Rosetta Douglass Sprague assisted her renowned father, Frederick Douglass, in his work for the abolition of slavery and for Black equality. During the 1890s she took a more public role as an activist for racial justice and women’s equality, and during that same time period became a Seventh-day Adventist.
Rosetta was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on June 24, 1839, to Frederick (1818-1895) and Anna Murray Douglass (1813-1882). She was their first child, followed by three sons, Lewis (1840-1908), Frederick, Jr. (1842-1892), and Charles (1844-1920), and finally a second daughter, Anna (1849-1860), who died at age 10 after an extended illness.1
Less than a year before Rosetta’s birth, Frederick Douglass had escaped from slavery in Maryland. In the proceeding years he rapidly rose to international prominence as an abolitionist and orator. He is generally recognized as the foremost African American leader of the 19th century.2 Rosetta’s mother, Anna, unlettered and unassuming, received little public recognition. Yet, as Rosetta later wrote, the story of Frederick Douglass was “made possible through the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”3
In 1845, when she was six years old, Rosetta’s parents, desiring the best for her education, sent her to Albany, New York, to be tutored in the home of Quaker abolitionists Abigail and Lydia Mott. After the Douglass family moved to Rochester, New York, nine-year-old Rosetta passed an entrance exam into the prestigious Seward Seminary for girls. However, as the only Black student, she was segregated from the other girls. Her father sharply protested the discriminatory treatment in his newspaper North Star, and began a campaign for desegregation of Rochester’s public schools that succeeded by 1850.4
Rosetta began assisting at her father’s newspaper office at age 11, where she folded, wrapped, and addressed for mailing 800 copies of the North Star each week. Later she took dictation from him, writing out his editorials and lectures. She continued her education at the preparatory school at Oberlin College in Ohio, and then took teacher training at Salem Normal School in New Jersey. After teaching school in New Jersey for a year and a half, Rosetta married Nathan Sprague (1839-1907) on December 24, 1863. Like her father, Nathan had escaped enslavement in Maryland. The Douglass family had then employed him as a gardener.5
Frederick Douglass had fostered Rosetta’s intellectual development and saw her becoming a supporting partner in the cause of social regeneration, not merely as an assistant for routine tasks. She had indeed become well-educated and shared her father’s passion for social justice and equality. Yet she also wanted marriage and family and that, given her times circumstances, made it impossible to fill the role her father envisioned. Her choice disappointed Douglass, but she remained a close confidante and source of counsel and encouragement to him through the rest of his life.6
Rosetta and Nathan Sprague settled in Rochester after the Civil War, where she bore him six children during their first 11 years of marriage: Annie Rosina (1865-1893), Harriet Bailey (1866-1940), Alice Louisa (1869-1875), Fredericka Douglass (1872-1943), Herbert Douglass (1874-1943), and Estelle Irene (1876-1927). The couple’s seventh child, Rosabelle Murray, was born in 1877 after the family moved to Washington, D.C. In addition to the normal demands of raising a large family, Rosetta had to cope with financial strains due to her husband’s inability to maintain a steady income.7
Activism in the 1890s
During the 1890s, Rosetta, by then in her 50s, began to increase her public involvement, using her skills as an orator and author in advocating for social reform. Perhaps her most noteworthy public address was given on July 20, 1896, to open a conference in Washington, D.C., at which two organizations came together to form the National Association of Colored Women. “It was a famous gathering of famous women,” wrote anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her autobiography.8
Out of all the proceedings and speeches of the four-day conference, Wells-Barnett picked out two highlights to illustrate what made it an extraordinary gathering. One was the presence of the legendary heroine of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, by then 75 years old. The other was the opening address by Rosetta Douglass Sprague. “We are weary of the false impressions sent broadcast over the land of the colored woman’s inferiority, of her lack of virtue and other qualities of noble womanhood,” Rosetta declared. “While the white race have chronicled deeds of heroism and acts of mercy of the women of pioneer and other days—so we are pleased to note in the personality of such women as Phillis Wheatley, Margaret Garner, Sojourner Truth, and our venerable friend Harriet Tubman, sterling qualities of head, heart and hand, that hold no insignificant place in the annals of heroic womanhood.”9
