Although she’s often overshadowed by her husband, Anna made his work possible.
by Lorraine Boissoneault via Smithsonian on March 5, 2018
“The story of Frederick Douglass’ hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom has been told—you all know it. It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”
So began Rosetta Douglass Sprague, daughter of Anna and Frederick Douglass, in a speech delivered in 1900 that later became the book My Mother As I Recall Her. It remains one of the few works that focuses on Anna Murray Douglass, in contrast to the hundreds that have been written on Frederick Douglass and his legacy. That neglect is in part due to the paucity of materials available on Anna; she was largely illiterate and left behind few physical traces of her life, whereas Frederick wrote thousands of letters and multiple books. But without Anna, Frederick may never have achieved such fame for his abolitionism—or even escaped slavery.
Frederick and Anna met in 1838, when he still went by the surname Bailey and she by Murray. The daughter of enslaved parents in rural Maryland around 1813, Anna was the first of her siblings to be born free after her parents were manumitted. She lived with her parents until the age of 17, at which point she headed for Baltimore and found work as a domestic helper. Over the years she managed to earn and save money; the vibrant community of more than 17,000 free blacks in the Maryland city organized black churches and schools despite repressive laws restricting their freedoms. When she met Frederick—historians disagree on the when and where their acquaintance occurred, but it may have been in attending the same church—she was financially prepared to start a life with him. But first, he needed freedom.
By borrowing a freedman’s protection certificate from a friend and wearing the disguise of a sailor sewn by Anna, Frederick made his way to New York City by train (possibly spending Anna’s money to buy the ticket, says historian Leigh Fought). Once there, he sent for Anna and they were married in the home of abolitionist David Ruggles. According to Rosetta, Anna brought 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.