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Anna Murray Douglass

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 10/22/2020

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” wrote Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer prize winning historian. The quote quickly transformed from her intended meaning, namely—not that all women should be more rebellious—but that history should concern itself with the actions and thoughts of well-behaved women.

The women in this series are often notable for their defiance of convention, their names recorded by those who sought to condemn them. The strength and contributions of the women who married, raised children, and cared for their homes, however, should not be disregarded. The battle for freedom and equal rights has many fronts. 

Documents in Caroline County, Maryland record 17-year-old Anna Murray’s request for her official ‘Certificate of Freedom’ on May 29, 1832. She made this request alongside three siblings, all children of Mary Murray, who had been emancipated in 1810. This emancipation meant all of Mary’s children born after that time, including Anna, were born free. The official documents stating this, however, were crucial: Anna and her siblings wanted to travel, and for Black individuals at this time, to travel without proof of freedom meant the risk of being captured and sold into slavery.

Public Domain

Anna had been born in Denton, Maryland in 1813. In My Mother As I Recall Her, Anna’s daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague wrote, “Remaining with her parents until she was seventeen, she felt it time she should be entirely self-supporting and with that idea she left her country home and went to Baltimore, sought employment in a French family by the name of Montell whom she served two years.” 


The African-American freed community in Baltimore was thriving at this time. They’d founded churches and schools, despite laws prohibiting both. “The free people of Baltimore had their own circles from which the slaves were excluded,” Rosetta wrote, and this was by design of the slaveowners, not the freed population. “If a slave would dare to hazard all danger and enter among the free people he would be received. To such a little circle of free people—a circle a little more exclusive than others, Frederick Bail[e]y was welcomed.”

In this circle of free people, Anna Murray first met Frederick Bailey. “They met at the base of a mountain of wrong and oppression,” said Rosetta, “victims of the slave power as it smarting under the manifold hardships as a slave, the other in many ways suffering from the effects of such a system.”

Anna had been working hard as a domestic servant and laundress. She was earning a paycheck and was financially secure when her romance with Frederick began. Her freedom, and her own money in her pocket, inspired him. As an enslaved worker, nearly all of Frederick’s earnings went to the person who owned him. In Anna he saw that life could be different. 

In 1838, Frederick’s escape from slavery began, encouraged and funded by Anna. He borrowed a friend’s Certificate of Freedom. Anna sewed him sailor’s clothes to act as a disguise, and she paid for his ticket to New York and out of bondage. “The three weeks prior to the escape were busy and anxious weeks for Anna Murray,” according to Rosetta. “...having been able to save the greater part of her earnings [she] was willing to share with the man she loved that he might gain the freedom he yearned to possess.”
In New York, Frederick Bailey became Frederick Douglass and he sent for Anna. She traveled to meet him and the two were married in the home of an abolitionist with another former enslaved man as their officiant. “A new plum colored silk dress was her wedding gown,” said Rosetta. “To my child eyes that dress was very fine.”

Their home in New Bedford, Mass. was furnished entirely by Anna’s saved earnings. The newlywed couple were not idle. Anna continued work as a laundress and Frederick made a living with manual labor, such as carpentry. He also began expanding his work within the anti-slavery movement, gaining attention for his writing and oratory. Four of their children, including Rosetta, were born while they lived in New Bedford. 

Frederick’s renown in abolitionist circles continued to rise. He began to take on speaking engagements, including a tour in England that kept him away from home and family from 1845 to 1847. “He was absent during the years ’45 and ’46,” writes Rosetta. “It was then that mother with four children, the eldest in her sixth year, struggled to maintain the family amid much that would dampen the courage of many a young woman of to-day.”

Frederick sent money home and Anna saved it all, using only her own income to provide for the children. “During the absence of my father, mother sustain her little family by binding shoes,” recalled Rosetta. “Mother had many friends in the anti-slavery circle of Lynn and Boston who recognized her sterling qualities, and who encouraged her during the long absence of her husband. Those were days of anxious worry.” Frederick’s compelling public speaking made him a target of racists and slaveowners. His safe return was never guaranteed.

When Frederick did return in 1847, he relocated Anna and the children to Rochester, New York, where the family home became a hot spot for the anti-slavery movement, serving the Underground Railroad and frequently visited by prominent abolitionists. “Mother occasionally traveled with father on his short trips,” said Rosetta, “but not as often as he would have liked as she was a housekeeper who was wont to stay ‘to keep things straight.’ Her life in Rochester was not less active in the cause of the slave, if anything she was more self-sacrificing... The atmosphere in which she was placed lacked the genial cordiality that greeted her in her Massachusetts home. There were only a few that learned to know her.”

