Monday, March 20, 2017

LA Times Festival of Books, April 22-23, 2017

Well this is a whole new level: I've been asked to be on the panel "Biography: The Women Behind the Power" at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April. The panel includes Blanche Wiesen Cook of Eleanor Roosevelt biography fame, Lisa Napoli, and Susan Quinn.

I actually met Cook ages ago in 2000, in Houston. She did a book reading at the Brazos Bookstore (I think it was), then joined the Women's Group for dinner at a place in West U. where we all gushed over her. I have a picture somewhere. That was the summer before my internship at the Margaret Sanger Papers at NYU.

This is all so amazing! I've never been to Los Angeles! They want authors to meet in a greenroom before their sessions. They asked if we wanted to do media, as in radio and t.v. They wanted a dang headshot! I joke that I shall return all tan, wearing big sun glasses, and waxed from my eyebrows to my toes.  How much will this count on my 15 minutes of fame?

In any case, my panel is on Saturday, April 22, 2017, at 10:30 am.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Yes, the Book Will be a Thing in the World!

I haven't written on this blog in ages. The situation became one in which I could write the blog or write the book, and the book won. Now, it is actually coming out! Officially, the publication date is May 2017 -- that's this May -- although it should be available in April.

The title is now Women in the World of Frederick Douglass.

You can order through the Oxford University Press website,, and Barnes & Noble. It's available as a regular book or an e-book.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Widow Douglass at the National League of Colored Women

Helen Douglass, Frederick's second wife, attempted to carry on the work of her husband. In 1896, she attended the National League of Colored Women's convention in Washington, D.C. The Indianapolis Freeman, a black newspaper, described the meeting as attended by "some of the brainiest women of the race."

They reported this about Douglass:
Mrs. Helen Douglass, widow of the late Frederick Douglass, read a paper. She called particular attention to the [illegible] life of the cities of the Union, and urged that they should unite and bring about a reform in this matter. If the colored women of Washington would unite, she said, they could put an end to living in alleys, and no longer would come from them a steady stream for the workhouse and almshouse.
She spoke of the police court. They ought to find means to keep as many as possible from the place. But there seemed to be a prejudice, and the policeman would pick up a poor old man who sad down weary for a moment in some forbidden place in a park or some thoughtless boy who might pick a magnolia blossom. They would be sent to prison from court the next day. When leniency was to be exercised it was reserved for those who had recklessly taken human life. This was greeted with applause.

Later, Helen invited all of the women up to Cedar Hill on a pilgrimage to view the home of Frederick Douglass. She already had a plan to turn the house into a memorial museum, and these ladies were the key people to court in that regard.

If you've been to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Park in Anacostia, D.C., you have seen that she succeeded.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Not Quite So Underground Railroad, 1850s

When he wrote his Narrative in 1845, Douglass said:
I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which, I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad.
After all, publicity sort of defeated the purpose. But the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and his own growing militancy must have changed his mind.

From Frederick Douglass' Paper, 3 August 1855:

 The U.G.R.R. -- Syracuse Station -- the agent and keeper of the Underground Railroad Depot in this city, Rev. Mr. Loguen, is now busily engaged in providing places for the company of eight fugitives that arrived here on Friday night. He is determined to seek his assistance under like circumstances. We trust that the true lovers of liberty will stand by Loguen in his endeavors in behalf of his poor oppressed brethren who escape from bondage. Those in want of laboring men or women, will do well to call on Loguen, or leave their names with Mr. Wm. E. Abbot. -- Syracuse Journal.
From Frederick Douglass' Paper, 23 July 1858:

To the friends of Humanity:    The entire care of the fugitives who may stop at Syracuse, for comfort and assistance, having been devolved upon me by the Fugitive Aid Society, I hereby give notice that I shall devote myself assiduously to the duties I have undertaken to discharge. I must depend for the support of my family and of the operations I am to conduct, upon the liberality of the friends of freedom, I shall gratefully receive money, clothes and provisions. I will make a faithful use of the same; and will report semi-annually (in Frederick Douglass' Paper, and the Syracuse Standard and Journal) the amounts that I have received and of the numbers of Fugitives that I have sheltered and found homes for. Meanwhile, and at all times, my accounts will be open for the inspection of the friends of the cause.
J.W. Loguen
Syracuse, N.Y. 1858.

