Learning from Sarah Douglass

In 1833, Sarah Mapps Douglass, an African American educator, moved from her home in Philadelphia to New York City to teach in a Girls African School. She was lonely in the new city, and she missed going to Quaker meeting with her mother, Grace Douglass. When she attended meeting in New York, however, no one spoke to her. She had been going there for about one month when on the way in to the meetinghouse a Friend asked her, "Does thee go out to house cleaning?" Sarah reported to a friend that she wept during the whole of the meeting and for many succeeding Sabbaths, not so much for her own wounded pride but for sorrow that Friends could be so cruel.

It is a sad fact that most Friends in the 19th century did not see the inconsistency of providing schools for African Americans, working against slavery, and hiding escaped slaves through the underground railroad, while discriminating against them socially. Few Friends entertained blacks in their homes or sat with them in meeting. Instead, a bench in most meetinghouses was reserved for black people, and whites were discouraged from sitting with them. While Friends were leaders in providing education for African American children, they did not often allow them into their own schools.

Seating blacks separately was the custom among all the denominations in Philadelphia, and Friends had evidently never given the matter much thought. When the so-called Great Meeting House was enlarged in 1756, the persons planning the building were instructed "to allot some suitable places for the Negroes to sit in our common meetings." There was separate seating at Key’s Alley Meetinghouse. One Friend, Israel Johnson, objected and sat in the black section himself. There was also a black bench at Haddonfield Meeting.

Sarah Douglass accomplished many things in her lifetime. She was first and foremost a beloved educator for more than 50 years. She taught her children not only the basics, but art and music, and helped to train many leading African American teachers at the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University). She was an accomplished poet and essayist, publishing many poems and articles in the anti-slavery and the black presses. She was also an activist, organizing several societies dedicated to helping free black women support their enslaved sisters, as well as participating vigorously in the multiracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.

She was interested in women’s rights, especially in helping women understand and control the functioning of their own bodies. To this end she enrolled in the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, and later in the Pennsylvania Medical University, and she gave a series of lectures on physiology to African American women in New York and Philadelphia. After the Civil War she became vice president of the Women’s Freedmen’s Relief Association of Pennsylvania, and she solicited funds to send clothes, books, tools, and teachers to the South to help the newly freed slaves. In 1864 she was a founder of the Stephen Smith Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, and remained on the Board for two years.

Nevertheless, her place in history rests on her willingness to speak out against racial discrimination, despite pain to herself and her mother, in the early days of the 19th century, in words that are reaching men and women today at the beginning of the 21st. The changes she achieved in her own day were minuscule, but today have helped bring about a significant change in the racial attitudes of the Religious Society of Friends.

Sarah Douglass’s attachment to the Religious Society of Friends went back to her grandfather, Cyrus Bustill (1732-1806). Cyrus was the son of an enslaved mistress and her master, Presbyterian Samuel Bustill, a Burlington, New Jersey, lawyer. Cyrus was sold to another master and then to a Quaker, Thomas Prior, a baker, who taught Cyrus the baking trade, and after seven years, freed him. Bustill attended meeting with Prior, and continued when he was freed. He set up his own baking business in Burlington, and during the Revolutionary War he baked bread for the American Army.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, Cyrus Bustill married Elizabeth Morey, daughter of Richard Morey and a Delaware Indian woman named Satterwait, who had been a maid in the household of Nicholas Waln before her marriage, and who also attended meeting. The couple had eight children, of whom Grace Bustill (1782-1842), mother of Sarah, was the fifth. At the end of the Revolutionary War, shortly after their eighth child, David, was born, Cyrus and Elizabeth moved to Philadelphia where Cyrus set up his bakery at 56 Arch Street, between Second and Third, and began to attend North Meeting, at Key’s Alley.

Grace therefore grew up as a Friend, attending North Meeting with her parents. After being schooled in downtown Philadelphia, perhaps in the well-known school founded by Anthony Benezet, she became a milliner, conducting her business at her father’s old shop at 56 Arch Street. In 1803 she married Robert Douglass, a hairdresser from the West Indies, whose business was next door at 54 Arch Street. The couple had six children: Elizabeth, born 1804; Sarah, 1806; Robert Jr., 1809; James, 1811; Charles Frederick, 1813; and William Penn, 1816. Elizabeth died in 1819, Charles in 1834, William in 1839.

In addition to raising her children and operating her shop, Grace Douglass was an active civic leader. In 1819, she opened a school in conjunction with the famous sailmaker, James Forten. In 1833, she became a founder of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and for the rest of her life she served on the board of this important group. The Female Society made her a delegate to the Annual Conventions of Anti-Slavery Women, held in 1837, 1838, and 1839. She was also their delegate to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. From January 1841 to April 1842, she served as treasurer of the Gilbert Lyceum.

