Anna Murray Douglass

By Elizabeth Clark

Frederick Douglass is a famous Rochester citizen, but what about his wife, Anna Murray Douglass? What is her story? Why has her story been forgotten?

Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became an activist, public speaker, author, and a leader in the abolitionist movement. Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in Maryland, and he became a free man in 1838 with the help of his wife, Anna Murray Douglass. Frederick and Anna moved to New York and had five children together. Frederick and Anna moved from place to place between New York and Massachusetts while Frederick was delivering speeches as an activist in the anti-slavery movement. Frederick and Anna eventually made their way to Rochester NY, where they lived for 25 years. The Douglasses lived in a home on Alexander Street, where Anna helped hundreds of slaves seek freedom in the north as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Frederick gave many speeches during his time in Rochester, making Rochester a focal point in the struggle for the abolition of slavery.

Anna Murray Douglass was one of 12 children born in Maryland; she was the first of her siblings to become free. She left home at the age of 17, went to work, and saved up enough money to help her fiancé escape to freedom. His name was Frederick Douglass. Anna, who was Frederick’s wife for 44 years, has never really been given the recognition she deserved, but she helped make Frederick Douglass the man who is honored today around the world.

Anna was the backbone of the family, she made sure everyone was taken care of while Douglass was away making speeches and doing other abolitionist work. Anna was also in charge of running the underground railroad at the house during their time in Rochester, New York. The Douglass house was very busy, always filled with many guests involved in the anti-slavery movement. The family also hosted and helped over 100 people seeking freedom in the North through the Underground Railroad. Throughout all of this, Anna was more than a housewife; she kept the home alive, running, and functioning.

Anna’s story is not widely known or taught, however she a crucial part of how Frederick Douglass became the man we remember him for today. So why has she been forgotten? Anna never learned to read or write, therefore, there are no written accounts or records by Anna, and Douglass, who wrote several books, chose to keep his life private and her story was never told. Frederick Douglass was very cautious about mentioning Anna in his writing. Perhaps he was trying to respect her and her privacy. For instance, Anna did not like being involved in rumors spread about Douglass by his adversaries. Staying out of the limelight was partially her choice, both to protect her own children and assist with the Underground Railroad, which required secrecy to function.

Anna Murray Douglass died on August 4th, 1882. Throughout her entire life, she always worked in the background and she was often held to unfair standards. But her life also was full of family and a less visible political and social activism. She was free during a time of slavery. She has several children who became educated, and she was married to one of the greatest abolitionists, Frederick Douglass. The legacy that she has left behind may not be known by many, however shining a light on it might be worth doing more. Without Anna, there would be no Frederick Douglass.

Sources:

Nicole Carroll, “We need to honor Anna Murray Douglass, too,” USA Today, 10 July 2020, p. 02A

Lorraine Boissoneault, “The Hidden History of Anna Murray Douglass.” Smithsonian Institution, 5 March 2018

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