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Rosetta Douglass Sprague on the Responsibilities of Educated African American Women - 1902

From Jone Johnson Lewis,
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Essay by Rosetta Douglass Sprague 1902

This essay is reprinted from Twentieth Century Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp (Dr. Daniel Wallace Culp), published 1902.  The biographical sketch of Rosetta Douglass Sprague (daughter of Frederick Douglass) is presumably written by Culp.  Related articles on this site include:


What Role Is the Educated Negro Woman to Play in the Uplifting of Her Race?

BY Mrs. R.D. Sprague.

The subject of this sketch was born in New Bedford, Mass., June 24, 1839. She is the oldest child and the only living daughter of the late Frederick Douglass. At the age of five years she moved with her parents to Lynn, Mass., where the first narrative of Frederick Douglass, written by himself, was published. Its publication attracted widespread notice and stirred the ire of slaveholders in the vicinity from which he escaped. His many friends fearing for his safety arranged to send him abroad.

His wife has often told of the demonstrative and enthusiastic young father catching up his infant daughter and fervently thanking God that his child was born free and no man could separate them. Among the many friends who were solicitous for the family were two maiden ladies, Abigail and Lydia Mott of Albany, New York, who were cousins of Lucretia Mott, the well-known philanthropist and friend of the Negro. These women, who conducted a lucrative business on Broadway, opposite Bleeker Hall, were also staunch Abolitionists. Being anxious for the welfare of the little six-year-old daughter of Douglass, they sought the privilege of caring for her while the father was abroad. The wife and three sons remained at their home in Lynn during the father's absence. Mrs. Sprague has frequently spoken of her stay with the Motts, who were in good circumstances, and with their one servant lived in comfort. Their little charge was amply provided for, and was made contented and happy. She had a time for play and a time for study. Miss Abigail gave her instruction in reading and writing and Miss Lydia taught her to sew.

At the age of seven Rosetta wrote her first letter to her father, and when her eighth birthday had passed she made a shirt to give him on his return from England. At this early age the child was painfully conscious of the trials and misery resulting from slavery. Many slaves had sought and obtained shelter with the Motts, and the anxious moments of their stay made a deep impression on her childish mind.

After the establishment of the "North Star," by her father in Rochester, N. Y., in 1847, the family were reunited in that place, a governess secured and for several months the children pursued their studies at home. Later the father was convinced that as he was a taxpayer he ought to avail himself of the privilege of the public schools: and, accordingly, sent his sons there. But the little daughter was sent to a private school but recently opened for girls. Tuition was paid in advance, the little girl was sent, but never saw the inside of the school-room nor met any of the pupils. Finally she with her brothers attended the public schools until the year 1850, when the Board of Education decided that Colored children should no longer be permitted to remain in the public schools. At the next meeting of the Board Mr. Douglass and some Anti-Slavery friends were present to debate the question why such distinction should be made. As the result of that conference the doors were opened to Colored children in that city.

Rosetta being the only girl of color in her room was subjected for a time to such indignities as only the vulgar are capable of inflicting. Her complaints pained her fond father, but his counsel was, "Daughter, I am sending you to school for your benefit; see to it that you are punctual in attendance, that you do not offend in your demeanor and cope with the best of them in your lessons—and await the results." The daughter strove to obey, and soon found herself appreciated by her teachers, who classed her as one of their best pupils. Her companions also changed and sought her aid in the preparation of their lessons. At the age of eleven years Rosetta became her father's assistant in the library. She copied for him, wrapped, addressed and mailed eight hundred copies of the "North Star" each week.

Rosetta Douglass married December 24, 1863, Nathan Sprague, who, like her father, had been a victim of the slave-holding power.


The problems of life are manifold. Wherever we turn questions of moment are presented to us for solution and settlement. At no period in the history of the American Negro has his status as a man and an American citizen been so closely scrutinized and criticised as at the present time.

The galling chain and merciless lash were the instruments used to accomplish the humiliation and degradation of the African. Avarice was the factor in the composition of the character of a large number of the white men of America that wrought such ravishes in the well-being of the African.