The members of the Syracuse Fugitive Aid Society find it no longer convenient nor necessary, to keep up their organization. The labor of sheltering those who flee from Tyranny, providing for their immediate wants, and helping them to find safe homes in this country or Canada, must needs devolve, as it always has devolved, upon a very few individuals. --- Hitherto, since 1850, it has been done for the most part by Rev. J.W. Loguen. He having been a slave and a fugitive himself, knows best how to provide for that class of sufferers, and to guard against imposition.
Mr. Loguen has agreed to devote himself wholly to this humane work; and to depend for the support of himself and family, as well as the maintainance of this Depot on the Under Ground Railroad, upon what the benevolent and friendly may give him.
We, therefore, hereby request, that all fugitives from Slavery,  coming this way, may be directed to the care of Rev. J.W. Loguen; also, that all monies contributed or subscribed may be paid directly to him; and that all clothing or provisions contributed may be sent to his house, or such places as he may designate.
Mr. Loguen will make semi-annual reports of his receipts of money, clothes or provisions; and of the numbers of fugitives taken care of and provided for by him; and he will submit his accounts at any time, to the inspection of any persons who are interested in the success of the Underground Railroad.
Syracuse, Sept. 17, 1857.
Those two notices appeared in Frederick Douglass's Paper through the late 1850s until he stopped publishing the weekly in 1860 (he continued publishing Douglass' Monthly until 1863). Loguen's reports of the fugitives whom he had helped also appeared in the paper.

When I first moved north from Texas, it seemed that every town and every house built before 1950 claimed to be a stop on the Underground Railroad (and, because I lived in Indiana, everywhere seemed to claim some significance in Abraham Lincoln's childhood -- sort of a mid-west version of "George Washington slept here"). Usually the claim rested the presence of a small closet or cellar room. Even in Mystic, Connecticut, someone who really should have known better said of a historic house, "there is a small cupboard in the dining room. We don't know what it was used for, we don't have any documentation, but we think it might have been a hiding place for runaway slaves."

If you do look at the documentation, however, you will find such things as these notices. Like Douglass said, it was a bit of an "upperground railroad." Not everyone was quite so bold as Loguen -- he was kinda badass in giving the finger to the Fugitive Slave Law. Perhaps the League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts, surpassed him, but they are a story unto themselves. In any case, there are records. William Still recorded the people who showed up at the Philadelphia Antislavery Society's office, and published them later as The Underground Railroad:

The Coffins in Indiana actually did help runaways, and he kept a journal of the people who passed through. The Rochester Ladies' Antislavery Society and Sewing Circle also have a record of the people whom Douglass helped on their way to Canada, and the Census suggests that one or two young men stayed on to apprentice at his papers.

If anyone is interested in digital history, perhaps a database of these freedom-seekers might be an interesting project, not just in the gathering, but also in making an attempt to quantify this sort of resistance and in seeing what other information might emerge.

By the way, remember that this is the site of Loguen's "depot" today:

Remember also that Douglass's son, Lewis, married Loguen's daughter, Amelia. Another Loguen daughter, Sarah "Aunt Tinnie," a doctor, visited Douglass and his second wife in Haiti and there she met the man who became her husband. She's also another story for another time. Douglass had a "sister" (fictive kin) who, after living with the Douglass family for nearly four years, married, moved to Springfield, and joined that League of Gileadites. But, she, too, is another story for another time.

Friday, July 17, 2015

State Convention of the Colored People of North Carolina, 1865

In Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Society of Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) are holding their annual meeting this week.:

If you go one block north, here is what you will find:
That is an AME Church, although it is an early 20th century upgrade from the one that stood there in 1865.

You can read a report of the convention's proceedings at the Colored Conventions website.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Who Are The People By the Bay Window?

Let's take a closer look at the picture of the bay window -- and the house attached to it.:

That appears to be Douglass there, just to the right of center, wearing the top hat. I'm guessing that is Anna there on the far right and Rosetta on the far left. I'm basing that guess on the shape of Rosetta's head as it appears here and in another picture of her from the 1860s, presuming that she still wore her hair in a similar fashion. Anna was a little more stout than her daughter, and that appears to be the case between these two women. Anna was supposed to have had darker skin, but you can never tell from photographs because of the light, exposure, deterioration of the object, and other factors that alter coloring. (I wish some of those sorts who do all of that textual reading of historic photographs could figure that out, but I digress.) 
The taller woman standing against the front door frame could be Louisa Sprague. The assorted little girls would probably be Annie, Harriet, and Estelle Sprague. If this picture was taken while Rosetta lived with her parents from 1876 to about 1878, Then Annie was between 11 and 13. Harriet was 10 to 12, and Estelle was 6 to 8. They had a sister, Alice, between Harriet and Estelle, but she had died in 1875. They also had a little sister, Fredericka, and a little brother, Herbert, ages 4 to 6 and 1 to 3 respectively. If this was taken in 1877, then the other man was the dishonored Nathan, fresh from jail in New York. 

