[Blackstudies-l] The Backstory: We need to honor Anna Douglass, too

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Fri Jul 10 08:39:26 EDT 2020

Anna Murray Douglass has been largely overlooked by history, but she made
her husband's achievements possible. Journalists can lift up such stories.
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[image: usatoday.com]

The Backstory

Friday, July 10
[image: Anna Murray-Douglass]
The Backstory: We need to honor Anna Douglass, too
Anna Murray Douglass has been largely overlooked by history, but she made
her husband's achievements possible. Journalists can lift up such stories.


*I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory,
insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The
Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Her name was Anna Murray Douglass. One of 12 children, her parents were
enslaved on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She left home at 17 to work as a
domestic helper. She saved enough money to help her fiance, Frederick,
escape slavery and start a new life.

We were discussing the immense work and legacy of Frederick Douglass at our
morning news meeting this week when editor Anika Reed spoke up about the
lesser-known Anna Murray Douglass.

Frederick's wife of 44 years doesn't get enough credit
making his accomplishments possible, Reed said.

She's absolutely right.

The social chatter about Anna grew over the holiday weekend when we
remembered her husband's famous speech of July 5, 1852, "What to the Slave
is the Fourth of July?"
But this is a conversation that started at least as far back as 1900, when
their daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague delivered a speech about Anna that
later became the paper, "My Mother as I Recall Her."

"Her courage, her sympathy at the start was the mainspring that supported
the career of Frederick Douglass," Sprague wrote. "As is the condition of
most wives her identity became so merged with that of her husband, that few
of their earlier friends in the North really knew and appreciated the full
value of the woman who presided over the Douglass home for forty-four

Anna was born in rural Maryland around 1813. She was the eighth of 12
Sprague wrote, the first of her siblings born after her parents became free.

She met Frederick Bailey, who was still enslaved, in Baltimore. He had been
hired out to work there. He too was from Maryland's Eastern Shore. Anna
saved enough money to help Frederick escape to New York, wearing a sailor's
sewed for a disguise. They were married, changed their name to Douglass
and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they
began their abolitionist work.
Frederick was often gone for long periods of time, Sprague recounted: "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."

It was also dangerous, as Frederick had escaped slavery and Anna had helped
him. They could be pursued at any time.

Anna helped support the family by binding shoes and taking in laundry.

Sprague wrote that her father admired her mother's financial management:
"During his absence abroad, he sent, as he could, support for his family,
and on his coming home he supposed there would be some bills to settle."
But when he would return, Anna would show him the bank book with his
earnings deposited as well as hers. There were no debts.

The family eventually settled in Rochester, New York, where Frederick ran
the North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper, and continued his travels.
Anna's house was busy, hosting guests in the anti-slavery movement
and helping at least 100 others seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.
David Blight won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History
for his book, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom." He says Anna "was
more than a helpmate. She was the person who kept the home alive."

"Of course she deserves credit," Blight says, "tremendous credit, making
possible his constant travel, making it possible for him to go on the road
and make a living as best he could."

So why don't we know more about her? "It's the silence of Anna," he says.
She didn't read or write, so there are no letters to her or by her. What we
know, we know mainly from remembrances of her children.

Anna and Frederick grew up three miles from each other, Blight says. When
they met in Baltimore as young adults, he imagines but can't prove that
"they must've just smiled and started talking about mutual cousins, where
they grew up, and 'did you know so and so.' They had a lot in common."

Anna helped Frederick escape to New York, and followed a week later. "She
was just as brave as he was to make that journey," Blight says.

Over time, as Frederick developed his career as a preeminent writer,
speaker and newspaper editor, Anna managed the home.

"She had to establish herself, fight for her own kind of space, no doubt,"
Blight says. "She had to gain respect and the way she could was by running
that household. And his many, many absences, no doubt that had to have been
a great struggle for her."

She was very private, he says, but was known for her garden and her
"Maryland biscuits."

Anne raised five children. Her youngest and namesake, Annie, died just
before her 11th birthday.
would have 21 grandchildren, Blight said, many of whom died early as well.

"In her own right, if we could ever get even closer to Anna," he says,
"this must have been a very substantive woman."
When Reed saw the social media discussion about Anna, she started racking
her brain. "Did I know about her?" she wondered. She felt "almost
embarrassed" that she didn't.

"To have this Black woman serve as such a major support system, and the
vehicle for him to be the leader he became, it was fascinating that her
story isn't more told, but not surprising, unfortunately," Reed said.

She pointed out that we still see women, Black women in particular, and
people from marginalized communities be hidden from history.

"But it's something we (as journalists) have the opportunity to fix," she

"There is always more to the story."

There is certainly more to the Frederick Douglass story.

Her name was Anna Murray Douglass.

*Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at
EIC at usatoday.com <EIC at usatoday.com> or follow her on Twitter here.
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