ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Spotting a familiar name in a marble headstone company’s ledgers led a volunteer archivist to a breathtaking discovery: the long-forgotten graves of Frederick Douglass’ eldest daughter, Rosetta, and her family.

The scribbled name of Alice Louisa Sprague sent Jean Czerkas scampering through a well-traveled section of sprawling Mount Hope Cemetery, a half-mile from where Douglass was buried in 1895.

On a grassy slope studded with tombstones, she came upon the modest burial plot of Rosetta Douglass Sprague, her husband, Nathan, and three of their six children, Alice, Annie and Harriet.

Czerkas, a white-haired landscape historian, has volunteered her expertise as an archivist to the nonprofit Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery for 14 years.

“I recognized that name Sprague immediately because of research I’ve done on Douglass,” she said Friday, a day after her discovery. “It was just unbelievable. I swear, I don’t think I took a breath.”

Somehow, the location of the Sprague grave was lost decades ago.

In front of a 5-foot-tall monument engraved with the family’s names, which are barely discernible in the crumbling marble, are flat stones bearing the words “Mother,” “Father” and each daughter’s first name. Alice died at age 6 of congestive heart failure.

Douglass, the anti-slavery crusader, spent 25 of his most influential years as an orator and abolitionist in Rochester, publishing The North Star journal on Main Street.

When he moved his young family here in the late 1840s, Rosetta was a focal point in his 12-year battle to open up the city’s public schools to blacks. Rather than put her in a poorly equipped all-black school, he sent her to a private school in Albany and later hired tutors for her and her four siblings.

“It’s a very nice thing that now we know where she ended up and that some of her children are there as well,” said biographer William S. McFeely, author of “Frederick Douglass.”

Douglass was saddened that Sprague didn’t turn out to be a “natural leader like him or like his many remarkable women friends” in the anti-slavery or suffragist movements, McFeely said.

“He pressed her and I think it was very tough on her,” he said. “Eventually she married and had all those children. I think domestic life was what she wanted.”

Sprague wrote a biography of her father’s first wife, titled “Anna Murray Douglass: My Mother As I Recall Her,” and some of her daughters became active in women’s rights activities at the turn of the 20th century, McFeely said. She died in 1906 at age 67.

Historians are still searching for the burial sites in Maryland of Douglass’ three sons. They were moved from another cemetery that was shut down.

The Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery was set up in 1980 to help restore the nation’s first municipal Victorian cemetery to its former glory. More than 370,000 people are buried in the hilly, 196-acre site just south of downtown.

Next weekend, the group will stage a re-enactment of Douglass’ funeral in May 1895. He died in February when the ground was frozen and could not be buried immediately.

Born into slavery around 1817, Douglass escaped in 1838, fled north and became a famed political campaigner. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865. A public statue of Douglass erected here in 1898 was the first in the nation to honor a black American.

AP-ES-05-02-03 1724EDT



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