Despite her prominence, Grace was also subject to prejudice. When she attended North Meeting, to which she felt she had belonged since childhood, she was made to sit on a separate bench. When she attended Arch Street meeting, which had been built in 1804 near her shop, she was also asked to sit on a back bench. Later, toward the end of Grace’s life, Sarah said, when the ushers felt they could not seat her thus, they put her on one of the long benches at the side, stretching from one end of the meetinghouse to the other, and made sure no one else sat on it also. When she went to New York as delegate to the Annual Convention of Anti-Slavery Women and attended meeting there she was told to sit in the balcony, "because Friends do not like to sit by persons of thy color."

At one time a young white Friend, Mira Okrum, who wished to sit with Grace and Sarah at North Meeting, was forbidden to do so. Later, after the new North Meetinghouse was built at Sixth and Noble, Grace Douglass attended the funeral of a minister she had known. She was first seated all by herself in a room, and then asked to walk with two young male colored employees of the family behind the casket, while every other woman in the funeral party was given a ride.

Sarah Douglass reported that Grace felt these slights keenly, and spoke to her often about the situation saying, "The hardest lesson my Heavenly Father ever set me to learn, was to love Friends; and in anguish of spirit I have often queried; why the Lord should require me to go among a people who despise me on account of my complexion; but I have seen that it is designed to humble me, and to teach me the lesson, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for them who despitefully use you.’"

While her father went to the First African Presbyterian Church, Sarah went with her mother to North Meeting, or occasionally the nearby Arch Street Meeting, and came to love the silence. Nevertheless, she was saddened by the fact that her mother was asked to sit on a back bench. In a letter "to an esteemed friend," Sarah wrote: "I remember well, wishing, (with the ‘foolishness that is bound in the heart of a child’) that the meetinghouse would fall down, or that Friends would forbid our coming, thinking then that my mother would not persist in going among them."

Later, in a letter to William Bassett, dated December 1837, asking about separate seating for blacks, she wrote of her experiences:

And as you request to know particularly about Arch St. Meeting, I may say that the experience of years has made me wise in this fact, that there is a bench set apart at that meeting for our people, whether officially appointed or not I cannot say; but this I am free to say, that my Mother and myself were told to sit there, and that a friend sat at each end of the bench to prevent white persons from sitting there. And even when a child, my soul was made sad by hearing five or six times, during the course of our meeting, this language of remonstrance addressed to those who were willing to sit with us. "This bench is for the black people," "This bench is for the people of color"—and often times I wept, at other times I felt indignant and queried in my own mind, are these people Christians? Now it seems clear to me, that had not that bench been set apart for oppressed Americans, there would have been no necessity for the often repeated and galling remonstrances, galling indeed because I believe they despise us for our color. I have not been in Arch Street for four years, but my Mother goes once a week and frequently she has a whole long bench to herself.

Despite her bitterness, Sarah eventually resumed attending Quaker meeting, sometimes at 12th Street but more often at Arch Street. Two sisters, Hannah White Richardson and Rebecca White, prominent members of Arch Street, befriended her, and they may have seen to it that the galling restrictions on seating were lifted. Her letters to these two are full of references to the spiritual nourishment she gained from Quaker silence, which she came to love more and more as she grew older.

In one letter she speaks of going to hear the famous preacher, Eliza Gurney:

Eliza Gurney preached a comforting yet solemn, awful, searching sermon, a sermon to be remembered. She spoke to various states and among the rest I was remembered. Yes, had she said, ‘Sarah this is for thee,’ I could not have felt it more truly mine. Yes, the least and lowest of all that company was comforted; her poor hungry soul fed with the finest wheat, and that heart whose sorrowful language had so often been, ‘no man cares for my soul,’ was made to rejoice before God, yea to exceedingly rejoice! So deep was my emotion that I could scarce refrain from sobbing aloud. O, thought I, I may be well content to take a long walk and to sit behind everybody, alone unnoticed by my fellow worshipers, when the King of Kings thus condescends to comfort me by his faithful messenger!

In an article in the Liberator signed by a pen name, Zillah, she wrote of attending a church service, but preferring silence:

Then sweet voices sang a sweeter hymn, but while the notes of the glorious music were ringing in my ear, my heart acknowledged the superior eloquence of silence—the beauty of sitting down in humility and heartbrokenness to wait the operation of the Holy Spirit—and then to feel its gentle influence distilling like dew upon the soul, and subduing every unholy and wandering thought.

Researching the life of Sarah Douglass taught me many things about racism and the necessity of rooting its tendrils out of our hearts. But she also taught me anew to appreciate and to use the silence. Often today, sitting in meeting, prey to wandering thoughts, I remember Sarah, the long walks and the hostility that she was willing to endure for the sake of the silence, and her absolute faith that if she would wait in humbleness, the Holy Spirit would operate upon her soul. And thinking about her, I grow more open to the silence.

Yes, we need to root out racism, but perhaps even more, we need to recover faith such as that of Sarah Douglass.

Margaret Hope Bacon

Margaret Hope Bacon is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. She has recently published Love Is the Hardest Lesson: A Memoir. ©2002 Margaret Hope Bacon