African American Abolitionist and Teacher
Sarah Mapps Douglass was born in Philadelphia on September 9, 1806, the daughter of renowned abolitionists Robert Douglass, Sr. and Grace Bustill Douglass. Like many prosperous families, the Douglasses educated Sarah and her brother Robert at home with private tutors.
Image: Sarah Mapps Douglass: Faithful Attender of Quaker Meeting: View from the Back Bench by Margaret Hope Bacon
Sarah’s grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, was a member of the Free African Society, the first African American charity organization. In 1803, he established a school for black children in his home.
The Douglasses were among several free black families who formed the core of Philadelphia’s abolitionist movement. Grace Bustill Douglass ran a millinery store out of her home and provided aid for poor blacks. Robert Douglass, Sr., a hairdresser, was one of the founders of Philadelphia’s first African Presbyterian Church.
Raised as a Quaker by her mother, Douglass was alienated by the blatant racial prejudice of many white Quakers. Her concern with discrimination within the Religious Society of Friends began when she was a child, and observed that her mother was asked to sit either under the stairs or on a back bench at the nearby Arch Street Meeting.
I remember well, wishing, (with the foolishness that is bound in the heart of child) that the meeting house would fall down, or that Friends would forbid our coming, thinking then that my mother would not persist in going among them.
Although she adopted Quaker dress and enjoyed the friendship of Quaker antislavery advocates like Lucretia Coffin Mott, she was highly critical of the sect. Her mother continued to attend, but Sarah eventually stopped.
Around 1827 Sarah Mapps Douglass established a school for black children. She also was an active abolitionist and joined her mother as a founding member of the bi-racial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Sarah served on the Society board of directors, the committee on annual fairs, the education committee, and as librarian and corresponding secretary.
Throughout the 1830s Douglass wrote poetry and prose under the pseudonyms Sophanisba and Ella. Her writings – on the blessings of religion, the prospect of divine retribution for the sin of slavery, the evils of prejudice and the plight of the slave – were published in various antislavery journals, including the Liberator, the Colored American, the Genius of Universal Emancipation and the National Enquirer and Constitutional Advocate of Universal Liberty.
The Douglass family forged social and political networks with both black and white abolitionists. Sarah maintained a long and close friendship with Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimke, daughters of South Carolina slaveholders. The Grimkes had joined the abolitionist movement within the Philadelphia Quaker community in the early 1830s.
At the urgings of the Grimke sisters, Sarah attended the Antislavery Convention of American Women in New York in 1837. This was the first national convention of American antislavery women to integrate black and white members.
When Angelina Grimke and Theodore Weld, a prominent abolitionist, were married in May 1838, Douglass and her mother were among the guests at the wedding. Two days later, a mob burned down Pennsylvania Hall, the state antislavery society’s headquarters, and set fire to the Shelter for Colored Orphans.
During the 1830s and 1840s Douglass was beset by financial problems. Her school never operated at a profit, and in 1838, deciding she could no longer accept the financial backing of her parents, she asked the Female Anti-Slavery Society to take over the school. The experiment proved unsatisfactory, however, and in 1840 she resumed direct control of the school, giving up a guaranteed salary for assistance in paying the rent.
Sarah Grimke, fourteen years older than Sarah Douglass, eventually became her confidante. After her mother died in 1842 Douglass became an unpaid housekeeper for her father and brothers. Grimke sympathized with her: “Worn in body & spirit with the duties of thy school, labor awaits thee at home and when it is done there is none to throw around thee the arms of love.”
In 1852, now reconciled with the Quakers, she closed her school and accepted an appointment to supervise the Girls’ Preparatory Department of the Quaker-sponsored Institute for Colored Youth. From 1853 to 1877 she served as principal of that department.
During this time, she also acquired basic medical training at the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania and at Pennsylvania Medical University, – subjects on which she lectured in evening classes and at meetings of the Banneker Institute.
In 1855 Sarah married the Reverend William Douglass, rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and a widower with nine children. Her marriage was short-lived and apparently unhappy.
A cause Douglass had long championed was the education of women on health issues. In 1855 she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Medical University, where she studied female health and hygiene. In 1858 she embarked on a career as a lecturer, confronting topics that would have been considered unseemly for an unmarried woman to address. Her illustrated lectures to female audiences in New York City and Philadelphia drew praise for being both informative and “chaste.”
Douglass repeatedly stressed the need for African American women to educate themselves. In 1831 she had helped organize the Female Literary Association of Philadelphia, a society whose members met regularly for “mental feasts,” and on the eve of the Civil War she founded the Sarah M. Douglass Literary Circle.
After William died in 1861, Sarah referred to her marriage as “that School of bitter discipline, the old Parsonage of St. Thomas.” She devoted her time to antislavery activities and continued teaching. Throughout her abolitionist career, Sarah also contributed to both the Liberator and the Anglo-African Magazine, became a fundraiser for the black press and gave numerous lectures.
After the Civil War, she became a leader in the Pennsylvania Branch of the American Freedman’s Aid Commission, which worked to protect and provide services to the former enslaved in the South.
Through the 1860s and 1870s Douglass continued her work of reform, lecturing, raising money for Southern freedmen and women, helping to establish a home for elderly and indigent black Philadelphians and teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth.
Sarah Mapps Douglass died in Philadelphia in September 1882.
As a teacher, a lecturer, an abolitionist, a reformer and a tireless advocate of women’s education, Douglass made her influence felt in many ways. Her emphasis on learning and self-improvement helped shape the lives of the many black children she taught in a career that spanned more than 50 years, while her persistent criticism of northern racism reminded her white colleagues in the abolitionist movement that their agenda must include more than the emancipation of the slaves.
Sarah Mapps Douglass
Humanities and Social Sciences Online MSU.edu, Paula C. Barnes: Sarah Mapps Douglass