Occasionally I come across a single issue of some journal or periodical on the shelf that appears to have no real relevance to race relations. This happened today when I spotted the October 1975 issue of The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (Washington DC, USA) in a pile of items waiting to be catalogued.
I’m a big fan of throwing things out – not the best attribute for someone who works in an archive you might think, but it doesn’t make sense to keep things that don’t contribute to our mission or that duplicate the holdings of other collections.
It was a lovely looking journal though, The Life and Age of Woman, highlighting the stories of ordinary and extraordinary women that can be found in the Library of Congress. So before I dropped it in the recycling bin I had a flick through.
My eye was caught by a portrait on page 307 of a vigorous looking Black woman and the article title Afro-American Women: The Outstanding and the Obscure. It turns out this was Anna Murray Douglass, wife of the nineteenth century abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Anna was illiterate and didn’t leave a written record of her own life, so the author of the article had researched her through the correspondences of Frederick Douglass and their daughters. What emerges is a classic case of the old adage ‘behind every great man there stands a woman’; earning money for the household so her husband’s earnings could go towards his work, attending to the education of their five children, ensuring the immaculate appearance of their home, and shielding him from the day-to-day worries of family life.
‘Although Anna Murray Douglass may be obscure in that she is little known, she must be rated outstanding for the way in which she coped with life’ the article concludes.
Anyone familiar with American history will know about Frederick Douglass. We have at least a dozen books about him in the library. But this little article gives us a fascinating insight into the domestic conditions that allowed Douglass to become the powerful force he was in nineteenth century American life, and to secure his place in the history books.
Needless to say, I quietly put the journal back on the cataloguing pile.