Frederick Douglass, who lived in Rochester after fleeing slavery, delivered his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” on July 5, 1852.
Just days after the anniversary of one of Frederick Douglass’ most iconic speeches, people are drawing attention to the woman who made his work possible.
Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass’ first wife, helped the abolitionist leader escape slavery and supported his anti-slavery work for years, according to historian Leigh Fought, author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass.
“This is real woman-behind-the-man stuff,” Fought said. “I think it’s important for people to remember how much he respected her and relied on her.”
Born free in Maryland around 1813 to parents who had been slaves, Douglass worked as a domestic servant for the wealthy white residents of Baltimore. There she met Frederick Bailey.
Douglass secured the money needed to help her future husband escape to New York where they married and assumed the name Douglass. The couple relocated to Massachusetts, where they both worked with the Anti-Slavery Society.
Because abolitionist work didn’t pay very well, Douglass helped earn money for her family by doing laundry and mending shoes, Fought said. She raised their four children alone, which allowed her husband to take long trips to pursue abolition.
“She’s doing all this kind of unseen work to help keep the money, help keep them solvent while he’s overseas trying to build a career,” Fought said. “It’s not something heroic, it’s something that’s survival.”
The pair eventually left Massachusetts for Rochester, New York, uprooting Douglass’ life once again, Fought said. She maintained their house, which also served as an active hub on the Underground Railroad and provided fugitive slaves passage on their way to Canada.
“That’s pretty tough,” Fought said. “She’s doing things in her everyday life that are defying the law, defying what is expected of her.”
Fought said Douglass’ white contemporaries, in particular, judged her harshly for being illiterate and not being a part of the abolitionist movement in the same way her husband was. Even as her husband became one of the pre-eminent writers of the 19th century, Douglass never learned to read or write.
“Unfortunately an opportunity for a knowledge of books was denied her, the lack of which she greatly deplored,” her daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, wrote in a short biography. “Her increasing family and household duties prevented any great advancement, altho’ she was able to read a little.”
She was also treated unfairly because of her dark skin and Afrocentric features, Fought said.
“Her contemporaries always mention was that she was very black,” she said. “In the parlance of the time…that meant she was not pretty.”
Fought said that although historians used to dismiss Douglass, they are now doing a better job at recognizing her contributions. Although she was intensely private and did not leave much record of her life behind, Fought urged historians to “listen” for her impact on others.
“She made herself known,” she said. “Women’s history has forced people to look at the role that women played in making great men great.”
Contributing: Justin Murphy, Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
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