To-day, after the short space of thirty-six years has passed over him, from the deep degradation of centuries the descendants of these Africans are wrestling with the situation as it exists to-day. Through the avarice of the white man in the past the black man's physical, moral and mental development was sacrificed. To-day egotism stalks abroad to crush, if possible, his hopes and his aims, while he is struggling from the effects of his thraldom.

This latter process is more subtle in its operation—placing, as it does, a weapon that can with confidence be used by the most inferior and degraded ones of the white race—so that color and not character is made the determining factor of respectability and worth, and as the target is to the archer, so is the Negro to the white man.

Notwithstanding that the presentation of such facts are not flattering to the white man or pleasurable to the black man, they are facts which are to be considered.

Rapid changes have already been wrought in the condition of the American Negro. His capabilities and possibilities as a factor in the nation have been marked and encouraging, and yet there are labors to be performed to further obtain and maintain his position in the land of his birth. The Negro is but a man, with the frailties that bound humanity, and cannot be expected to rid himself of them in any way different from methods adopted for the betterment of mankind generally. In view of much that has inspired the friends of the Negro in the years now past with faith in him and the interest and belief in him of his numerous friends at the present time, he is still an object of hatred to a considerable number of his fellow citizens.

Ages of deception, vice, cruelty and crime, as practiced by the Caucasian upon the African in this land, would in itself produce fruit in kind. We would submit a suggestion to those who are disposed to criticise very closely and to condemn in strong terms the delinquencies of the Negro. Allow the Negro two hundred and fifty years of unselfish contact to offset the two hundred and fifty years of Caucasian selfishness, and be as assiduous in his regeneration as you were in his degradation—then judge him.

The twentieth century in its infancy is striving to grasp what it pleases to call the Negro problem, when it is in reality only a question as to whether justice and right shall rule over injustice and wrong to any and every man regardless of race in this boasted land of freedom. The Negro is made the test in everything pertaining to American civilization. Its high principles of religion, politics and morals all receive a shock when a Negro's head appears, upsetting all theories and in a conspicuous manner proving that the structure of American civilization is built higher than the average white man can climb. At this stage of Afro-American existence the question is asked, "What role is the educated Negro woman to play in the uplifting of her race?"

As this is unquestionably the woman's era, the question is timely and proper. Every race and nation that is at all progressive has its quota of earnest women engaged in creating for themselves a higher sphere of usefulness to the world—insisting upon the necessity of a higher plane of integrity and worth—and thus the women of the Negro race should be no exception in this land of our birth. Feeling thus, this particular woman, previous to the question above presented, has already in considerable numbers formed various associations tending to the amelioration of existing conditions surrounding her race. The most notable of them is "The National Association of Colored Women," for several years presided over by Mrs. Mary Church Terrell of Washington, D. C., but now under the guidance of Mrs. J. Salome Yates, a woman of refinement, culture and education and an earnest worker in the cause of the advancement of the race. It is with pride I point to this body of women, as its scope is far-reaching, being composed of organizations from every part of the country.

There is no woman, certainly no woman in the United States, who has more reason to desire and more need to aspire for better opportunities for her brothers and herself than the Negro woman in general and the educated Negro woman in particular.

Avarice and egotism have done and is doing its work in retarding, but not entirely subjugating, the advances that a respectable number of the race are making.

The task that confronts the thoughtful woman as she surveys the field in which she must labor is not a reassuring one. It will be through a slow process that any good will be accomplished.

Much patient and earnest endeavor on the part of our women—a strong missionary spirit needs to be exhibited before any appreciable results may be reached. It will require the life work for many years to rescue even a fractional part from the condition of to-day. Not only has the Negro race to be uplifted but the white race need to stand on a stronger platform than that of egotistical display of virtues which are not wholly theirs.

As long as they deny to the Negro the fact of his brotherhood and his consequent rights as a man, they are false to their God, and to the nation. Happily for us there have been a considerable number of the white race who are mindful of what is due to those of a race whose tendencies are upward and onward.

