A Germantown poet explores the forgotten life of Frederick Douglass’ wife

 A painting of Anna Douglass served as inspiration for the author.

A painting of Anna Douglass served as inspiration for the author.

Germantown poet and lifelong Northwest resident M. Nzadi Keita, an associate professor at Ursinus College, still remembers the day when one sentence from the 1845 “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” leapt out at her as it never had before.

Now her own book is honoring the forgotten woman she found there.

She was teaching at West Chester University at the time and re-reading Douglass in preparation for her course.

Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, and later wrote in his autobiography, “At this time, Anna, my intended wife, came on, for I wrote to her immediately after my arrival in New York, informing her of my successful flight, and wishing her to come on forthwith.”

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Who was this Anna?

44 years of silence, and beyond

“I don’t remember reading that sentence before,” Keita said of that moment in the library. “It leapt out at me. It was stuck in me while I was reading the rest of the book, looking for another mention of this wife that I had never thought about. I got to the end of the book.”

Did Anna Douglass, rarely mentioned alongside her famous husband, die very young? No, Keita found, as she delved into years of research for what would become her second book of poetry, Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the Life of Anna Murray Douglass, recently published by Whirlwind Press.

The Douglasses were married for 44 years, until Anna’s death in 1882.

Keita says the more she thought about Anna Douglass’ life, the more surprised she was that so little information about Douglasses exists in the histories of the American abolitionist movement.

And where it does exist, historians are rarely kind.

Finding Anna

Born a free woman in Maryland to former slaves in 1813, Anna, who actually enabled her husband’s escape with her own money, never learned to read.

“Wives don’t necessarily get credit for much that they do, and they do much, most of the time,” Keita noted.

And when writers did touch on Anna Douglass, Keita said, “some historians spoke about her with a thinly veiled hostility.”

Why the disdain?

Keita is hard pressed to say why, exactly. In her research, she got the sense that “there was a certain annoyance around the fact that she was illiterate.”

Perhaps because of that, some historians imply “she was holding [Douglass] back,” that she lacked political ambition and was too mired in the domestic realm. She didn’t have the social sophistication to mingle with wealthy abolitionist funders.

“People talked around her. People didn’t engage her,” Keita said of her impression of Anna’s life, gathered in scraps in history texts here and there, as well as through a long-forgotten booklet by the couple’s eldest daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, called “My Mother As I Recall Her.”

A working mother

So how could the spouse of a literary and social justice icon be illiterate and all but forgotten by history, leaving behind none of her own writings or letters?

There are several valid reasons for this, Keita pointed out. She was born free, but her family was very poor, with no money for schooling. By age 17, she was working full time as a household servant for a rich family in Baltimore, where she met her future husband at a “benevolent society” formed by free black people for “social and intellectual uplift.”

It was no accident that Anna met Frederick there, Keita insisted. Her attendance there suggests that “she was trying to improve her situation.”

But within a few years of her marriage, she had three young children to care for, a husband who was always on the road, and continued to work full time at grueling jobs to support the family.

Though some historians say that Frederick Douglass, an ardent women’s rights advocate, did attempt to engage tutors for his wife, this was not a woman with a surplus of free time for study.

“She was a striving person, but also reticent, kind of shy,” Keita guessed. “I don’t think she ever imagined that marrying this man was going to lead her into that kind of life.”

From history to poems

Keita explained that “Brief Evidence of Heaven” isn’t a biography, and the poems in it, while they imagine the character of Anna Murray Douglass, aren’t strictly biographical, though they do incorporate a large volume of research, including letters between Frederick Douglass and his sons.

So what was the process for shaping that research into poetry?

Keita emphasized that the collection “draws as much or more from imagination as it does from research.”

“It was a lot of thinking and staring at her picture and reading different things,” Keita added. “I work from a real visual place.”

That meant keeping 19th century photographs on hand and traveling to the cities Anna Douglass lived in to get a first-hand feel for them.

The details of distribution for Brief Evidence of Heaven are still in progress and copies will ultimately be available through Keita’s website. Those interested in obtaining a copy sooner can send the author an email request.

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