“As is the condition of most wives her identity became merged into that of her husband”
Rosetta Douglass Sprague
With all of Frederick Douglass’ vast and enduring contributions to global human rights, it would be easy to consider his spouse of 44 years, Anna Murray Douglass, as the good woman behind the great man. To do so would be to ignore who Anna was before she met Frederick. And fail to recognize that what Anna Murray brought to her union with Frederick was visionary, able partnership that complemented his strengths. Her life is worthy of further study and recognition.
Perhaps the most prevalent (and aggravating) depiction of Anna Murray Douglass is as an unlettered woman – married to the great orator and prolific writer. Anna Murray Douglass may not have been a proficient reader, but her children were extremely well read and bred. If that were the full extent of her legacy as a Black woman born in 1813 Maryland to recently manumitted parents, she would have contributed to a significant shift in her family’s social and economic trajectories. But Anna also built on her parents Bambarra and Mary Murray’s legacy of engendering the pursuit of freedom and personal agency in her children. Raising Black children with pride and paths to self-determination in the hostile environment of racialized violence and oppression was a radical accomplishment of 19th century Black Girl Magic. So, as we look at the life and contributions of Anna Murray Douglass let us relegate whatever she lacked in reading literacy to the minor subtext that it was. It did not and does not define her.
Anna’s eldest child Rosetta Douglass Sprague recognized her mother’s legacy had become eclipsed by her father Frederick’s superstardom and marginalized by intersectional prejudices when she penned ‘Anna Murray Douglass: My Mother as I Recall Her.’ Rosetta first presented this paper as a talk on May 10, 1900 before the Anna Murray Douglass Union W.C.T.U, in Washington, DC. In it she said, “The story of Frederick Douglass hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom has been told-you all know it. It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray, to whose memory this paper was written.”
Anna Murray’s courage and determination were evident as a young woman of 17 years who had the audacity to move away from the protection of her family in rural Maryland to Baltimore where she worked as a free woman of color. An existence which was even more fraught with the added danger of life as a Black woman alone, in a slave state.
Anna became a housekeeper to 2 different families in 9 years and during that time saved most of her wages as she also collected the contents of her trousseau. She must have envisioned a different kind of life for herself early on, one which would require her to set up a household for her own family in a space beyond that of her employers. Maybe her escape North with Frederick Bailey should be reframed as a next step in her personal path to a better future, which began with her move to Baltimore.
Aside from attending to her duties as housekeeper, Anna was a participant in the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, which is where she may have met Frederick Bailey. The society was primarily a debating club for free Black men and women. Assuming she met Frederick there, we can suppose that her intellectual curiosity predated their introduction. She was not following his interests; those interests were shared. Anna Murray seemed to have had the same “hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom” as Frederick. Her actions, if not her words, tell us so.
Many accounts portray Anna Murray as the financier and seamstress who facilitated Frederick Bailey’s escape from slavery. It’s not hard to imagine that she helped conceive of the strategy that led to his freedom, considering the daring she exhibited in her move to Baltimore.
After he successfully escaped to freedom, Frederick Douglass sent for Anna. This was not a relationship of convenience where he would go North and forget her. He wanted her to be with him. They were a team.
After Anna and Frederick Douglass were wed they moved to Massachusetts – living in New Bedford first and then Lynn. In time Anna earned money to keep the family by binding shoes, piece work which she sold to manufacturers in Lynn. She continued to be a deft money manager and her growing family lived on her earnings. Anna saved the money Frederick sent her from his speaking engagements.
Anna Murray Douglass was a member of the Anti-Slavery Society as well as a regular donor. Like her husband Frederick, she was committed to the emancipation of her people. In Rochester, she was also an agent on the Underground Railroad – where she provided food, clean clothes, and a safe place for fugitive slaves to stay on their journeys to freedom in Canada.
Her life in Rochester was not less active in the cause of the slave, if anything she was more self-sacrificing…Being one of the first agents of the Underground Railroad, she was an untiring worker along that line. Rosetta Douglass Sprague
As Anna became more known as a homemaker to the public, she became increasingly isolated and suspicious due to the rampant racism she experienced in Rochester. Public knowledge about her activism was obscured. But the historical record and Rosetta’s paper on her mother reference decades of personal activism as well as financial contributions to anti-slavery causes.
Over the years, the Douglass family helped about five hundred slaves escape to Canada. – Rose O’Keefe
An early advocate of Women’s Suffrage, Frederick Douglass is often called a Suffragent. His enlightenment was said to be influenced by relationships with some of the movement’s founders. But the example of his wife Anna Murray Douglass must have also been a major and earlier influence. She was among the most fearless and independent women in his life and had been so even before they met.
Frederick Douglass is widely considered one of the United States of America’s founding fathers – at least of its more perfect union, post-Civil War. For that reason alone, Anna Murray Douglass is one of our country’s founding mothers. Though her contributions were less well known than our most celebrated abolitionists, Anna Murray Douglass made vast and enduring contributions as well as personal sacrifices of her own.
Frederick Douglass rarely wrote about Anna Murray Douglass during her life, but after her death he poignantly inscribed what she meant to him in a letter addressed to Doctress S.M. Loquen dated August 12, 1882 (8 days after Anna’s death). He wrote, Mother was the post in the center of my house and held us together.
About Rachel Y. DeGuzman
Rachel Y. DeGuzman is the founder and executive director of WOC ART COLLABORATIVE – a multi-generational organization she established with 10 women/femmes of color creatives in January 2019, which in late 2019 has since expanded to include more than 30 WOC creatives with the launch of Affiliate memberships and DreamLab CoWork programs. The Collaboratives’ overarching objective is to foster more equity in the field for women/femmes of color and provide below cost creation and presentation space to its members.
DeGuzman is also the award-winning CEO of 21st Century Arts. The focus of her work is decentering whiteness in arts/culture by centering the art, narratives and voices of people of color – especially women & marginalized LGBTQ+ communities. In fulfillment of that vision, she established “At the Crossroads: Activating the Intersection of Art and Justice,” an initiative presented by 21st Century Arts, in 2017. Her current work culminated from a traditional career in professional arts with the intent to produce work more rooted in both art & community – that values experimentation, innovation, creativity in all its forms, social justice, & equity.
As an extension of her community engaged Artivism, Rachel is the founder, producer and host of UP CLOSE AND CULTURAL, a weekly radio show on WAYO 104.3 FM in Rochester She is a fund and organizational development advisor to The Avenue Blackbox Theatre and as a member of the Rochester Museum Science Center’s 2020 “Inspiring Women” content committee. A 2019/20 VSW Community Curator, DeGuzman is an in-demand speaker, panelist, and collaborator. and Market Apartments at Corpus Christi. She is an active member of the anti-racism in the arts organization – Artists Co-creating Real Equity/People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (ACRE/PISAB).
DeGuzman was named one of the “Rochester 10” in December 2017 by Rochester City Newspaper; a recipient of Geva Theatre Center’s 2016 Essie Calhoun Diversity in the Arts Award (“Essie”); a 2016 ATHENA Award finalist; recipient of Visit Rochester’s “Coach” award; a 2011 New York Emmy Award nominee; and a 2009 D&C “Woman to Watch.”
About 29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History
29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History is an annual blog campaign curated by 540WMain that has a mission to promote and share little known facts about Black Americans everyday throughout the month of February. Now in it 3rd year the campaign highlights the life and work of past and present day Black Americans that are overlooked or underrepresented in our conversations about American history.
540WMain will celebrate its 4 year anniversary with a party and extravaganza on Saturday June 20, 2020. In just four years the organization has become a pillar in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood and a convener and curator of important and vital community conversations, classes, and programs. Your financial support helps us scale up this work in 2020 and beyond with a year long fundraising goal of $40,000