Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Musical Douglasses: Rosetta

Frederick Douglass's piano
 In 1861, Daniel Alexander Payne visited the Douglass home on South Street:
My Eastern labors took me in the month of August to the city of Rochester, N. Y., which was then the home of Frederick Douglass. His taste in the elegant and beautiful of nature had kept pace with his advancement in science. The balsam fir, the Norway spruce, the Canadian pine, and the cedar encircled his residence, while the sweet notes of the piano resounded within under the skillful touch of his daughter. It was on one of these musical occasions that I saw the father exhibited in him as I before had seen the orator and the man. She had performed several pieces on the instrument, and closed with the variations upon "Annie Laurie," when he sprung from his chair and seizing her hand in one of his, threw his arms around her and, pressing her to his bosom, exclaimed: "Rosa, my dear daughter, you have moved your father's heart!" [i]
Rosetta was the only daughter left at home. Her little sister Annie had died the year before.  Her brother Charles had lived with family friends, the Piersons, outside of Lockport since John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry nearly two years earlier. Her other two brothers had less work, now that their father had scaled back production on his papers, ending publication of his weekly paper to focus on his monthly paper and to campaign for emancipation and black military service. She and he had planned to visit Haiti in April, but had cancelled the trip when the war began only days before their departure.The next year saw her in Phildadelphia in search of a teaching position, which she found in Salem, New Jersey. She returned to Rochester when Charles and Lewis joined the Massachusetts 54th regiment. Nathan Sprague entered her life, and they married at the end of 1864. While she was pregnant with their first child, Annie, he also joined the army. They eventually had seven children, six girls.

Nathan, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his own self (seriously, the man could not get out of his own way) had difficulty providing for his growing family, and they relied heavily on the support of the Douglasses for two decades. In the estimation of Frederick and the Douglass sons, Nathan had failed as a man, and the sons complained about him bitterly. Frederick vacillated between cursing Nathan for his shortcomings and praising him when he tried to do well. Rosetta, however, had to bear the brunt of their problems at home.

In 1876, after Frederick and Anna had moved to Capitol Hill -- just before they moved to Cedar Hill -- Nathan was arrested for stealing letters from the post office, where he had secured a position through Frederick’s patronage. He spent a year in jail. While he was there, Rosetta decided to move in with her parents. Hearing that she was leaving town, the creditors came calling. In despair, she wrote to her father:
The past two weeks have been full of events and I am having a singular time and I wonder can it be me. My breaking up has caused such a flutter among Nathan’s creditors and I am being sued on every side.
She listed all of the things that the creditors demanded and took, but one item she would not let go:
Rosetta Douglass Sprague
....The piano she [Mrs. Rodenbeck, who came to collect her due] cannot hold at any rate. It is a poor rule that does not work both ways. I cannot dispose of the furniture to pay N’s debts as it is considered his personal property, it is mine as much his for housekeeping purposes and I can remove it but cannot dispose of it but my piano is my personal property and it can be seized to settle debts contracted by Nathan. Dist. Attorney Raines assures me it cannot be kept and tomorrow morning is the time set for deciding if I can be made responsible for N’s debts if I cannot be so responsible the other parties that have sued me will have to withdraw their suits.[ii]

For these reasons, woman’s rights activists had agitated for married women’s property protections. They
had success in New York in 1848 and 1860, but the latter had been rolled back in 1862. Rosetta, more than Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Abby Kelley, or any of the famed activists, taught Douglass about the necessity for protecting women’s property within matrimony.

The piano was more than property, too. The ability to play a piano marked a young woman as accomplished and a lady. This was especially important for young African American women of the middle class, like Rosetta. She was a daddy’s girl, for sure, and this piano connected her to her father, the violinist.

This was a low moment in her life. Her huband was in jail, and his debts called in. Her parents lived in a faraway city. She had buried her third child, Alice, a year earlier. Her fourth child, Estelle, was staying with Frederick and Anna. Her youngest -- the sixth -- was only a year old and her oldest was six. She should at least have the comfort of her piano!

[i] From Daniel Alexander Payne, Recollectionsof Seventy Years (Nashville, 1888), 143.

[ii] RDS to FD, Rochester, 17 Sept 1876, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.

Images: Virtual Museum Exhibit, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Anacostia, D.C..

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