In a letter dated July 11, 1889, Frederick Douglass laments the death of a friend. Composed on an early typewriter, the letter is addressed to William Brown, one of Worcester’s wealthiest Black residents and owner of an upholstery business in the city. Douglass writes, “I had few friends of the early times whom I remember more vividly and I may say lovingly than your dear departed wife.” Here, Douglass remembers his friend Martha Brown, who left behind a strong legacy of community leadership in Worcester (and beyond) upon her death.
Martha Ann Tulip was born on February 27, 1818, in Still River, a village in Harvard, Massachusetts. Several years after the death of her first husband, Marcellus Louis (or Lewis or Lewey), Martha Ann married William Brown, the recipient of Douglass’ letter. The two wed in 1849 at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester. Upon arriving in the city, Martha Ann quickly established herself as a community leader. For a time, she was the only non-white member of the Ladies Benevolent Society and had a hand in organizing benefits and social events for members of both the Black and white communities in Worcester.
In 2019, the Brown family library was donated to the AAS by Martha Ann and William Brown’s descendants. This collection of nearly 140 books reveals Martha’s role as not only a community leader, but a knowledge keeper. The Brown Family’s library includes books on civics, science, history, poetry and other topics. One volume, a commonplace or scrap-book, contains pressed botanical specimens and several notations in Martha Ann’s hand. Notably, many of the books are inscribed by Martha Ann and also bear the family’s home address at 4 Palmer Street. This suggests that the books were likely lent out to others at one time or another and that the Brown family residence on Palmer Street functioned as a library, presumably with Martha at its reference desk.
The books Martha Ann kept, and perhaps more importantly, the ways she used them, help to illuminate the story of her life in 19th century Worcester. The legacy of leadership and librarianship Martha left behind within the pages of the Brown family library – in connection with family photographs, correspondences and business notes also donated to the Society – remind us how much more there is to be learned about (and from) communities of color – and the women who stand at the center of them.