Among the visiting anti-slavery activists were two white women from Europe who stayed with the family for a significant period of time. They both looked down upon Anna and criticized her in letters to family. “Poor fellow!” wrote one of Frederick. “The quiet & repose he so much needs are very difficult for him to attain in his domestic circle.” 
“There were a few who presumed on the hospitality of the home and officiously insinuated themselves and their advice in a manner that was particularly disagreeable to her,” Rosetta wrote. “This unwelcome attention on the part of the visitor would be grievously repelled, in a manner more forceful than the said party would deem her capable of, and from such a person an erroneous impression of her temper and qualifications would be given.” Rosetta acknowledged that her mother was hard to know well, especially in Rochester and outside the warmth of a community she’d trusted. That she was a private person, a discerning and careful person, often and unfairly left her open to gossip and ill words.

Rumors swelled that Frederick was unfaithful to Anna, specifically with the white women who stayed in the home. These rumors may have been true. Likewise, they could also be considered suspect as they played not only into stereotypes about Black men but also worked to undermine Frederick’s anti-slavery efforts at the time. 
Regardless, this criticism from people enjoying the comfort of her home and the gossip about her husband’s relationships with them was another sacrifice Anna bore. At the time, it’s likely that to respond or defend herself would have made it worse.

Modern readers may read much into the fact that, in all of his prodigious works, Frederick never mentions Anna, a person crucial to his freedom and success. “Douglass had made his life story a sort of political diorama in which she had no role,” observed literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates.

Leigh Fought, historian and author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, suggested this omission could be understood within the framework of its era. “Frederick is very circumspect about mentioning Anna [in his writing] because he’s trying to respect her,” she says. “Women weren’t supposed to appear in print. You appeared in print when you got married and when you died. Something had gone wrong in your life if you appeared in print at other times.”

Well-behaved women rarely make history and Anna was a well-behaved woman, beyond reproach and undeserving, by contemporary feeling, of public speculation. All her heroism happened inside and often in necessary secrecy. Rosetta noted, “Being herself one of the first agents of the Underground Railroad she was an untiring worker along that line. ... It was no unusual occurrence for mother to be called up at all hours of the night, cold or hot as the case may be, to prepare supper for a hungry lot of fleeing humanity. ... She was a person who strived to live a Christian life instead of talking it.” 

Anna was also illiterate, a stark contrast to her literary husband, and lacked the formal education he’d acquired with her support. “I was instructed to read to her,” recalled Rosetta. “She was a good listener, making comments on passing events, which were all well worth consideration, altho’ the manner of the presentation of them might provoke a smile.” Anna did not fit in Frederick’s elite and educated social circles. Rosetta noted that her father was gone more often than he was home. This isolation and separation from her husband—
whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or all of them together—would have been a heavy burden to bear while managing a busy household of children, visitors, and people in need.
Rosetta painted her father’s homecomings as joyful affairs. He was “mother’s honored guest. ... Everything was done that could be to add to his comfort.” She took pride in his career, celebrated each newly published issue of his newspaper The North Star, though she could not read it herself. “It was her pleasure to know that when he stood up before an audience that his linen was immaculate and that she had made it so, for, no matter how well the laundry was done for the family, she must with her own hands smooth the tucks in father’s linen and when he was on a long journey she would forward at a given point a fresh supply.”

Frederick Douglass’s work accomplished great things and being his wife came with the benefits of a fine home and comfortable income. The troubles, however, were bountiful as well. Frederick was forced to leave the country in 1859 after being wrongfully implicated in vitriolic abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to start a slave revolt by raiding the country’s arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. The next year, Annie, Frederick and Anna’s youngest child, died at the age of 10. The family home in Rochester, which had been expanded and outfitted year by year to make it a perfect place for protecting escaped slaves and fomenting the next step in the abolition movement, burned down in 1872. Arson was the likely cause for the blaze, which destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of the couple’s belongings, as well as copies of The North Star and Frederick’s writings, lost to history.

With their Rochester home gone, Frederick and Anna moved the family to Washington, D.C. There, Frederick continued his work and Anna continued managing the home, now with the help of eldest daughter Rosetta. In 1882, Anna suffered a series of strokes that left her bedridden. “Altho’ perfectly helpless, she insisted from her sick bed to direct her home affairs. Her fortitude and patience up to within ten days of her death were very great. She helped us to bear her burden.”
Anna Murray Douglass died August 4, 1882 at age 69. “There is much room for reflection in the review of the life of such a woman as Anna Murray Douglass,” Rosetta wrote. “Unlettered tho’ she was, there was a strength of character and of purpose that won for her the respect of the noblest and best. She was a woman who strove to inculcate in the minds of her children the highest principles of morality and virtue both by precept and example. She was not well versed in the polite etiquette of the drawing room ... She was possessed of a much broader culture, and with discernment born of intelligent observation, and wise discrimination she welcomed all with the hearty manner of a noble soul.”
Frederick Douglass died in 1895 and was buried beside Anna in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. “The story of Frederick Douglass’ hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom has been told—you all know it,” wrote Rosetta. “It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”