This configuration of the household was not uncommon. There was a reason Douglass kept adding onto the house. In fact, take a look at the architecture. His granddaughter, Fredericka, later described the house as "really two connecting houses. Communicating doors were cut through the halls both up and down stairs, thus enabling the family to have desired ample space." According to her, subsequent owners blocked up the connecting doorways and the one house became two.When he moved to Cedar Hill, which was bigger than this house, he enlarged it, as well. 

The front parlor lay beyond the bay window. Fredericka said that Douglass, despite having another room dedicated to his study, sometimes annexed this room, as well. You can read Fredericka's full account of her grandfather in her reminiscences located in the Frederick Douglass Collection in the Moorland-Spingarn Center at Howard University. They are quite charming.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"The Bay Window is Now Finished"

I love finding little pieces in different documents that fit together like a puzzle, even if they are inconsequential.

In her memoir of her mother, Rosetta told a story about Anna Douglass's "grim humor":
On one occasion several young women called upon her and commenting on her spacious parlors and the approaching holiday season, thought it a favorable opportunity to suggest the keeping of an open house. Mother replied: “I have been keeping open house for several weeks. I have it closed now and I expect to keep it closed.” The young woman thinking mother’s understanding was at fault, endeavored to explain. They were assured, however, that they were fully understood. Father, who was present, laughingly pointed to the new bay window, which had been completed only a few days previous to their call.[i]

I had always assumed that took place in Rochester, perhaps because my research was stuck in Rochester or because Cedar Hill really doesn’t have a bay window that might fit the description, at least not on a floor where Anna might receive company.

Then I came across this letter from Louisa Sprague, who had temporarily taken the Douglass last name, writing to Frederick, who was passing through Rochester on his way back from a tour through the West. The “West” in those days meant St. Louis, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Michigan. She updated Frederick on the household:
My dear father, 
We are very sorry to here that sister Rose is so sick. Mother got a letter from Brother Nathan yesterday saying that she was very sick but he did not say what was the matter. Mother was very unease untell I got your letter to day. We were glad to here that you have left Omaha for Mother was very unease a bout you as well. the Bay Window is now finish. We have been visiting the Capitle and the house this week.  the weather has been very coal here. Mother and Miss pieran sends love to you. We had little Fred a one night with us. your daughter      
 Lou Douglass[ii] 

Charles Douglass, now living in Washington, D.C., too, looked in on the ladies and reported:
 On Sunday morning last I took mother, Miss Peirce, and Louisa to the Presbyterian Church in the large carriage. It was a beautiful day, and to day seems like spring. Ladies are out with parasols. The bay window has been completed, and is now ready for use.[iii]

Lou, incidentally, liked the carriage, especially when she could drive (but that's another story). 

The Douglasses lived neither in Rochester nor on Cedar Hill in 1873. They had just moved to A Street, NE, that June, after their house in Rochester had burned down. Louisa joined them in October (that is also another story).

This house was located just behind the U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress -- near the Folger Shakespeare Library, which would have pleased Frederick.  When Louisa says that they went to visit, they only had to walk a block or two. Frederick was in the thick of things there, and so was Anna. She had never courted the limelight or the type of upper class socializing that required holding an open house. She had things to do.

I like that Frederick was amused by her way of expression. He was a man who appreciated words and, with his love of Shakespeare, appreciated a good pun. They may have had divergent differences over the decades, but if she could make a play on words, there was something about her that he appreciated beyond her housekeeping skills.

Here is the house with the bay window back then:

Here is the house with the bay window in 2009:

[i] Rosetta Douglass Sprague, “My Mother As I Recall Her,” 1900, Family Papers, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.
[ii] “LouDouglass” [Louisa Sprague] to FD, Washington, D.C., 31 Jan 1873, Frederick Douglass Paper, Library of Congress.
[iii] Charles Douglass to FrederickDouglass, Washington, D.C., 16 Jan 1873, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.

Image credits: 
Historic photo of house: Frederick Douglass in Front of his A St NE Home, Frederick Douglass, Family and Groups, Photo Gallery, National Parks Service.
2009 photo of house: Me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Woman's Rights Convention," North Star, 14 July 1848

From the  North Star, 14 July 1848:

Woman's Rights Convention.
A Convention to Discuss the Social, Civil and Religious Conditions and Rights of Woman, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel at Seneca Falls, New York, on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July instant.
During the first day, the meetings will be exclusively for women, which all are earnestly invited to attend. The public generally are invited to be resent on the second day, when Lucrectia Mott, of Philadelphia, and others, both ladies and gentlemen, will address the Convention.
Also on that day, Douglass wrote to Elizabeth McClintock, one of the organizers of the convention:
Dear Elizabeth,
To be sure I will do myself the pleasure of accepting your kind invitation, to attend the proposed woman's convention at Seneca falls. I think that one or two or more of the Post family will be present also. Your notice did not reach me in time for this paper -- but happily I received one from our mutual Friend Lucretia Mott.
With Dear love to the family I am most sincerely, Yours
Frederick Douglass 
If you are in the Seneca Falls vicinity next weekend, you may be interested in attending their Convention Days Celebration, where they will be displaying the original of Douglass's letter to McClintock, Elizabeth Cady Stanton will give a tour of her home, and Elizabeth Smith Miller will speak on dress reform (she wore the Bloomer costume before Bloomer did), among many other interesting programs.

