans in the Jim Crow era.  It was a work of “political intent” that was intended “to promote social change, and to aid in uplifting the Race.”  In Iola Leroy Harper chose to provide readers with a political weapon rather than wield it herself. (3)

Joplin, on the other hand, did not have a strong background in overt activism.  It has been argued that Joplin “wanted to blaze the trail for serious black artistry” while “providing a vehicle for black performers.”(4) Further he helped form and stylize the profoundly important musical genre known as “ragtime.”  According to Earl Stewart and Jane Duran, the composer “sought to create an African American musical expression that would be predicated on African American vernacular style.”  Although Treemonisha is assembled in the form of the traditional Western grand opera, it includes musical forms, folk idioms, and dialect that gives it a “strong cultural essentialism.”(5)

Iola and Treemonisha, as characters, articulate the experiences of Harper and Joplin at a time when both experienced the pain, challenges, and hopes for the future in the upcoming and just-beginning twentieth century. Political statements are minimized.  Language that might offend readers and audiences is mellowed by the warm, attractive characters that express the central messages.  They are romantic rather than radical, sentimental rather than confrontational.  The activism of these authors, therefore, aims at affective responses rather than specific effects, guiding society away from the grim, ugly reality of racism toward an America of equality. 

Neither work is solely about race as both title characters engage gender norms and stereotypes.  Thus, Iola and Treemonisha illustrate the more-recent concept of intersectionality, the crossing of two currents of discrimination.  The works are about two strong and compelling Black women who society attempts to place in subordinate roles in gender and race.  This “gender racism” impinged on the lives of Black women, and likely still does, but has only recently been studied intensively and conceptualized, originally by the critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw. (6)

Although Harper made Iola mixed race (her father was white) she affirms her racial identity as Black and sees those of the race as “my own people.”  She says, “The best blood in my veins is African blood, and I am not ashamed of it.”(7)  Refusing to be relegated to a subordinate role, Iola takes her education and puts it to use as a nurse and teacher.  More to the point, she is described as a “spitfire” for her open, forceful willingness to speak her mind.  Harper chooses to portray Iola in terms of a strong Black woman, who, like Harper herself, confronted the race and gender based power structures of the time.  Although Harper did not have her heroine as politically engaged as the author was herself, neither did she restrict Iola to the limited options that were available to Black women at the time, either in her domestic domain or in the larger community.

Treemonisha, similarly, becomes a leader in her community in rural Arkansas.  Her “success” stems from her education and values, but it results in becoming celebrated by her family and neighbors in a way far less common for women at the time.  Joplin opens the door for a sense of female agency that could have repercussions for masculinity were she a less strong character.  When her community finds itself free of the superstitions and ignorance that plagued them, through Treemonisha’s actions, they turn to her for leadership.  Ann Sears writes that this illustrates “the novel idea of a woman as a community leader.  This is in marked contrast to the typical opera plot of the day and most certainly speaks to Joplin’s belief in opportunities for women….” (8)  The men of the village call on Treemonisha to take them to the future as the break from the past: 

Treemonisha:  If I lead the good women, Tell me, who will lead the men?

Chorus Men:    You, you, you, you, you!

Treemonisha:   Women may follow me many days long, But the men may think that I am wrong.

Chorus Men:    No, no, no, no, no!  (9

Among the tools deployed by Harper and Joplin was culture.  Again, avoiding a tone of reproach, Iola and Treemonisha use dialect, idiom, and other cultural elements that contrast sharply with larger white society.  Iola Leroy moves in and out of the larger white community but with African American community-of-interest providing coherence to the story.  Treemonisha, on the other hand, remains rooted in the Black village with minimal reference to the white world.  Both heroines derive their educations from whites, but assimilation is a choice for getting on in the world and not an acknowledgement of the superiority of the white culture. 

Although the U.S. Library of Congress claims that the opera deals with “the desire to move into mainstream American society countered by the strange pull of the old African ways and superstitions,”(10) a more useful reading might be that Joplin’s antiracist theme reflected the way resilient Black communities could draw on their own culture to combat the marginalization that they experienced. For her part, Harper makes the “wider plea that the black community look toward itself for its future, not toward the assistance and support from or alliance with the forces represented by the various white characters in the novel.” (11)

It is clear, then, that Frances Harper and Scott Joplin were activists who sought to encourage the hopes and aspirations of African Americans.  In doing so they are part of a long tradition of African American writers, composers, painters, quilters, and other artists who used their talents to stimulate our hearts and minds to envision a better world.  At the end of Treemonisha Joplin brings the cast together in the joyous “Marching Onward” number. 

Marching onward, marching onward, marching to that lovely tune.

Marching onward, marching onward, happy as a bird in June.

Sliding onward, sliding onward, Listen to that rag.

Hop, And skip, And do that slow – o,

Do that slow drag.   (12)

M.J. Smith is professor of history at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. Smith holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Florida. Current research and teaching interests include U.S. history with a focus on “fault lines” of race, gender, and ethnicity in American social and cultural relations. Studies include, among other things, the role and place of popular culture and the arts as methods to achieve constructive social change.


(1) Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins, Iola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifted. (Philadelphia: Garrigues Brothers, 1892), 262

(2)  The Center for Artistic Activism, “Why Artistic Activism?”, (accessed Sept. 13, 2019.)

(3)  Carby, H. V., Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. (Oxford University Press, 1987), 62.

(4)  Benjamin, Rick, “Introduction and Analysis,” Scott Joplin: Treemonisha. 26.   (accessed Sept. 10, 2019)

(5)  Stewart, Earl and Duran, Jane, “Scott Joplin and the Quest for Identity,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, (June 1, 2007), 95

(6)  Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the beginning: the definitive history of racist ideas in America, (New York:  Bold Type Books, 2017), 5.

(7)  Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins, Iola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifted. (Philadelphia: Garrigues Brothers, 1892), 208.

(8)  Sears, Ann. “Political currents and black culture in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha.” in André, Naomi, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor, eds. Blackness in Opera. University of Illinois Press, 2012), 103

(9)  Joplin, Scott, Treemonisha, Act 3, Online Text.

(10)  U.S. Library of Congress, “Article:  Treemonisha,”

(11)  Carby, H. V., Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. (Oxford University Press, 1987), 93.

(12)  Joplin, Scott, Treemonisha, Act 3, Online Text.

2 comments on “Iola and Treemonisha: The Artistic Activism of Frances E.W. Harper and Scott Joplin

  1. Perri Zepeda

    Relevant, profound, timeless.
    How true . . . cultural art forms can penetrate the psyche-soul conscientiousness.


  2. Excellent article. Well stated, and well sourced. Thank you for doing the research.


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