On the Life of Black Abolitionist Anna Murray Douglass

*This post is part of our online forum on the life of Frederick Douglass.

Anna Murray Douglass helped Frederick escape from slavery, and continued to support his abolitionist work for the rest of her life (Wikimedia Commons).

“She drew around herself a certain reserve,” Rosetta Douglass Sprague wrote of her mother, Anna (Murray) Douglass, one that “forbade any very near approach to her” by her contemporaries or by modern historians. As the wife of one of the most important men of the nineteenth century, Anna Douglass could not and cannot escape notice for her part in American history. After all, during the forty-four years of their marriage Frederick Douglass lived an extraordinary life, and so did Anna. Yet she had to do so largely in response to his decisions, while also navigating complicated demands upon herself as a working-class Black woman in an upwardly mobile family, as a woman raising five children with a largely absent husband, as a woman subjected to constant public and judgmental scrutiny, and as a woman tasked with much of the unseen labor of fighting racism, sometimes in conflict with her own husband.

Although her husband left three autobiographies, some in multiple editions, Anna Douglass’s reticence, as well as her much-maligned and misunderstood illiteracy, left others to mediate her life and experience. The earliest interpretations of Anna Douglass’s life came through her children, the fullest being Sprague’s 1900 speech to the Anna Murray Douglass chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, “My Mother As I Recall Her.” This memoir, along with speeches delivered by sons Lewis and Charles Douglass in the first two decades of the twentieth century, served as counter-narratives to the one then being created by the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association founded by their father’s second wife, Helen (Pitts) Douglass. The Association portrayed their father as a singular Great Man within an integrated antislavery and Black civil rights movement, but the Douglass children emphasized the centrality of their Black family in supporting his work. They cast the domestic work of their mother as part of their father’s political activism, an interpretation not to be dismissed.

The Douglass children’s depictions of their mother also took place within the context of appraisals that had cast Anna as an unsuitable companion for Frederick. Such evaluations betrayed themselves in abolitionist gossip, haunted the dismissive pronouncements that she was “the choice of his youth” when Frederick remarried a more educated woman after Anna’s death, and tainted assessments of the first Douglass marriage in some of Frederick’s biographies. That a man like Frederick Douglass would not only find something attractive in Anna Murray in the first place, but continue to share a life with her for over four decades, especially without committing adultery, seemed to mystify many. Even gestures to sympathize with Anna, such as imagining her as a member of the all-male East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society or that she read sheet music and played the violin, all in the absence of evidence, carried the implicit expectation that Douglass should have a different sort of wife. Sprague, too, understood her audience’s expectations, depicting her mother as an active member of the Lynn Ladies’ Antislavery Society and a hostess of a waystation on the Underground Railroad, all recognizable forms of activism.

Trying to find Anna Murray, the woman who became Mrs. Frederick Douglass, within this morass of interpretation and her own rejection of attention is a nearly impossible task. Still, while she did not leave her own account of her life, she did impress herself on the historical record. Even if her actions do not reveal her motivations, they took place within a context and served a function in the life of her family that suggests she was far more than the long-suffering woman-behind-the-man than even her children described.

For instance, two of the most noted elements of her life are that she was born free and that she took care of people fleeing on the Underground Railroad. The first as-yet known record of her appears on May 29, 1832, when she and several of her family members, possibly siblings, applied for Certificates of Freedom that would allow them to travel out of Maryland unmolested. Six years later, she helped Frederick Bailey to escape, married him, and together with her husband took the last name Douglass. According to federal law, until English women purchased Frederick’s freedom in 1847, she harbored him as a fugitive. Between 1844 and 1847, she welcomed into her house Harriet Bailey (also known as Ruth Cox), a young woman who had also fled slavery. Through the 1850s, the account books of the Rochester Ladies’ Antislavery Society note reimbursements to the Douglass family in aiding those escaping slavery, and the family also knew Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs. Even John Brown’s diary contains notations of payments made to Anna during his stays in their Rochester home. There he also recruited Shields Green, the Douglass’s handyman, himself having fled slavery. In other words, Anna had lived a life in which freedom was precarious and in which defiance of the law was a matter embedded in daily life.

Likewise, contemporary accounts of Anna Douglass consistently associated her with her home. While women abolitionists had politicized the home through their antislavery meetings, Anna seems not to have participated in any formal reform organization after 1847. Instead, in addition to harboring people escaped from bondage, the fact of her home had its own significance. Anna, after all, grew up amid slave plantations in Maryland with a limited or non-existent education. She went into domestic service in her teens and took in laundry and piecework early in her marriage. These formative experiences all shaped later choices that enabled her to raise a family that could not be broken or scattered, to educate her children, and to ensconce herself as the mistress of her own house. Furthermore, her domesticity signaled the Douglasses’ middle-class socioeconomic status and served as the feminine counterpart to Frederick’s “Self-Made Man.” As a married couple and family, the Douglasses participated in cultural norms denied to them and their families of origin. Their projection of these norms countered the depictions of African Americans in contemporary culture. Anna’s domesticity, therefore, existed within an environment that became implicitly political amid Frederick’s growing celebrity as a Black abolitionist.

That same celebrity also made the privacy that Anna drew about herself important. She had grown up in a place where bodies like hers were violated, surveilled, and judged. As her husband became a national and international figure in the antislavery movement then national politics, their home attracted visitors of all types and for various lengths of time, opening them to criticism. In the most notorious incident, William Lloyd Garrison used information gleaned from one visitor to the Douglass home in an attempt to discredit Frederick by charging him with engaging in an interracial, extramarital affair with his business manager, Julia Griffiths, who had also been a guest in the Douglass home. This spurious accusation pulled Anna into the public eye in a carefully-worded denial, and both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Janet Swisshelm rose to her defense.

Although no illicit affair between Frederick and Griffiths occurred, the Douglasses did disagree over Griffiths boarding in their home, and would do the same when another white woman friend of Frederick’s came for long visits. Privacy , however, allowed them to negotiate shifting marital power and relationships over the years. Anna had brought property and cash to her partnership with the admittedly penniless Frederick, and her labor and financial acumen kept their household accounts solvent in their early years. Within three years of their marriage, his lecturing took him away from home for long periods of time, leaving her to run the household on her own. Even when he seemed to settle into editing a newspaper, Sprague recalled that “Father was mother’s honored guest.” The tension between them over his absences, over the friends that he allowed to visit for extended periods of time, over his intentionally provocative friendships with white women, could be worked out in the private realm. That there were tensions to work out also indicates that Anna had opinions of her husband and their marriage that should at least be recognized as emerging from her experiences even if those opinion went with her to her grave.

Her daughter noted that Anna Douglass did not trust the prejudice of prying eyes, especially white ones, and therefore shunned the attention that came with being married to so public a figure as Frederick Douglass. Inquiring into her life often seems less an act of illumination than an intrusion on this woman who chose only a select few to know her. Yet, this was a woman who lived closest to Frederick Douglass and knew him the longest and through the most dramatic changes in his life and the history of the United States. To ignore her story or to tell hers unfairly in telling his means ignoring the labor of a Black woman in this history as well as the circumstances in which they lived.

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Leigh Fought

Leigh Fought is the author of the award-winning book 'Women in the World of Frederick Douglass' (Oxford University Press, 2017), a biography of the great African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass through the eyes of the women who made his life and career possible. She is an associate professor of history at Le Moyne College, and served as an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence at the Frederick Douglass Papers (Yale University Press, 2009).