On May 10, 1900, Rosetta spoke at a conference of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union on the topic “Anna Murray Douglass—My Mother as I Recall Her.” The speech was published as a pamphlet. Rosetta brought out the little-known ways in which her mother’s loyalty and courage made possible the public achievements of her famous father, and what her beloved mother meant to her. “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,” Rosetta told the gathering.10
Uniting With the Adventists
By the time of her 1900 address on her mother’s legacy, Rosetta Douglass Sprague had in all likelihood become a Seventh-day Adventist. The evidence leaves no room for question about the fact of her joining the church, although exactly when she did so remains unknown. The evidence discussed here corroborates and expands upon the oral testimony cited by Louis B. Reynolds in his book We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Adventists With an African Heritage, published in 1984. Reynolds cited a personal interview in 1939 with Fredericka Douglass Perry, daughter of Rosetta Douglass Sprague, who affirmed that “her mother was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” 11
It was through an old school friend from Oberlin days, Isabelle (Belle) Howard, that Rosetta, in 1890 or possibly late 1889, began to explore the Seventh-day Adventist faith. Belle and her husband, physician and civil servant James H. Howard, themselves relatively new to the faith, were among the members of the first Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Washington, D.C., formally organized in 1889. The church was thoroughly interracial from the start, and due in large measure to Howard’s eloquent and enthusiastic witness, quickly attracted attention to Adventists in the nation’s capital city for living out gospel principles in race relations.12
Concerned about signs of compromise with racial discrimination in the denomination that, he believed, struck at the very heart of what it meant to be a Seventh-day Adventist, Howard wrote two letters of protest to General Conference president, Ole A. Olsen. In one of these, dated January 27, 1890, Howard related an incident that took place in the home of Rosetta Douglass Sprague to illustrate the devastating effect that he thought a policy of racial separation would have on Adventist mission. Having talked with Rosetta about the Adventist message, he and Belle had followed up with a visit to her home, hoping to further her interest. Other guests were present, one of whom shared that she had heard that Adventists had segregated the races in their church in Louisville, Kentucky. “You can imagine the kind of ‘wet blanket’ this would be at such a time and place,” Howard commented to Olsen.13
The incident described by Howard apparently disrupted momentum toward Rosetta’s acceptance of the faith. For how long, exactly, is not clear, but it is clear from a speech that she gave in the summer of 1901 that by then the obstacle had been overcome. In the address, published in the Los Angeles Times, Rosetta included some reflections on her journey as a Christian. Though her parents held no formal church membership, she said, “We were taught to reverence the Bible . . . and read a chapter aloud, daily, as we sat around the breakfast table, each taking a verse in turn.” As an adult, after her family moved to Washington, D.C., Rosetta felt the need to connect with a church: “I became an Episcopalian . . . but in time doubts as to the authority for substituting Sunday for the seventh day, set apart in Scripture as a day of rest, arose in my mind, and led to my uniting with the Adventists.”14 Here, then, is Rosetta’s own testimony, albeit brief, to the fact of her joining the Seventh-day Adventist church and the central motivation that prompted her to do so.
Further evidence from a first-hand witness describes Rosetta in 1903 as “one of the most prominent members” of her Washington, D.C. congregation, by then known as First Church.15 Thanks to her and other’s influence, the congregation kept its interracial gospel witness alive for several years to come after 1903.
Rosetta Douglass Sprague, daughter and assistant to the most influential African American leader of the 19th century, wife, mother, orator, author, activist, and Seventh-day Adventist, died at age 67 in Washington on November 25, 1906. She was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York.16
“Afro-Americans, The National Federation of Women Assembles Today.” Washington Evening Star, July 20, 1896.
Ellen G. White Estate (EGWE). White Estate Incoming Correspondence, ellenwhite.org.
General Conference Presidential and Secretariat Correspondence. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD (GCA).
Gregory, James M. Frederick Douglass the Orator. Springfield, MA: Willey & Co., 1893. Electronic edition, Documenting the American South. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/gregory/gregory.html.
Morgan, Douglas. “Howard, James Henry (1861–1936).” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. August 26, 2022. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5HSM.
