Anna Murray Douglass has been overshadowed by her husband, Frederick Douglass.
A well-known abolitionist and preacher known for his command of language and prose, Douglass remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-established fight against the practice of slavery in America.
Much has been written about Douglass, who himself penned down his accomplishments in thousands of books and letters. The same cannot be said of Anna, a woman who could barely read and write and who didn’t leave behind a lot of physical traces of her life.
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Yet, her work in the background made it possible for Douglass to achieve his hopes and aspirations, and even his desire for freedom.
Born free in Maryland in 1813, and five years older than Douglass, Anna was one of 12 children born to Bambarra and Mary Murray. While a teenager, she worked as a domestic servant for white homes in Baltimore and even though she didn’t learn to read and write, she often liaised with the city’s improvement societies.
At the time she met Douglass in 1838 – historians disagree on where they actually met – Anna had managed to earn and save money from her work as a domestic helper.
The two were ready to start a life together but Douglass, who was then Frederick Bailey, first needed freedom. Douglass hatched a plan with Anna – he would hop aboard a railroad train heading north disguised as a free black sailor.
According to accounts, Anna sold many of her belongings to help Douglass buy train tickets for his escape. It is said that she also sewed the sailor uniform he wore to disguise himself and helped him get the necessary items to start a household.
Once Douglass reached his destination in New York City, he wrote for Anna to join him and the two got married in the home of abolitionist David Ruggles. The two moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, first using the last name of Johnson before changing it to Douglass to divert the trail of slave-catchers in the North.
Helping to get the necessary items for their home, Anna and Douglass worked menial jobs to maintain the home until she started having children. While in New Bedford, she gave birth to four children – Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Charles Remond, and Frederick Douglass Jr.
Soon, Douglass got deeply involved in the abolition movement, and this compelled him to travel widely to give speeches, including spending two years in Europe from 1845 to 1847.
Left alone to take care of the family, Anna saved everything Douglass sent back home and used her own income from her work at local shoe factories to support the family.
When Douglass returned from England in 1847, he moved the family to Rochester, New York, where their home became part of the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves and a meeting point for scores of members of the anti-slavery movement.
At the same time, Douglass had begun publishing his newspaper, The North Star. His speaking tours for various abolitionist groups took him away from home, and Anna, with four children, had to not only take care of the home but to also cater to the runaway slaves.
As a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she provided these runaways with food and temporary accommodation, and sometimes consultation.
Anna faced more difficulties as her husband gained more fame as an abolitionist. Along the way, she even had to host most of the white associates of Douglass in the home. Including the likes of English woman Julia Griffiths, who helped with The North Star, most of these white colleagues of her husband spoke ill of her and felt she was no match for Douglass.
“They say she held the household together, but there was so much more to it than that,” Rose O’Keefe, author of Frederick & Anna Douglass in Rochester, NY, who believes Anna doesn’t get the kind of treatment she deserves, said.
“It was a tough role, a very tough role.”
Then there were reports of her husband’s liaisons with other women, which many historians believe were just rumors to discredit the work of Douglass as an abolitionist.
But Anna’s worst moments may have been from 1859 when Douglass was forced to flee the country to avoid being arrested over allegations that he was involved in John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid.
The following year, Anna lost her youngest daughter at the age of 10, and the family home in Rochester was also burned down in 1872. Losing more than $4,000 worth of goods in the fire and some of her husband’s publications, Anna and Douglass moved to Washington, D.C.
There, Douglass continued his work while Anna lived an isolated life even though she sometimes got support from her daughter Rosetta and some relatives and grandchildren in managing the home.
In the latter years of her life, she was often in poor health and died of stroke in 1882 at the family home in Washington D.C.
Years after her death, Rosetta would tell of her mother’s “unswerving loyalty” in a 1900 speech that later became the book My Mother As I Recall Her.
It is still one of the few works that focuses on Anna’s life, and though she received little mention in Douglass’s autobiographies, the famed abolitionist once highlighted some of the immeasurable support he received from his wife in their early years together.
“Instead of finding my companion a burden,” he wrote in a letter to one of his former owners, “she was truly a helpmeet. She went to live at service, and I to work on the wharf, and though she toiled hard the first winter, we never lived more happily.”