As we all know, history is what remains of the past. Sometimes people scream out over the centuries, through diaries and diatribes, while other lives and dates and doings are forgotten, left to the flow of time.
In a world where written record is where historians can most often find a person’s story, Anna Murray Douglass seems very quiet. At that time, the privacy of a woman was of the utmost importance to her reputation, and ladies were expected to only appear in the press two times in their lives: when they married and when they died. Despite being married to one of the most famous men of nineteenth-century United States, Frederick Douglass, she took great measures in keeping her life and household outside of the public eye and maintaining her dignity, a right that was so often denied to Black women in the United States.
Anna Murray Douglass was the first of her family to be born free in 1813. Her parents, Bambarra and Mary Murray, had been manumitted (freed) just before her birth in rural Maryland. When she was seventeen years old, she was living in Baltimore, working as a domestic worker and a laundress.
Anna proved to be resourceful and spent the next few years saving her earnings. Throughout her life, she had a shrewd eye for money and worked hard, making it possible for her to take care of her family, even during the difficult early days after Frederick’s escape from slavery, her husband’s long absences, and the destruction of her home by fire (allegedly arson) in 1872. At the time that she met Frederick Bailey in 1838, he was an enslaved caulker at the Baltimore docks. It is unknown how they met, but based on the number of Black churches and schools and the bustling community of 17,000 free Blacks in the city, there are any number of places where Frederick and Anna could have crossed paths.
Using a freedman’s certificate, a sailor disguise, and a train ticket, all obtained through various means and methods by Anna, he escaped north. As soon as he arrived, they got married. She came fully equipped, with “nearly everything the couple needed to begin their life together: a feather bed with pillows and linens; dishes with cutlery; and a full trunk of clothing for herself.” (Boisseaunault). After a brief stint as the Johnsons, they changed their last names to Douglass in order to evade his capture by the authorities and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
She continued working as a laundress and began learning how to make shoes. Over the next decade, she gave light to five children: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick, Charles, and Annie. For the most part, she supported her family on her own, as Frederick’s income from his job as an orator was unpredictable. Even when he went abroad to London for three years, she saved everything he sent back to the family and used her earnings to run the household and take care of the children. She was an active member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and began opening her home to fugitives on the Underground Railroad.
As Frederick’s star began to rise, he spent more and more time outside of the house, holed up in meetings and events with prominent Black and white abolitionists, many of whom looked down on Anna for not being able to read and write and considered her to be beneath him. Given his stature both on the national and international stage, their home began receiving all manner of guests, including two white women, Julia Griffiths and German Ottilie Assing. Despite opening her home to them, these women seemed to hold her in low esteem, particularly due to what they considered the base nature of her work. Her husband was soon accused of having affairs with both of them.
Whether or not these accusations were based in truth, Douglass was often the target of attacks on his reputation as he was a thorn in the side of white Americans, even some who counted themselves as abolitionists. He was in a bind, as he could not respond to the accusations in defense of his marriage as that would place Anna in the public’s eye, thus undermining the respectability that she so painstakingly cultivated around her family and her home.
Anna Murray Douglass died of natural causes in 1882. She lived a long and full life. Although she was marked by tragedies and immersed in a world where her race and gender put her in the crosshairs of both racism and misogyny, she forged on and built a life in her own home out of the fruits of her own endeavors. By her steady hand and dedication, she ensured that within a generation, her family went from being enslaved to being free and educated, and without her, one of the greatest orators and authors in the nation may never have had the means to be free and spread his word. Anna Murray Douglass may not have left any words of her own behind, but her legacy is clear to see.
If you would like to read a first-person account of her and her life, check out her daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague’s speech, My Mother As I Recall Her.