Sadly, I shall be schmoozing  attending to business at a conference in Raleigh, NC, this year, but I've gone in the past and they put on a top notch show with many a woman's rights history nerds -- always a fantastic experience!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Graham Crackers

Speaking of Douglass family foods, Frederick himself liked Graham crackers.

In 1874, he wrote to his disreputable son-in-law, Nathan Sprague, who was working hard to stay in the Douglass family's good graces:

My dear Nathan:I know your heart is full of trouble and care and I feel for you. But you are a brave man and while you will do all that a true man can, you will bear up under whatever other trouble which may be added to your present trials and griefs. My own health is not good – but I hope soon to grow better. I shall be very glad when the Graham Crackers come. They usually serve me a very good purpose. I have written to Louisa more about our house affairs and she will tell you. While Rosa is down, I will write all the more to Louisa –Your father in Law
Fredk Douglass[i]

My dear Nathan:
                I am obliged by your letter and also by a box of my favorite crackers. Matters are proceeding here about as usual. The boys are struggling manfully to keep their paper afloat. They had no notion of letting the paper fail, but I fear they will have to. If they do not, and make a success they will be entitled to a large measure of praise. I have got myself in a hard place in this Freedman’s Bank and shall consider myself fortunate if I get out of it as easily as I got into it. I was wanted to bolster up the credit of the concern and to get through some legislation in its favor. When this is done as I hope it will be soon, I may separate myself from it, and go on with my literary work which I should have never abandoned.
                Love to Dear Rosetta, and the children.
                Truly yours,
                Fredk. Douglass[ii]

These Graham crackers were not at all like the sort made by Nabisco that you can buy today. They were a heftier, grittier cracker made with coarse graham flour and less sugarSylvester Graham invented them as part of his special diet. His followers ate them to control certain, carnal urges that might lead to self-abuse, but they probably found that the crackers increased the urge to clean out their colons. Which was not necessarily a bad thing in an age of overly boiled vegetables and high fat meat.

Incidentally, "the boys" were Douglass's sons, whose newspaper, The New National Era, closed operation that October. Douglass had been editor of the paper for a while, but had too much else to do and was losing money at too fast a rate to stay part of the business. The newspaper competition was stiff, and more so for black papers, so this was not some failure of character or laziness on the part of the sons, as many of their father's biographers would have it. The same for Douglass's involvement in the Freedman's Bank, especially in the economically risky years of the 1870s. 

[i] Frederick Douglass to Nathan Sprague, [n.d.], [n.p.], Addition I, FDP, DCL

[ii] FD to Nathan Sprague, Washington, D.C., 30 May 1874 [typescript]

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Maryland Biscuits

Maryland Biscuits
Julia Griffiths, now an English dowager of sorts, step-mother to three girls, sent her greetings to Anna Douglass and fondly recalled the American woman's "Maryland biscuits."

That seemed a strange designation until I realized that Julia, being English, would likely not have encountered the American version of a "biscuit," ours being closer to an English scone and we referring to English version of biscuits as "cookies." (Mmmmmm.....cookie!) So, I imagined a scene in which Anna served biscuits to Julia, who asked what they were. Anna said, "biscuits," to which Julia said something like "these aren't like biscuits in England," and Anna replied, "well, these are Maryland biscuits."

Then, I came across a letter from Louisa Sprague, who lived with the Douglasses from 1871 until Anna died and Frederick remarried. She, too, was from Maryland, although not the same part as Anna. Anna came from the Eastern Shore and Louisa was probably from Prince Georges County. Louisa wrote to Frederick: "this is Sunday morning and I thought instead of making marlland Biskits I would try send you a line." [i]

"Marland Biskits": Maryland biscuits.  Louisa would have no need to designate these as particular, unless there were, in fact a particular kind of biscuit. So, using Prof. Google (shhh...don't tell!) I found that they were, in fact a type of biscuit made by beating the dough to make it rise. (Why would beating make it rise? Science.) The recipe is specific to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Anna probably learned how to make them from her mother.

I also like to think that beating the dough was her form of therapy, not just when Frederick and the kids bothered her, but when she had to think of the things they went through. I also like to think that, if Julia remembered them, they must have been tasty.

[i] Louisa Sprague to FD, Washington, D.C., 15 July 1883, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.