Known for: her work in educating African American youth in Philadelphia, and for her active role in antislavery work, both in her city and nationally
Occupation: educator, abolitionist
Dates: September 9, 1806 - September 8, 1882
Also known as: Sarah Douglass
Background and Family
- Mother: Grace Bustill, milliner, daughter of Cyrus Bustill, a prominent Philadelphia African American
- Father: Robert Douglass, Sr., hairdresser and businessman
- Husband: William Douglass (married 1855, widowed 1861)
Born in Philadelphia in 1806, Sarah Mapps Douglass was born into an African American family of some prominence and economic comfort. Her mother was a Quaker and raised her daughter in that tradition. Sarah's maternal grandfather had been an early member of the Free African Society, a philanthropic organization. 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.
Sarah was educated mostly at home in her younger years. 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 was educated in that school. She got a job teaching in New York City, but returned to Philadelphia to lead the school in Philadelphia. She also helped to found a Female Literary Society, one of many in a movement in many Northern cities to encourage self-improvement, including reading and writing. These societies, in a commitment to equal rights, were often incubators for organized protest and activism, as well.
Sarah Mapps Douglass was also becoming active in the growing abolitionist movement. In 1831, she had helped raise money in support of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. She and her mother were among those women who, in 1833, founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. This organization became a focus of her activism for most of the rest of her life. The organization included both black and white women, working together to educate themselves and others, both through reading and listening to speakers, and to promote action to end slavery, including petition drives and boycotts.
In Quaker and anti-slavery circles, she met Lucretia Mott and they became friends. She became quite close to the abolitionist sisters, Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké.
We know from the records of the proceedings that she played a significant role in national antislavery conventions in 1837, 1838 and 1839.
In 1833, Sarah Mapps Douglass founded her own school for African American girls in 1833. The Society took over her school in 1838, and she remained its headmaster. In 1840 she took back control of the school herself. She closed it in 1852, instead of going to work for a project of the Quakers - for whom she had less rancor than earlier - the Institute for Colored Youth.
When Douglass' mother died in 1842, it fell on her to take care of the house for her father and brothers.
In 1855, Sarah Mapps Douglass married William Douglass, who had first proposed marriage the year before. She became stepmother to his nine children he was raising after the death of his first wife. William Douglass was the rector at St. Thomas Protestant Episcopal Church. During their marriage, which seems not to have been particularly happy, she limited her antislavery work and teaching, but returned to that work after his death in 1861.
Medicine and Health
Beginning in 1853, Douglass had begun studying 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, an opportunity which, after her marriage, was considered more proper than it would have been if she had not been married.
During and after the Civil War, Douglass continued her teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth, and also promoted the cause of southern freedmen and freedwomen, through lectures and fund-raising.
Sarah Mapps Douglass retired from teaching in 1877, and at the same time discontinued her training in medical topics. She died in Philadelphia in 1882.
She asked that her family, after her death, destroy all her correspondence, and also all of her lectures on medical topics. But letters which she had sent to others are preserved in the collections of her correspondents, so we are not without such primary documentation of her life and thoughts.