#6 Sarah Mapps Douglass and Her Gifts to Quakers and Her African American Sisters

Last week I shared with you stories about Paul Cuffe, black sea captain, businessman, philanthropist, and Pan Africanist. As I reread the post, I think of so many other things I wanted to say. Perhaps, another post will fill in those gaps.

Today’s post is about a woman, so often not known by modern day Quakers, much less the rest of America, Sarah Mapps Douglass. Even many of the Philadelphia Quakers I contacted scratched their heads. Unlike Paul Cuffe, Sarah Douglass was not an active member of a Quaker meeting, asked to serve on committees, or participate as a speaker at yearly meeting. She did attend Meeting for Worship nearly every Sunday from her childhood well into her adulthood. Her gift to white Quakers of her day was to speak her Truth about who they were and how the way they as a group treated her was hurtful and hypocritical. That was a mark of courage and forgiveness most of us as 21st century Quakers are just now struggling to deal with.

Sarah Douglass was born in 1806 in Philadelphia, PA, the daughter of Robert and Grace Douglass, members of the free, black middle class of that city. Her mother ran a milliner’s shop on Arch St. Her father from St. Kitts was a barber. Her grandfather was Cyrus Bustill, a former slave, married to a Native American. Both of her grandparents had Quaker connections and had attended meetings most of their lives. They were never asked to join. Cyrus was a leader in the Philadelphia black community and one of the founders of the Free African Society, an aid organization that led to the foundation of the African Episcopal Church by Richard Allen. Her mother Grace was active in the abolitionist movement and one of the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. She was also a teacher and a founder of a school for African American girls, started with help from James Forten, a wealthy black businessman of the city.

Tutored at home and in the school started by her grandfather after his retirement as a baker, Sarah Douglass taught at her mother’s school, spent several years as a teacher in New York, returned to Philadelphia to start her own school, and then merged that school with the Institute for Colored Youth. She was appointed the head of the primary department and remained there until 1877. She believed education should be open to black women, slave or free. To this end, she started the Female Literary Society which met every Tuesday for “mutual improvement in moral and literary learning.” In addition, she wrote poetry and prose and was a recognized painter, especially of flowers that decorated many of her letters and other writings. Some of her writing was published under two pen names, Zillah and Sophanista, in African American publications of the day.

In 1832, Sarah Douglass had an epiphany and felt she had come out of the lethargy of the black elite to fight the injustices of enslaved women. She threw herself into the activities of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS), petitioning for the end of slavery in Washington, DC, calling for a boycott of slave goods, and working for the end of the slave trade. She took classes at the Female Medical College of PA as the first black student and used her knowledge to run courses for poor black women in the evenings, courses in physiology, personal hygiene, and diseases. Since many of her students were not literate, she used mannequins to teach anatomy and care for their bodies. When she was not teaching, she served on many committees, raising money for welfare donations within the community, supporting William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, and furthering anti-slavery conventions and activities.

She had many friends among the white women members of the PFASS and was often invited to their homes for meetings and social occasions. They loved her delicate paintings that often adorned correspondence back and forth. They enjoyed her manner of presenting her thoughts honestly and appreciated her work for those less fortunate. They respected her teaching skills and her open heart. Angelina and Sarah Grimke were those to whom she poured her deepest thoughts and feelings about her personal life and her discontent with Quakers. Sarah Douglass had watched her mother Grace sit on the “back bench” of the Quaker meeting houses, separated from the other worshipers. As a little girl of six or seven, Sarah was angered by looking at the white Quakers sitting at the ends of this bench and hearing over and over her worship spot called, “the place for colored people” or “the black bench.” One day, she was driven to tears when she heard that her mother had been told not to apply for membership as she would be refused due to her skin color and her feelings would be hurt. Another time, Grace was asked to walk behind a funeral procession with two black servants while the white Quaker women rode in carriages. Later, Sarah would confess that as a child she hoped that the meeting house would fall down so she and her mother would not need to go. While teaching in New York, she was asked by the only white person who spoke to her at the meeting for worship if she did housework. These indignities weighed on her soul. When one of the Grimke chose to sit with her on the back bench, she was chastised.

As an adult in 1833 Sarah took a break from the Sunday service, but would still leave her teaching tasks for the morning midweek meeting for worship. She cherished the silence and listening for the still small voice within. She shared her frustrations with her friends the Grimke sisters, who were not happy with their fellow Quakers and encouraged her to speak out. At a request from William Bassett, Sarah Douglass wrote about the incidents of discrimination she and her mother had suffered and about the terrible emotional stress on her brother which contributed to the illness that would take his life. She refused to give individual names as she feared reprisal, but also expressed forgiveness. Her letter was printed but not published in the US. The Grimkes, however, wrote a letter to Elizabeth Pease that was published. The response from the Quaker community was almost complete silence. Change did not occur during Sarah Douglass’ lifetime, but she gave the Quaker community a gift of truth that is only recently begun to be appreciated.

Margaret Hope Bacon gave a lecture at Pendle Hill in 2016 about Sarah Mapps Douglass and the move among Quakers to deal with white privilege and the race question in today’s monthly meetings. The Friends Journal has had a recent issue dealing with this movement. At a symposium in Westport MA on the 100th anniversary of Paul Cuffe’s death, Vanessa Julye, co-author of Fit for Freedom Not for Friendship, spoke about the history of Quakers and the African American community and the need for the former to develop a real relationship with the latter, not carry on the myths of a past of good works but non-relationship.

I am hopeful as I sit in the library at Friends Community School, watching the diverse students pass in the halls, interacting with each other as children are wont to do, open and spontaneous. I look forward to next September when Angela Garcia, a black educator, will take over from a beloved Larry Clement. I smile as I access African American poetry books into the 7/8th grade library collection. We are taking baby steps forward.

Questions for consideration:

  • What do you think Philadelphia was like when Sarah was born in 1806, 30 years after the Revolutionary War? Find some books in the library about the new United States of America.
  • Sarah’s mother Grace was a milliner, a make of hats. Read Thee Hannah by Marguerite de Angeli and see how Hannah felt about her Quaker bonnet and its plainness. How did she want it to look? What happened in the story to change her mind? Talk about something she wanted to wear and why and if you changed your mind.
  • Why was Sarah Douglass so unhappy with her Quaker meeting? Do things happen at your school or church that are hurtful to you because of who you are? Can you speak your truth as Sarah did?
  • What changes do you think should be made to help get rid of injustices in your communities? How can you be a part of those changes?
  • Why is hope so important to all of us?

Resources:

  • There is one YouTube video on Sarah Mapps Douglass done by Colgate University in 2015.
  • A Curriculum written by members of Princeton Friends Meeting on Paul Roberson, Douglass’ grand nephew, has a chapter on the Bustill and Douglass families that has information and classroom suggestions on Sarah Mapps Douglass.
  • Margaret Hope Bacon’s lecture at Pendle Hill in 2016 is available through FGC Books and Pendle Hill.
  • Books such as Philadelphia Quakers and the Anti-Slavery Movement by Brian Temple

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