O’Leary, Ann. “Rosetta Douglass.” At “Lighting the Way, Historic Women of the SouthCoast.” Accessed June 29, 2023. https://historicwomensouthcoast.org/rosetta-douglass/.
Reynolds, Louis B. We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Adventists With an African Heritage. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1984.
“Rosetta Anne Douglass.” FamilySearch. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/2XLL-YF1.
“Rosetta Douglass Sprague.” Find A Grave. Memorial ID 7407693, May 2, 2003. Accessed June 30, 2023. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7407693/rosetta-sprague.
Sprague, Rosetta Douglas. “What Role is the Educated Negro Woman to Play in the Uplifting of Her Race?" In Twentieth Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp, 167-171. Toronto: J.L. Nichols & Co., 1902.
Sprague, Rosetta Douglas. “My Mother as I Recall Her.” 1900. Reprinted by Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry, 1923. Library of Congress. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://www.loc.gov/item/mss1187900021/.
Temple, Christel. “Sprague, Rosetta Douglass (1839-1906).” In The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, edited by Julius E. Thompson, James L. Conyers, Jr., and Nancy J. Dawson, 49-50. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010.
Whittle, Gilberta S. “Negroes in Washington, What Douglass’ Daughter Says of Them.” Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 4, 1901.
Williams, Fannie Barrier. “Rosetta Douglass Sprague and the Hopes Built on Her.” New York Age, January 10, 1907.
“Rosetta Anne Douglass,” FamilySearch, accessed July 2, 2023, https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/landscape/2XLL-YF1.↩
For a recent, comprehensive, and critically acclaimed biography, see David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).↩
Rosetta Douglass Sprague, “My Mother as I Recall Her,” 1900, reprinted by Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry (1923), 6, Library of Congress, accessed June 29, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/item/mss1187900021/.↩
James M. Gregory, Frederick Douglass the Orator (Springfield, MA: Willey & Co., 1893), 201, electronic edition at Documenting the American South, accessed June 29, 2023, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/gregory/gregory.html; Ann O’Leary, “Rosetta Douglass,” at “Lighting the Way, Historic Women of the SouthCoast,” accessed June 29, 2023, https://historicwomensouthcoast.org/rosetta-douglass/.↩
Gregory, Frederick Douglass the Orator, 201-202; D. W. Culp, ed., Twentieth Negro Literature, 166; Christel Temple, “Sprague, Rosetta Douglass (1839-1906),” in The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, ed. Julius E. Thompson, James L. Conyers, Jr., and Nancy J. Dawson (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010), 50; O’Leary, “Rosetta Douglass.”↩
Blight, Frederick Douglass, 421, 502; Fannie Barrier Williams, “Rosetta Douglass Sprague and the Hopes Built on Her,” New York Age, January 10, 1907, 4.↩
“Rosetta Anne Douglass,” FamilySearch, accessed June 29, 2023, https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/2XLL-YF1; Blight, Frederick Douglass, 421.↩
Alfreda M. Duster, ed. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 243, cited in Paula J. Giddings, Ida: A Sword Among Lions (New York: Amistad, 2009), 372-373.↩
“Afro-Americans, The National Federation of Women Assembles Today,” Washington Evening Star, July 20, 1896, 8.↩
Rosetta Douglass Sprague, “My Mother as I Recall Her,” 1900, 24.↩
Louis B. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Adventists With an African Heritage (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1984), 270, 279.↩
Douglas Morgan, “Howard, James Henry (1861–1936),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, August 26, 2022. Accessed June 29, 2023, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5HSM.↩
J.H. Howard to O.A. Olsen, January 27, 1890, Presidential Incoming Correspondence, GCA↩
Gilberta S. Whittle, “Negroes in Washington, What Douglass’ Daughter Says of Them,” Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 4, 1901, 9.↩
J.S. Washburn to E.G. White, June 5, 1903, EGWE, https://ellenwhite.org/correspondence/264408; see also J.S. Washburn to W.C. White, February 18, 1903, EGWE, https://ellenwhite.org/correspondence/237969.↩
“Rosetta Douglass Sprague,” Find A Grave, Memorial ID 7407693, May 2, 2003, accessed June 30, 2023, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7407693/rosetta-sprague.↩