Sarah Mapps Douglass was a devoted educator, a lecturer on women’s health, an activist, an abolitionist and a writer.
Sarah was born into a prominent Philadelphia family. Her grandfather was an early member of the Free African Society and a Quaker educator. Her father was a hairdresser and her mother, Grace Bustill Douglass, a milliner and also a teacher.
Sarah Mapps Douglass started teaching in 1827 in a school that her mother opened in 1819 with James Forten, another prominent member of Philadelphia’s Free Black community. She continued her work there until moving to New York City in 1833 to teach in an African Free School. While Douglass was disillusioned by the racial discrimination she encountered in New York, she nevertheless took up a position of active advocacy for the children in her school and in the larger network of schools.
Douglass returned to Philadelphia and started her own school for girls in the city. She ran this school from 1834 to 1852 when financial considerations motivated her to petition the Institute for Colored Youth, incorporated in 1842 as a school for African American boys and girls, to integrate her school into its institution. The administrators of the ICY accepted Douglass’ proposal and she came on as faculty there in 1852. Her teaching grew in power, strength and appeal over her long and committed career as an educator. Douglass taught on faculty at ICY for twenty-three years until ill health finally compelled her to stop in 1876.
Throughout her time teaching, Sarah Mapps Douglass was active in numerous organizing efforts in the city. In 1831, she co-founded the Female Literary Society and served as one of the organizations leaders. The Female Literary Society was a vital organization for African-American women, providing a physical library of books and articles as well as weekly meetings to engage in vibrant discussion about writing by members of the Society as well as other writers in the city and the country.
Douglass’ relationships and collaborations in the Female Literary Society led directly into the founding, in 1833, of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a group of white and Black women advocating, fundraising, speaking, writing and organizing for the immediate abolition of slavery. Sarah Mapps Douglass was an integral member of the group. She was appointed by the group to be in the delegation to attend the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. As New York anti-slavery societies were segregated, Douglass and others of Philadelphia’s African American delegates bore the brunt of the hostility directed toward the group. Despite this burden, Sarah Mapps Douglass, her mother, Grace Bustill Douglass, and the three Forten sisters, Margaretta, Sarah Louise and Harriet, ascended to leadership roles at the convention as they were elected to serve on various committees, elected into leadership positions and asked to assist on the drafting of critical documents produced during the Convention.
Sarah Mapps Douglass was a prolific and eloquent writer whose work was published numerous times in magazines and newspapers such as The Liberator, the Genius of Universal Emancipation and the Constitutional Advocate of Universal Liberty.
Sarah Mapps Douglass participated in efforts to open medical education to women and enrolled, in 1852-53 in the Female Medical College of Philadelphia for a four-month term of lectures on current areas of medical knowledge, including anatomy, physiology, obstetrics and pathology. She continued attending courses at Penn Medical University, in 1855, 1857 and 1858. In 1855, Douglass initiated a public lecturing career in Philadelphia and New Work offering a series of evolving and revolving lectures on anatomy, respiration, circulation and women’s health.
While Douglass considered herself a Quaker from childhood, she was a fierce and committed critic of the persistent, insidious racism and segregation in Quaker Meetings.
Sarah Mapps Douglass continued her public activism until her death on September 8, 1882.