Virginia Hewlett Douglass

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Virginia Hewlett Douglass, 1849-1889

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

Virginia Molyneaux Hewlett was born in New York in 1849, the third child of Aaron and Virginia Josephine Hewlett. In 1850 the family lived in Brooklyn; Aaron was a delivery clerk and owned $500 of real property. From this modest beginning, he moved up socially and economically. He was an accomplished boxer and in 1854 he opened a "sparring academy" in his Brooklyn home. In 1859 the family moved to Cambridge, Mass. where Aaron was the first black faculty member at Harvard College. Harvard records indicate he was an instructor in physical education and director of the College gymnasium. He also gave students individual instruction in boxing. His wife, Virginia Josephine, herself ran a women's gymnasium in Cambridge and he had a part interest in a clothing and variety store.

Virginia grew up in a family that valued education and achievement. One brother was a lawyer, another a Shakespearean actor. She herself taught for many years.

In August 1869 Virginia married Frederick Douglass, Jr., son of the famous abolitionist, in Cambridge. In 1870, Frederick, Jr. was recorded in the census for the District of Columbia boarding with his married younger brother, Charles. His new wife was apparently living in the Douglass homestead in Rochester, while Frederick, a printer at this date, struggled to make a way for himself in opposition to a whites-only printers' union in the Capital. Shortly he joined his father and brother Lewis editing and publishing the New National Era newspaper. By 1880 Frederick and Virginia were living at 27 Nichols Ave. in the District, along with two sons, Frederick and Charles, and two nephews, the children of brother Charles Douglass. Frederick, Jr. was serving as a bailiff, appointed by his father, U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, the highest appointment of an African American in the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. The couple had bought a lot and built a house in the Barry Farm development established by the Freedmen's Bureau after 1867. Three Douglass sons, Frederick, Jr., Charles, and Lewis, had all bought plots in Barry Farm, located only about a mile from their father's substantial mansion, Cedar Hill, in neighboring Anacostia.

By 1871 the Douglass family was living in the District and Virginia was teaching the children of the Barry Farm neighborhood. A report in the New National Era noted, "These schools are largely attended, and are under the care of Mrs. Virginia Douglass, Miss Flora Leeland, and Miss F.E. Hall. The recent examination was as successful as that of any other school of like grade in the District, and was creditable alike to scholars and teachers." A Sunday School occupied the school house on the Sabbath and its teachers included Mrs. Charles Douglass, Mrs. Lewis Douglass and Lewis Douglass. By June 1872, Virginia Douglass had been appointed principal of the Barry Farm School and she continued to teach at least through 1874.

In late 1877 Frederick and Virginia and his sister, Rosetta Douglass Sprague and her husband Nathan signed and circulated a woman suffrage petition among the Colored citizens of Uniontown. About a third of the 33 petition signers were fellow residents at Barry Farm. The petition reached Congress in January 1878, timely support for the Senate resolution just submitted by California Senator Aaron Sargent that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." Elizabeth Cady Stanton testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary on behalf of what would have been the Sixteenth Amendment. Others testified before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections. The Douglasses' petition was one of numerous petitions submitted to Congress in January by the National Woman Suffrage Association, following their annual convention in the District. Neither the petitions from some 30,000 citizens nor the leaders' testimony moved many members of Congress and on June 14, 1878 Senator Sargent's resolution was "indefinitely postponed" without a formal Senate vote. It would be another 41 years before both houses of Congress voted their approval of a woman suffrage amendment.

Little is known about Virginia's public life after the submission of the Colored citizens' petition. She did suffer personal tragedy in her two decades of married life, seeing the deaths of five of her seven children in her lifetime. She passed away in Washington, D.C. in December 1889 at the age of 40.


History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives,"Petition for Woman Suffrage,"

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018). See index for numerous passages concerning Rosetta Douglass Sprague.

Federal manuscript censuses, Rochester, 1860 and 1870, Washington, D.C., 1880 and 1900

Death records for Rosetta Douglass Sprague, 1906, and Nathan Sprague, 1907, accessed online at

Tanya Edwards Beauchamp and Kimberly Prothro Williams, "Barry's Farm/Hillsdale," in Anacostia Historic District: Washington, D.C. (The History Society of Washington, D.C. rev. ed., 2007).

Wikipedia sketch of Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett, accessed online at

Wikipedia sketch of Frederick Douglass, r., accessed online at

Ann D. Gordon, ed., The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Volume 3: National Protection for National Citizens, 1873-1880 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003), see pp. 345-76.

"Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA),' accessed on the website of the United States Senate, at

United States Senate, "Woman Suffrage Centennial, Part I: To Bestow the Ballot," accessed online at

Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States , enlarged edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 165-66.

"Potomac City," New National Era, 22 June 1871, p. 3.

"School Examination at Barry Farm," New National Era, 6 June 1872, p. 2.

List of teachers in County Schools, Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 19 August 1874, p. 4.

Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).


Related Writings in Database

View works about

back to top