On occasion, in this column, we run the gamut on a family, right down to distant cousins. In the past—and this holiday makes the choice quite propitious—we have profiled Frederick Douglass’s wife, Anna, his daughter, Rosetta, and two of the great man’s sons. Now let’s leap two generations to Rosetta’s daughter, Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry, and like her forebears, she had a very distinguished life and made considerable contributions, especially in the interest of child welfare.
Conflicting dates have been cited for Frederica or Fredericka’s birth, but let’s settle on Aug. 9, 1880 in Rochester, N.Y., based on her Missouri death certificate. She was fifth oldest child of seven by her mother, Rosetta and her father, Nathan Sprague. Her public school education began in Washington, D.C. and continued at the Mechanics Institute in Rochester.
Not much has been written about Frederica’s early years, but as a young woman she married Dr. James E. Perry, and together they were dedicated to providing better health care to African American children, particularly in Kansas City, Missouri where they lived. Besides working with her husband, Frederica also founded a local hospital and she worked as a juvenile court reporter. Chief among her concerns was the lack of foster care homes for African American children over 12 years of age, many of whom were delinquents and sent to state institutions.
In 1934, she was affiliated with Black club women and organizations forged by Victoria Earle Matthews, who was formerly enslaved and founded the White Rose Industrial Association of New York City that provided homes for girls and single women, giving them domestic skills and helping them to avoid prostitution. To that end, Frederica subsequently founded the Colored Big Sister Home for Girls. Later, as an offspring of these endeavors, she extended her civic involvement to the Community Charities Chest Committee and developed services for white children. Her organization existed until 1943 about the same time that states began providing child welfare services for African American children.
Curiously, Frederica, apparently never wrote about her mother the way her mother recounted Anna Murray Douglass. However, she did see to it that her mother’s reflections “My Mother as I Recall Her,” a speech delivered in 1900 before the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) in Washington, D.C. was published.
The Wheatley-Provident Hospital in the 18th and Vine District in Kansas City, Mo. was built in 1903 and at the time called St. Joseph’s Parochial School. On June 1, 1918, it was repurposed after an extensive fundraiser of 25,000 (equivalent to more than $430,000 today) was conducted by Frederica and her husband. In 2007, it entered the Kansas City Register of Historic Places and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places two years ago.
Later in life, according to the noted historian David Blight, in his awarding biography of Douglass, Frederica wrote reminiscences of her famous grandfather in the twilight of his years.
“When at home,” she wrote, “the patriarch daily observed ‘two distinct periods…his work-time and his play-time.’ When at work behind his ‘closed study door,’ she remembered…the children knew that their grandfather would be ‘greatly displeased by our noise.’ They would ‘tip-toe down the hall’ in anticipation. When the door ‘swung back on its hinges, we knew we were in for fun!’”
Frederica died on Oct. 23, 1943 at the age of 71. She is buried in Highland Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo.
Here is an excerpt from her mother’s account of her mother, Anna Murray: “Three weeks prior to escape were busy and anxious weeks for Anna Murray. She had lived with the Wells family for so long and having to save the greater part of her earnings was willing to share them with the man she loved so that he might gain the freedom he yearned to possess. Her courage, her sympathy at the start was the mainspring that supported the career of Frederick Douglass. As is the condition of most wives her identity became merged into that of the husband. Thus only a few of their friends in the North knew and appreciated the full value of the woman who presided over the Douglass home for more than 44 years. When the escaped slave and future-husband of Anna Murray had reached New York in safety, his first act was to write to her of his arrival, and as they had previously arranged she was to come on immediately—reaching New York a week later, they married and at once took their wedding trip to New Bedford.
Rosetta explained that her mother “had previously sold one of her feather beds to assist in defraying the expenses of the flight from bondage. The early days in New Bedford were spent in daily toil, the wife at the wash-board, the husband with saw, buck and axe. I have frequently listened to the rehearsal of those early days of endeavor. Looking around me at the well-appointed home built up under the labor of a father and mother of much difficulty, I found it hard to realize that it was a fact….In 1890, I was taken to these rooms on Elm Street, New Bedford, Mass. overlooking Buzzard’s Bay. This was my birthplace…..”