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The Backstory: There is more to the Frederick Douglass story. Her name is Anna Murray Douglass.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/10/2020 Nicole Carroll, USA TODAY

I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

Her name was Anna Murray Douglass. One of 12 children, her parents were enslaved on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She left home at 17 to work as a domestic helper. She saved enough money to help her fiance, Frederick, escape slavery and start a new life. 

We were discussing the immense work and legacy of Frederick Douglass at our morning news meeting this week when editor Anika Reed spoke up about the lesser-known Anna Murray Douglass. 

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Frederick's wife of 44 years doesn't get enough credit for making his accomplishments possible, Reed said. 

She's absolutely right.

The social chatter about Anna grew over the holiday weekend when we remembered her husband's famous speech of July 5, 1852, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" But this is a conversation that started at least as far back as 1900, when their daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague delivered a speech about Anna that later became the paper, "My Mother as I Recall Her." 

"Her courage, her sympathy at the start was the mainspring that supported the career of Frederick Douglass," Sprague wrote. "As is the condition of most wives her identity became so merged with that of her husband, that few of their earlier friends in the North really knew and appreciated the full value of the woman who presided over the Douglass home for forty-four years." 

Anna was born in rural Maryland around 1813. She was the eighth of 12 children, Sprague wrote, the first of her siblings born after her parents became free.

She met Frederick Bailey, who was still enslaved, in Baltimore. He had been hired out to work there. He too was from Maryland's Eastern Shore. Anna saved enough money to help Frederick escape to New York, wearing a sailor's uniform she sewed for a disguise. They were married, changed their name to Douglass and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they began their abolitionist work.

Frederick was often gone for long periods of time, Sprague recounted: "It was then that mother with four children, the eldest in her sixth year, struggled to maintain the family amid much that would dampen the courage of many a young woman of to-day."

It was also dangerous, as Frederick had escaped slavery and Anna had helped him. They could be pursued at any time. 

Anna helped support the family by binding shoes and taking in laundry.

Sprague wrote that her father admired her mother's financial management: "During his absence abroad, he sent, as he could, support for his family, and on his coming home he supposed there would be some bills to settle." But when he would return, Anna would show him the bank book with his earnings deposited as well as hers. There were no debts.

The family eventually settled in Rochester, New York, where Frederick ran the North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper, and continued his travels. Anna's house was busy, hosting guests in the anti-slavery movement and helping at least 100 others seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.

David Blight won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom." He says Anna "was more than a helpmate. She was the person who kept the home alive."

"Of course she deserves credit," Blight says, "tremendous credit, making possible his constant travel, making it possible for him to go on the road and make a living as best he could."

So why don't we know more about her? "It's the silence of Anna," he says. She didn't read or write, so there are no letters to her or by her. What we know, we know mainly from remembrances of her children. 

Anna and Frederick grew up three miles from each other, Blight says. When they met in Baltimore as young adults, he imagines but can't prove that "they must've just smiled and started talking about mutual cousins, where they grew up, and 'did you know so and so.' They had a lot in common."

Anna helped Frederick escape to New York, and followed a week later. "She was just as brave as he was to make that journey," Blight says.

Over time, as Frederick developed his career as a preeminent writer, speaker and newspaper editor, Anna managed the home. 

"She had to establish herself, fight for her own kind of space, no doubt," Blight says. "She had to gain respect and the way she could was by running that household. And his many, many absences, no doubt that had to have been a great struggle for her."

She was very private, he says, but was known for her garden and her "Maryland biscuits."

Anne raised five children. Her youngest and namesake, Annie, died just before her 11th birthday. She would have 21 grandchildren, Blight said, many of whom died early as well.

"In her own right, if we could ever get even closer to Anna," he says, "this must have been a very substantive woman."

When Reed saw the social media discussion about Anna, she started racking her brain. "Did I know about her?" she wondered. She felt "almost embarrassed" that she didn't.

"To have this Black woman serve as such a major support system, and the vehicle for him to be the leader he became, it was fascinating that her story isn’t more told, but not surprising, unfortunately," Reed said. 

She pointed out that we still see women, Black women in particular, and people from marginalized communities be hidden from history. 

"But it's something we (as journalists) have the opportunity to fix," she said. 

"There is always more to the story."

There is certainly more to the Frederick Douglass story.

Her name was Anna Murray Douglass. 

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Backstory: There is more to the Frederick Douglass story. Her name is Anna Murray Douglass.

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