Rosetta Douglass Sprague

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Rosetta Douglass Sprague, 1839-1906

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

Rosetta Douglass was born in New Bedford, Mass., the first child of the fugitive slave, Frederick Douglass, and Anna Douglass. Rosetta grew up in Lynn, Mass. and then Rochester, NY, where her father edited the abolitionist newspaper, North Star. In July 1848 Frederick Douglass attended the women's rights convention held in Seneca Falls and provided crucial verbal support for the call for woman suffrage contained in the Declaration of Sentiments that was approved at the meeting. Her father's values must have rubbed of f on his daughter; in April 1867 she wrote to him that she had attended a "woman's rights lecture" in Rochester.

In December 1863 Rosetta married Nathan Sprague, a fugitive slave himself and the Douglasses' gardener in Rochester. Nathan served in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, a volunteer black unit that fought in the Civil War. Rosetta gave birth to seven children in thirteen years, living much of the time with her mother while her famous father was on the road supporting his family with the income from his lecture tours. Nathan had no success as a family breadwinner, being described by one historian as "a ward of the old man's [Frederick Douglass's] bank account." David Blight, Frederick Douglass's biographer, described the marriage as "tempestuous," as Nathan Sprague feuded with Rosetta's brothers, and the most positive thing that Blight could write was that the marriage "did manage to survive."

Much of the extended family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1872 after an arsonist torched the family's Rochester home. Two of Rosetta's brothers, Frederick Jr. and Lewis, settled in D.C. and co-edited the New National Era. They tried to get work as printers in the District, but the white Typographical Union would not admit black members. Nathan and Rosetta remained in Rochester, but Nathan, working in a Post of fice job, was convicted of "opening letters to steal their contents" and served a year in prison. During that time, Rosetta sold two properties and with her children joined her parents in Washington, D.C.

Frederick and Anna had room for Rosetta and her family because they had purchased a magnificent home, Cedar Hill, east of the Anacostia River, and three of his sons bought lots in a nearby black neighborhood in Uniontown, on the site of the former Barry Farm. The Freedmen's Bureau purchased the 375-acre farm and divided it into one-acre lots that were sold to freedmen and women on very favorable terms. Rosetta Douglass Sprague and Frederick, Jr. circulated a woman suffrage petition in Uniontown, securing 33 signatures and submitting the petition to Congress in January 1878.

Nathan Sprague rejoined his family after his release from prison. The Spragues' marriage survived but with numerous bumps along the way. In the early 1880s the couple were estranged and Rosetta became the "primary breadwinner" for her children, clerking of f and on in her father's of fice as Recorder of Deeds for Washington, D.C. In the mid-1880s Nathan sued his father-in-law, demanding back wages for his sister, Louisa, who had resided for many years with the Douglasses at Cedar Hill. Taken in as almost a family member, Louisa Sprague had done a fair amount of household work and now her brother was demanding wages. The case was settled out of court, as Frederick Douglass paid Louisa $645. Somehow the Spragues' marriage survived.

No evidence seems to survive documenting Rosetta Sprague's further support for woman suffrage after the submission of the suffrage petition to Congress, but Margaret Murray Washington, widow of Booker T. Washington, called her "a leading spirit in the club work in the city of Washington." In 1896 she spoke at the founding meeting of the National Association of Colored Women in Washington, D.C. That speech was reprinted in several D.C. newspapers (click here). Monroe Alphus Majors described her as "an exponent for the equal rights, a restless agitator for the cause of humanity." She was particularly active in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in the District, serving as treasurer and superintendent of colored work for the Anna Murray Douglass Union, named in honor of her mother. She was a frequent speaker at public events, including the Congressional Lyceum and the Grand Army of the Republic.

The 1900 census found Rosetta and Nathan and three grown children living at 1528 15th Street in the District. They owned the house with a mortgage. Nathan was recorded as a real estate agent; Rosetta had no occupation. Their three unmarried daughters, 31, 27, and 22 at this date, all worked as teachers.

Two of the daughters, Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry and Rosabelle Sprague Jones, became leaders of the black women's club movement in Kansas City. Both were active supporters of the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP.

Rosetta Sprague passed away in November 1906 in Washington, D.C., survived by Nathan Sprague and five remaining living children. She was buried in the family plot in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester. Her activism and race work began with support of woman suffrage in the 1870s, led to her own club work in D.C. in succeeding decades, and culminated in the activism of two daughters in Kansas City after her death.


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).

Daniel Wallace Culp, "Rosetta Douglass Sprague," in Twentieth Century Negro Literature: Or, a Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro (Toronto: J.L. Nichols, 1902), p. 167.

Margaret Murray Washington, "Club Work Among Negro Women," in J.L. Nichols and William Crogman, eds., Progress of a Race: or, The remarkable advancement of the American Negro, from the bondage of slavery, ignorance, and poverty to the freedom of citizenship, intelligence, affluence, honor and trust (Naperville, IL: J. L. Nichols, 1929), pp. 176-209.

Monroe Alphus Majors, Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities (Jackson, TN: M.V. Lynk Publishing House, 1893), 195-96.

Wilma Peebles-Wilkins, "Black Women and American Social Welfare: The Life of Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry," Affilia, 4:1 (Spring 1989), 33-44.

Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997; originally published in 1984), 418-23.

"Afro-Americans," Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), July 20, 1896, p. 8. Has major excerpt of a speech by RDS.

"Closes for Season," Evening Star, May 15, 1900, p. 7.

"Receives Handsome Silk Flag," Evening Star, May 27, 1899, p. 3.

"National Convention," Evening Star, Dec., 22, 1899, p. 16.

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