Black Quaker proved to be extraordinary
One of the most extraordinary women of 19th century Philadelphia was Sarah Mapps Douglass (18061882), a black Quaker whose maternal Bustill ancestors during the 1700s likely helped to establish a small AfricanAmerican community, Guineatown, and the associated Montier Cemetery that was in what is today Cheltenham.
A neighborhood of free blacks, which included the Bustills and Montiers that expanded during the late 1700s along Limekiln Pike, Guineatown was a few blocks below Arcadia University in Glenside incorporating the homestead of Cremona Morrey.
She was a former slave who had interracial children with Richard Morrey, the son of Philadelphia’s first mayor, Humphrey Morrey (1691), and an original European settler of Cheltenham. Richard, his father’s heir, passed to Cremona 200 acres upon his death, perhaps an indication that Richard truly loved her.
And it is in Cheltenham where Sarah Mapps Douglass — about 170 years after Humphrey Morrey’s mayoral tenure — would associate with white-Quaker icon Lucretia Mott. She lived in Cheltenham during the Civil War just steps from Camp William Penn, the largest Northern-based facility to train some of America’s first black federal soldiers. The 13acre center was northwest of what’s now the intersection of Broad Street and Cheltenham Avenue.
In fact, Sarah hailed from a very prestigious and freedomfighting family (the Bustills) in the Philadelphia and Cheltenham areas. Her cousin, David Bustill Bowser, who painted a portrait of the white martyr and anti-slavery activist -ohn Brown and President Abraham Lincoln, designed many of the battle flags associated with the 11 black regiments (consisting of about 10,500 soldiers).
And her maternal grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, baked bread for George Washington’s Continental Army and co-founded in Philly the first major civil rights’ organization in America, the Free African Society with black theologians Richard Allen and Absalom -ones. Much later, from her maternal line, came legendary Paul Robeson, the 20th century scholar, lawyer, actor, singer and civil rights activist.
Destined as a free black to become a celebrated abolitionist and educator, Sarah Mapps Douglass was “the daughter of Robert Douglass Sr., a prosperous hairdresser from the island of St. .itts, and Grace Bustill, a milliner,” according to writer -ulie Winch for the landmark 2004 book, “African American Lives,” edited by Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates -r. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham,
Winch even pointed out that Sarah was also quite “critical” of various early Quakers in America for racial bias and keeping slaves, despite some Quakers being early opponents of slavery. “Although she adopted Quaker dress and enjoyed the friendship of Quaker antislavery advocates like Lucretia Mott, she was highly critical of the sect.”
Meanwhile, Douglass joined Mott in “an interracial group of female abolitionists” by “establishing the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society,” serving for “almost four decades,” notes Winch. After being educated in a Philadelphia school that her mother Grace Douglass helped to start with the black philanthropist and wealthy sail-maker -ames Forten Sr., Sarah taught briefly in New York City before returning to Philadelphia “to take over the school.”
She also became a prolific writer against slavery with works published in such newspapers as William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, based in Boston.
By 1852, after closing her local school due to financial pressures, Douglass became supervisor of “the Girls’ Preparatory Department of the Quaker-sponsored Institute for Colored Youth,” that would evolve into today’s historically black college, Cheyney University, in Thornbury, Pa. Other notable educators and social activists at the original South Philly institute included Octavius V. Catto and Principal Fanny Coppin.
However, Douglass’ relationship with two white sisters — Sarah and Angelina Grimke — who had fled their father’s slave-holding plantation in South Carolina, was eyebrow-raising, according to Rayford W. Logan in his renowned 1982 book with Michael R. Winston, “Dictionary of American Negro Biography.”
The bold Grimke sisters “were censured in 1837 for sitting beside Mrs. Douglass and her daughter in the Arch Street [Quaker] Meeting,” one of several incidents that led to the burning by non-Quaker racists of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hall, a haven for antislavery activists.
Although Sarah married Philadelphia’s Rev. William Douglass in 1854 and helped to raise his nine children, the “marriage proved an unhappy one,” according to Winch. One account suggests Douglass, who died in 1861 as the Civil War erupted, was very strict and overbearing.
Yet, Douglass found the strength to continue to help black women, even giving lectures about their health issues, often labeled taboo during the 1800s. And she also “stressed the need for African American women to educate themselves.”
Sarah Mapps Douglass died in Philadelphia on Sept. 8, 1882, remembered for “a career in the classroom that lasted more than a half-century,” wrote Winch, while remaining an unrelenting critic of racial injustice, even if it meant vigorously chastising her fellow Quakers.
Don “Ogbewii” Scott, a Melrose Park resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Place in History Donald Scott