In 1831, the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society barred women from joining the organization. In response, a group led by Black suffragists, including Charlotte Forten, Sarah Purvis and Grace Bustill Douglass, formed the Female Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia.
Douglass, a well-known Quaker and an elite Black woman, later spearheaded efforts to gain all women’s fundamental rights.
She counted among those who would sign the Declaration of Sentiments which called for women to have a right to receive an education, own property, divorce their husbands, maintain custody of children and pursue careers.
Born in 1782 in Burlington, New Jersey, Douglass, and her family distinguished themselves as activists. Her father, Cyrus Bustill, the son of slave, worked as a baker including serving for George Washington during the American Revolution while her mother, Elizabeth, a Native American, traced her roots to Delaware.
Already active in free Black communities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Grace married the Rev. Robert Douglass and settled in Philadelphia.
According to BlackPast.org, she and her only daughter, Sarah Mapps Douglass, embraced the Society of Friends and regularly attended Arch Street meetings in Philadelphia where Blacks and whites sat in separate sections – a policy which failed to deter the activism of the Douglass women.
Sarah Mapps Douglass followed closely in her mother’s footsteps, helping to establish the Female Literary Society which among its goals encouraged self-improvement.
Mapps Douglass heavily advocated women’s rights and, in 1831, she raised money in support of “The Liberator” – a newspaper founded by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
Although white Quakers had long ago denounced slavery and had been active abolitionists, many held to segregationist customs.
Grace Bustill Douglass eventually became a member of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women and supported women’s suffrage movement. She also counted as a prosperous entrepreneur, running a successful millinery where she hired apprentices and provided young women opportunities to learn skills and care for themselves. And like her father, she founded a school which her daughter attended.
“We owe everything to our forefathers and mothers. I greatly appreciate their courage, bravery and persistent pursuit for equal rights for all,” said Deborah Pretty, the president of the informational web-based business, PYTalkBiz.com.
“The adage is true if we don’t know our history, we will repeat it. And that knowledge and knowing is power. To know that people that walk, talk and look like us inspires us to keep moving.”
Dana Rubin, of Speaking While Female, a website that features more than 1,600 examples of forgotten, overlooked and hard-to-find speeches and testimony by women, said she’s always been impressed with women like Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells and others because of how hard they fought for women’s rights.
“In particular, I’ve become fascinated by the overlooked history of African-American women in the suffrage moment,” Rubin noted. “Black women did speak out proudly and persuasively for the vote, and their words, arguments, and voices deserve to be included in the history books.”
Douglass, whose devotion to education, activism and reform remains legendary, died March 9, 1842.
This feature is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement initiated by Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes. It lives in the institutional home of The Washington Informer Charities.