Rumors swelled that Frederick was unfaithful to Anna, specifically with the white women who stayed in the home. These rumors may have been true. Likewise, they could also be considered suspect as they played not only into stereotypes about Black men but also worked to undermine Frederick’s anti-slavery efforts at the time.
Regardless, this criticism from people enjoying the comfort of her home and the gossip about her husband’s relationships with them was another sacrifice Anna bore. At the time, it’s likely that to respond or defend herself would have made it worse.
Modern readers may read much into the fact that, in all of his prodigious works, Frederick never mentions Anna, a person crucial to his freedom and success. “Douglass had made his life story a sort of political diorama in which she had no role,” observed literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates.
Leigh Fought, historian and author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, suggested this omission could be understood within the framework of its era. “Frederick is very circumspect about mentioning Anna [in his writing] because he’s trying to respect her,” she says. “Women weren’t supposed to appear in print. You appeared in print when you got married and when you died. Something had gone wrong in your life if you appeared in print at other times.”
Well-behaved women rarely make history and Anna was a well-behaved woman, beyond reproach and undeserving, by contemporary feeling, of public speculation. All her heroism happened inside and often in necessary secrecy. Rosetta noted, “Being herself one of the first agents of the Underground Railroad she was an untiring worker along that line. ... It was no unusual occurrence for mother to be called up at all hours of the night, cold or hot as the case may be, to prepare supper for a hungry lot of fleeing humanity. ... She was a person who strived to live a Christian life instead of talking it.”
Anna was also illiterate, a stark contrast to her literary husband, and lacked the formal education he’d acquired with her support. “I was instructed to read to her,” recalled Rosetta. “She was a good listener, making comments on passing events, which were all well worth consideration, altho’ the manner of the presentation of them might provoke a smile.” Anna did not fit in Frederick’s elite and educated social circles. Rosetta noted that her father was gone more often than he was home. This isolation and separation from her husband—
whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or all of them together—would have been a heavy burden to bear while managing a busy household of children, visitors, and people in need.
Rosetta painted her father’s homecomings as joyful affairs. He was “mother’s honored guest. ... Everything was done that could be to add to his comfort.” She took pride in his career, celebrated each newly published issue of his newspaper The North Star, though she could not read it herself. “It was her pleasure to know that when he stood up before an audience that his linen was immaculate and that she had made it so, for, no matter how well the laundry was done for the family, she must with her own hands smooth the tucks in father’s linen and when he was on a long journey she would forward at a given point a fresh supply.”
Frederick Douglass’s work accomplished great things and being his wife came with the benefits of a fine home and comfortable income. The troubles, however, were bountiful as well. Frederick was forced to leave the country in 1859 after being wrongfully implicated in vitriolic abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to start a slave revolt by raiding the country’s arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. The next year, Annie, Frederick and Anna’s youngest child, died at the age of 10. The family home in Rochester, which had been expanded and outfitted year by year to make it a perfect place for protecting escaped slaves and fomenting the next step in the abolition movement, burned down in 1872. Arson was the likely cause for the blaze, which destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of the couple’s belongings, as well as copies of The North Star and Frederick’s writings, lost to history.
With their Rochester home gone, Frederick and Anna moved the family to Washington, D.C. There, Frederick continued his work and Anna continued managing the home, now with the help of eldest daughter Rosetta. In 1882, Anna suffered a series of strokes that left her bedridden. “Altho’ perfectly helpless, she insisted from her sick bed to direct her home affairs. Her fortitude and patience up to within ten days of her death were very great. She helped us to bear her burden.”
Anna Murray Douglass died August 4, 1882 at age 69. “There is much room for reflection in the review of the life of such a woman as Anna Murray Douglass,” Rosetta wrote. “Unlettered tho’ she was, there was a strength of character and of purpose that won for her the respect of the noblest and best. She was a woman who strove to inculcate in the minds of her children the highest principles of morality and virtue both by precept and example. She was not well versed in the polite etiquette of the drawing room ... She was possessed of a much broader culture, and with discernment born of intelligent observation, and wise discrimination she welcomed all with the hearty manner of a noble soul.”
Frederick Douglass died in 1895 and was buried beside Anna in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. “The story of Frederick Douglass’ hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom has been told—you all know it,” wrote Rosetta. “It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”