‘Read. Reflect. Act.’
Born in New Bedford, Rosetta Douglass Sprague (1839-1906) later recalled, ‘The early days were spent in daily toil, the wife at the wash board, the husband with saw, buck and axe.’ The Douglass family then moved to Lynn, Massachusetts and finally Rochester, New York, where Rosetta attended the Seward Seminary because Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) wanted to give ‘my daughter’ the ‘advantages of a good school.’
It was not to be: Miss Tracy, the white woman principal barred Rosetta Douglass from her school following the racist objection of one white parent. Frederick Douglass’s protest against this injustice in his newspaper, ‘The North Star’, changed history by resulting in the desegregation of the city’s education system.
Rosetta went onto pass the examinations to become a teacher at Oberlin College. Later living in Philadelphia while she searched for a position, she stayed with a family who sought to restrict her personal freedom. ‘All the time I am here I feel in bondage,’ she informed her father. Not one to surrender, she issued a powerful declaration: I do not wish to be tyrannized over.’
Rosetta played a key role in her father’s life as a proof-reader and editor of his newspapers, speeches, and book manuscripts. As an antislavery campaigner, social justice reformer and woman’s rights activist in her own right, she insisted, ‘The destiny of the race must be decided with the aid of the women of the race.’
Telling the untold stories of ‘such women as Phillis Wheatley [1753-1784], Margaret Garner [1834-1838], Sojourner Truth [1797-1883], and… Harriet Tubman [1822-1913],’ Rosetta urged: ‘This is indeed the woman’s era and we are coming.’
Extract from Rosetta Douglass-Sprague, ‘American Colored Women. Their Earnest and Patient Struggle for Advancement,’ ‘Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’, July 8, 1891, p. 3.
The American woman of color, standing apparently alone, struggling patiently, earnestly and silently for the development of her sons and daughters, is a factor of no inconsiderable value and she deserves something more than a passing notice, appealing to all that is noble in the nature of her fellow-men.
In every progressive movement there are pioneers, those who unselfishly, nobly and untiringly bear the burdens for the welfare of those who are to follow them. We have women who, with bended back over a washboard, or tossing a pancake, are as valiantly and bravely fighting to establish our worth as any pioneer woman of the early days of this country exhibited when, with shotgun in hand, she confronted the Indian at her log cabin door. We read the history of the movements of the early settlers with a mingled feeling of wonder and admiration. Their hardships made them sturdy and strong. We like to turn back the pages of history and dwell on the narration of the efforts of the men and women who braved many dangers for conscience sake. The early pioneer women fought poverty and Indians. Our women of today are wrestling with poverty and prejudice.
Occasionally an enterprising woman of the “superior” race at close range confronts us in our drawing-rooms, unhesitatingly informing us that they desire to know more of “your people.” We feel indignant when thus approached. The Chinese built a wall around their dominions, the white race, with burning curiosity, never rested until they had scaled it, and while endeavoring to accomplish that feat, they built a wall of prejudice to color in America, and now and then, with characteristic curiosity peep over to know more of “your people.” We want the young women, who are better equipped in many ways than were the young women of forty years ago, to satisfy these curiosity-seekers that the problems rests in their imagination. Our weapons are not the shotgun and knife of ages gone by, but rather the influence that can be exerted by an exalted character.
We want a feeling of belonging to the American womanhood. There must be a new departure, a new impetus, an interest in the world around us. Help these dear people, on all sides of us, to know us by contact, be interested in what interests those around you. Be broad, not narrow, meet half-way the overtures made to you, and thus slowly the barrier will fall. Read, reflect, act. Who will be the pioneers?