It is with feelings of deep gratitude, love and respect when we reflect upon the great work that was accomplished in the nineteenth century for the Negro by the truly great and good men and women of the white race. Now the twentieth century is confronted with the fact that there is more work yet to do, and the Negro has his part to bear in it. The progress of the race means much to the Negro woman, and as she goes forth adding her best energies to the uplifting of her people the work in itself will react upon her, and from a passive individual she will be a more alert and useful factor in the regeneration of her race and to the social system at large.

How to begin the work in a systematic manner for the further advancement of a people struggling amidst so much that is discouraging is puzzling to the would-be reformers within our own ranks. We would have the Negro, now that the mantle of freedom is thrown over him, and also as an acknowledged citizen, to fully understand and appreciate the fact that now that his destiny is in his own hands that he must make of himself a potential value.

In order to emphasize himself as a factor of value he must place himself in touch with the highest and best thought of past and present times.

Barring the barriers that avarice has placed in our way in the past or the growing egotism of our brothers in white at this stage of our progress, the women of the Negro race should put themselves in contact with all the women of this land and espouse all worthy efforts for the advancement of the human race.

The educated Negro woman will find that her greatest field for effective work is in the home. The attributes that are necessary in forming an upright character are each of them facts, the acceptance of them making or marring the character as they are accepted or ignored.

In view of this thought I cannot see that any different role should be adopted by us than by women in general in this land.

Industry, honesty and morality are the cardinal attributes to become acquainted with in forming an irreproachable character, and each and all of them must be dwelt upon in the home. Already the mothers all over the country are uniting themselves in the one thought—the home. No less should our women esteem it essential to place themselves in line with the progressive mothers in our common country. In advancing such a thought we are confronted with the fact that the development of the homes of this land has not been a day's work, and the improvement of the character of the homes will test the energies of the women who preside over them. The home life of the Negro has taken on a new significance during the past thirty or more years, and the zeal required to show the parents to-day their duties in the rearing of their children should be untiring. We have a few among us that are interested workers for the maintenance of good government in the home.

We would that in every city, town and village, where any number of the race reside, they would form aid societies for the maintenance of kindergartens and industrial schools, as well as to aid those already established, and before the twentieth century has reached its quarter century mark "The Colored Woman's Aid Societies" would have an astonishing effect on the manners and morals of those who come under its benefits.

It is a source of regret and deep concern to a number of our women that there is so little attention paid to the labors of "The Woman's Christian Temperance Union," when we reflect that through the medium of rum, and, I may add, red beads, African homes were devastated. We wonder at the apathy of our women in the matter of temperance. The homes of the race can but be humble and poverty-stricken so long as the men and women in them are intemperate. The educated women among us need to set the pace in discountenancing the social glass in their homes. In this transition stage toward a higher plane of civilization we need every faculty pure and undefiled to do the work that will lift us to a merited place in our land. Surely our women must see the necessity of urgent endeavor against a traffic fraught with so much that is inimical to the promotion of good citizenship and purer and better homes.

From the word of God we receive decided instructions against strong drink, as in the instance of the instructions concerning the character of John—his work was to be such that all his energies were to be called in action, and there was to be no weakening of them. "He was to be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink." We have a great work to perform in meeting the demands of the hour, requiring all the energy possible of a brain unclouded—pure and unsullied. The motto of the National Association of Colored Women, "Lifting as we climb," is in itself an inspiration to great activity in all moral reforms; and with a spirit of devotion for the welfare of humanity we embrace the work of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in their motto, "For God and Home and Native Land."

If the educated Negro woman will rally to the support of the principles involved in the organizations already presented in this paper, I think they will be amply repaid in the results accruing from their labors.


This essay is reprinted from Twentieth Century Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp (Dr. Daniel Wallace Culp), published 1902.  The biographical sketch of Rosetta Douglass Sprague (daughter of Frederick Douglass) is presumably written by Culp.  Related articles on this site include:

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