In his voluminous biography of Paul Robeson, author Martin Duberman dips into the Bustill family, mainly to connect them to the Robeson clan. “While studying at Lincoln, William Drew [Robeson] met Maria Louisa Bustill, eight years his junior, a teacher at the Robert Vaux School,” he wrote. “Her distinguished family traced its roots back to the African Bantu people (as William Drew did his to the Ibo of Nigeria), and in this country its members had intermarried with Delaware Indians and English Quakers.
“The many prominent descendants included Cyrus Bustill, who in 1787 helped to found the Free African Society, the first Black self-help organization in America; Joseph Cassey Bustill, a prominent figure in the Underground Railroad; and Sarah Mapps Douglass, a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society,” Duberman continued. His invocation of Sarah’s name provides us the background and entry for a longer discussion on her history and legacy, though Duberman goes on to add a few more illustrious descendants.
Sarah was born Sept. 9, 1806 in Philadelphia, as you can see, into a very active abolitionist family. She was the only daughter of Robert Douglass, a baker and Grace Bustill Douglass, a milliner and teacher. Like her mother, Sarah pursued a teaching career that began at a school organized by her mother and the noted James Forten, patriarch of another famous African American family, who had obtained his wealth through the manufacture of sails. She also taught briefly at the Free African Schools for Girls prior to establishing her own school for girls. Her talent as a teacher and role model were widely heralded and by 1838 the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society took over the school, maintaining Sarah as the principal. In 1854, the school merged with the Institute for Colored Youth, which is now Cheyney State University. With this union, she became head of the primary department, a post she would hold until her retirement in 1877.
Despite a firm commitment to teaching and managing the school’s various curriculum and financial affairs, Sarah’s activism in the abolitionist movement was not curtailed. She was particularly instrumental in raising funds for anti-slavery publications, most notably William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. And there was her central role in founding the Female Literary Association (FLA) that was dedicated to improving their writing skills and identification with slave sisters. The FLA met every Tuesday in the 1830s in which they would share and discuss the various original pieces submitted anonymously by the members. Many of her pieces were submitted under pseudonyms such as Zillah and possibly “Sophonisba,” and in other publications as well, including The Liberator.
From its inception the Female Anti-Slavery Society was interracial and included several notable white abolitionists such as Lucretia Mott. In 1833, they finalized their constitution, professing their Christian morals and a hatred for flagrant injustices, and they were especially adamant about their opposition to slaveholders. They were affiliated with most of the leading anti-slavery journals and organizations of the day, and participated in a number of boycotts of goods produced by slave labor. By 1840, Sarah was on the board of the society, working in several capacities during seminars, conferences and other outreach programs.
In addition to her school and societal functions, Sarah from 1853 to 1877 studied anatomy, female health care and hygiene with further medical training at the University of Pennsylvania. And when not consumed with all these endeavors she found time to devote to her passion for painting in which she became very accomplished, particularly her depiction of colorful flowers. This hobby was a pioneering one for African American women and she did it with an interest toward investing her art with politics. When her art was rejected she spoke out against what she termed the “myopia of museums.”
She married William Douglass, the American rector of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1855, who was a widower with nine children. He died in 1861 leaving her to care for the children, a responsibility she relished while continuing her anti-slavery, literary and artistic interests.
Sarah died in 1882 in Philadelphia. She appears as a main character in Ain Gordon’s 2013 play “If She Stood,” which was commissioned by the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia.