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Rosetta Douglass-Sprague (1839-1906)


Frederick Douglass’s oldest child, Rosetta, was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, shortly after her parents settled into freedom. Having a daughter made her father more aware of the complexities of racial and gender oppression, the hypocrisy of the North, and the struggles of black parents trying to ensure the success of their children.

He sent her away for private tutoring from age seven through her teenage years, which built noticeable gaps in her relationship with her mother. Frederick Douglass sought to ensure Rosetta’s early intellectual development, but her schooling necessarily coincided with his activist journalism.

In 1848 Rosetta passed entrance exams and was admitted to the prestigious Seward Seminary in Rochester, New York. Frederick Douglass was infuriated that Rosetta was segregated away from the white students. He championed her cause in his newspaper, North Star.

Rosetta and her father shared a close relationship. He liked hearing her play the piano for visitors at his home. Even though she was a liberal freethinker like he was, she discovered firsthand how gender limited her options.

Ironically, as the eldest child of a famous leader, society placed impractically high standards and expectations upon her. She attended Oberlin College’s Young Ladies Preparatory and New Jersey’s Salem Normal School, but did not attend college. She worked primarily as a teacher before becoming a wife and homemaker.

Rosetta is credited with having a keen sense of racial justice, inherited from her father’s example of activism and from her experience as a woman in antebellum and Reconstruction America. She advised Frederick Douglass against accepting the presidency of the Freedman’s Bank and did not support his interracial marriage, after her mother’s death.

Rosetta was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women.

-Christel Temple, "Douglass Sprague, Rosetta (1839-1906)," in The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, Julius E. Thompson, James L. Conyers, Jr., and Nancy J. Dawson, eds., Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2010, pgs. 49-50