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Frederick Douglass’ family and the roots of social justice

Frederick Douglass. Just the name alone is enough to inspire us to think of a life lived in activism and an unceasing fight for social justice. But there are other names in the life story of Frederick Douglass that are far more unknown to us, those of his daughters and sons: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Remond and Annie Douglass.

The Douglass family worked tirelessly as civil rights activists, radical reformers, public educators, typographers, printers, proof-readers, business correspondents, officer managers, seamstresses, political campaigners, domestic carers and family archivists. All five children contributed to Douglass’s public career as a freedom-fighter, newspaper editor, orator, statesman, diplomat and author. Living and working for social justice over 150 years ago, the Douglass family have much to inspire today’s activists. Just as women, children and men working for equal rights in 2018 work in collectives and as part of worldwide movements devoted to the freedom struggle, so Frederick Douglass was no lone freedom-fighter. He not only worked as part of official reform organizations but he took inspiration from the activist campaigns led by his children.

Anon., Rosetta Douglass Sprague, n.d. (National Park Service: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, DC.) Used with permission.

Rosetta Douglass Sprague (1839-1906)

Rosetta played a key role in her father’s life as a proof-reader and editor of his newspapers, speeches, and book manuscripts. As not only an antislavery campaigner and social justice reformer but a woman’s rights activist in her own right, she insisted, “The destiny of the race must be decided with the aid of the women of the race.”

Anon., Rosetta Douglass Sprague, n.d. (National Park Service: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, DC.) Used with permission.

Lewis Henry Douglass (1841-1908)

Born in New Bedford in 1841, Lewis Henry Douglass was a printer, typesetter, essayist, orator, historian, civil rights protester, anti-lynching crusader, and Civil War veteran. When Frederick Douglass issued his rallying cry, “Men of Color, To Arms!” in 1863, Lewis Henry joined the 54th Massachusetts combat regiment. He was immediately promoted to the rank of Sergeant-Major and he served a distinguished military career. Writing the love of his life, Helen Amelia Loguen (1843-1936) from the front lines, he was jubilant: “Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war. Should I fall in the next fight killed or wounded I hope to fall with my face to the foe.”

Frederick Douglass Jr. (1842-1892)

Born in New Bedford in 1842, Frederick Jr. had multiple careers as an antislavery reformer, a Civil War recruiter, a printer, a newspaper editor, a civil rights campaigner, an electoral reform advocate, an educational reformer, and a political correspondent. Writing his autobiography, Frederick Douglass Jr. in brief from 1842-1890, Frederick Jr. bore witness to a life lived in terrible hardship. Across his published essays, he refused to succumb to the injustices of white racist hate by denouncing “Southern terrorism.”

Anon., Rosetta Douglass Sprague, n.d. (National Park Service: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, DC.) Used with permission.

Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920)

Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1844 Charles Remond Douglass lived many lives in one. He was a printer, editor, essayist, orator, government employee, Civil War soldier, civil rights campaigner, historian, and political activist. Charles Remond served a distinguished military career in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, with Lewis Henry, and later in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. From the frontlines, Charles Remond revealed that Frederick Douglass’s promise that Black soldiers will “receive the same wages, the same rations, the same equipments” as was “secured to the white soldiers” had not yet become a reality. Instead, he told his father harrowing stories of men suffering from starvation: “It don’t seem to you that are home true that this can be but upon honor it is the truth and to day there are men dying out to camp.” Frederick Douglass listened to his son. From that point onward, he refused to recruit Black men to suffer these body-and-soul destroying conditions at the hands of white persecutory authorities.

Annie Douglass (1849-1860)

Born in Rochester in 1849, Annie Douglass was Anna Murray and Frederick Douglass’s youngest daughter. From a very young age, she was an impassioned antislavery activist and social justice campaigner. On December 7, 1859, Annie wrote a letter to her father in which she protested against the execution of John Brown, the white freedom fighter who had led the unsuccessful campaign to arm enslaved people and capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia in October. Here she lamented: “Poor Mr. Brown is dead. That hard hearted man said he must die and they took him in an open field and about half a mile from the jail and hung him.”

Working together and against a changing backdrop of US slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction, the Douglass family fought for a new dawn of freedom. In 2019 and during a Black Lives Matter era, it becomes even more urgent to recognize that Frederick Douglass’s reform work was made possible not from his own solitary heroism but from his collaborative work with his family.

Featured Image Credit: Untitled (Envelope addressed to Lewis Henry Douglass), n.d. (Walter O. Evans Collection, Savannah, GA.). Used with permission.

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