Spotlight African American Authors/Artists

Sarah Mapps Douglass

Did you know … Sarah Mapps Douglas (September 9, 1806 – September 8, 1882)? She was an African American educator, abolitionist, artist, and medical student.

Sarah grew up among Philadelphia’s elite, during a time when African Americans were not frequently socially recognized (September 9, 1806 – September 8, 1882). She was born to a prominent abolitionist family, the only daughter of abolitionists Robert Douglass, a baker, and Grace Bustill Douglass, a milliner, and teacher. Douglass’ grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, a Quaker who owned a bakery, operated a school run from his home, was one of the early members of the Free African Society, an early African-American charity organization.

Sarah had an active, inquisitive mind. She received extensive private tutoring. Her brother, Robert Douglass Jr. became a well-known artist. She too excelled in art, as shown in the attached watercolors. She wasn’t fond of being told “no”, and rarely accepted it.

Her family belonged to the Society of Friends (Quakers), and she was raised in that tradition. Though some Quakers were advocates of racial equality, and many abolitionists were Quakers, many white Quakers were for separation of the races and expressed their racial prejudices freely. Sarah herself dressed in Quaker style and had friends among white Quakers, but she was outspoken in her criticism of the prejudice that she found in the sect.

When Sarah was 13 years old, her mother and a wealthy African American businessman of Philadelphia, James Forten, founded a school to educate the African American children of the city. Sarah attended the school, graduated, and took a teaching job in New York City, but later returned to Philadelphia to work in the school there.
Douglass’ role as an activist began as early as 1831 when at twenty-five, she organized the collection of money to send to William Lloyd Garrison to support The Liberator. Douglass also helped with the creation of the Female Literary Society, a group of African-American women dedicated to improving their skills and deepening their identification with slave sisters. She became friends with Garrison and did much to advance both female and black literacy.

The Female Literacy Society (FLS) was formed in 1831. Douglass was one of the organization leaders. The FLS was one of the first social libraries, especially for African-American women. The Female Literary Society encouraged self-improvement through education for both the literate and illiterate and to both the free and enslaved. Education was to challenge white beliefs in the intellectual inferiority of African Americans. Douglass and the women of the Society believed that the “cultivation of intellectual powers” was the greatest human pursuit because God had bestowed those powers and talents. It was their duty as women and African Americans to use those talents to try to break down the existing divides between African Americans and Whites and to fight for equal rights to advance their race.

Douglass herself often wrote prose and poetry, much of it published in “Ladies’ Department” of The Liberator, The Colored American, and the Anglo-African Magazine under the pseudonym Zillah and possibly also “Sophonisba”.

In an address to the Society in 1832, Douglass said, “One short year ago, how different were my feelings on the subject of slavery! It is true, the wail of the captive sometimes came to my ear in the midst of my happiness, and caused my heart to bleed for his wrongs; but, alas! the impression was as evanescent as the early cloud and morning dew. I had formed a little world of my own and cared not to move beyond its precincts. But how was the scene changed when I held the oppressor lurking on the border of my peaceful home! I saw his iron hand stretched forth to seize me as his prey, and the cause of the slave became my own. I started up, and with one mighty effort threw from me the lethargy which had covered me as a mantle for years; and determined, by the help of the Almighty, to use every exertion in my power to elevate the character of my wronged and neglected race.”

In 1833, she and her mother became founding members of the bi-racial Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. She became a vocal and prominent advocate of total and immediate abolition. The Society also promoted the boycott of goods manufactured by slaves and lobbied for emancipation. During these activities, she became friendly with Lucretia Mott, a white abolitionist, female pastor, and women’s rights advocate.

Beginning in 1853, Douglass studied medicine and health, and took some of the basic courses at the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania as their first African American student.
She also studied at the Ladies’ Institute of Pennsylvania Medical University. She used her training to teach and lecture on hygiene, anatomy and health to African American women.

In 1855 she married William Douglass, the African-American rector of African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, a widower with nine children. The marriage was reportedly not a happy one, but she remained married. After her husband’s death in 1861, she resumed her former activities.
Sarah Mapps Douglass retired from teaching in 1877, and at the same time discontinued her training in medical topics. She asked that her family, after her death, destroy all her correspondence, and also all of her lectures on medical topics. However, letters from her to others survived, and the University of Chicago library has a collection – apparently not online.
Sarah appears as a main character in a 2013 play “If She Stood”, which you can watch in full on video here:

She died in 1882 in Philadelphia.

(Source: Brown, Ira V. (1978). “Cradle of Feminism: The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1833-1840”. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 102 (2). JSTOR 2009125, McHenry, Elizabeth (2002). Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham, London: Duke University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0822329956.)