Reference Entry

Douglass, Grace Bustill

Eric Gardner

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Douglass, Grace Bustill

Show Summary Details


activist, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Cyrus Bustill and Elizabeth Morey. Her mother was of mixed race, part English and part Native American (Delaware). Her father, already fifty years old at the time of her birth, was a baker who had purchased his own freedom and had built a thriving business that included supplying American troops in the Revolution, winning him the endorsement of George Washington. A Quaker in practice (though not a formal member), he was also active in both aiding his fellow free blacks in Philadelphia—he was an early member of the Free African Society—and fighting against slavery. When Bustill retired in 1803 to set up a school for black children in his home, Grace took over his shop at 56 Arch Street and opened a millinery business. Three years later she married Robert Douglass, a free African American from Saint Kitts who had become a successful hairdresser and perfumer. They quickly had six children: Elizabeth, William Penn, Charles, James, Robert Jr., and Sarah Mapps. Though they had economic security and were clearly among Philadelphia's African American elite, the Douglass family struggled against racism in organized religion, public and private education, and daily life.The Douglasses were married in the Episcopal faith, yet Grace continued to attend Quaker meetings. The strand of racism that ran through many Friends proved too much for Robert to take, however, and he eventually helped found the First African Presbyterian Church, of which he was a deacon. He and his sons attended First African; Grace and her daughters generally attended Quaker services, though Grace seems to have been directly cautioned against applying for membership because of her race. Still, she practiced Quaker ways throughout her life, and, though the family grew affluent, she adopted a style of domestic economy with the conscious goal of having extra funds to aid the less fortunate. (One of her extant letters—to Reverend John Gloucester—talks of how “if Christ lived a self-denying life, [I, too,] might deny myself, take up the cross, and follow him” [qtd. in Sterling, 104].) She also developed abiding friendships with more open-minded Friends such as Lucretia Mott and the Grimké sisters; she was one of the interracial party of guests at the wedding of Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké in 1838.Educated by her parents, Douglass had come to value learning greatly and even sent elder daughter Elizabeth to a private school, from which she was promptly dismissed when white parents complained. Rather than give up, though, Douglass worked with the prominent black Philadelphian James Forten to set up a school specifically for African American children. Elizabeth and her siblings were educated there; Sarah Mapps Douglass took over the school in 1827 and built it into a model for African American schools. Near the end of her life, in 1841, Grace Douglass was one of the founding members and the first treasurer of Philadelphia's Gilbert Lyceum, an educational outlet for free blacks.In part because of these experiences and in part because of her background, Douglass exhibited early an intense commitment to social justice and especially to abolition. She was a driving force behind several women's efforts to fight slavery—especially through the Female Anti-Slavery Society, which she helped found (with, among others, her daughter Sarah) in 1833. When the first national women's antislavery convention was held in 1837, she was a vice president. She was also active in conventions in 1838 (during which a mob burned down Philadelphia Hall in an attempt to intimidate the activists) and 1839. Throughout this period she was a staunch early defender of the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.Her children, though, seem to have been her greatest joy; however, for all of the happiness they seem to have brought her, there was also sorrow. Elizabeth, William, and Charles all preceded her in death. Robert Douglass Jr., who became not only an active abolitionist but also a fine painter and one of the first African American daguerreotypists (his image of the bandleader Francis Johnson is one of the few known), flirted with colonization and spent time in Haiti. While he was in the States, though he was an active fighter for his race, he was also consistently saddened by the limitations racism placed on him. James eventually took over his father's business, and while this certainly allowed continued affluence, it was also a reminder that he was in one of the few fields open to the “best men” of the race. Sarah Mapps worked tirelessly beside her mother but suffered racism as well, from those who should have been first to fight such—her abolitionist and Quaker brethren. Grace Bustill Douglass's influence and memory went beyond her children to succeeding generations of both Bustills and Douglasses, including the writer and activist Gertrude E. H. Bustill Mossell.Although these later figures are better known, Douglass was an important early fighter for social justice and struggled for African American rights and women's rights throughout her life.

Reference Entry.  909 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content. subscribe or login to access all content.