Thursday, May 28, 2015

Frederick Douglass's Relationship Advice

Frederick Douglass to Harriet Bailey (aka Ruth Cox), London, 18 Aug 1846, Addition II, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress. Written upon hearing of Harriet's engagement, when he was not aware that she had an intended.
I can not do any thing that looks like favoring a thing which I know nothing about especially a thing involving so grave a matter as that of marriage. It is a solemn matter. I wish I had time to write you such a letter as the solemn importance of the subject demands. Marriage is one act of our lives once performed it cannot be undone -- It is not a think which may be entered into to day and given up to morrow -- but must last so long as live continues -- I therefore counsel that you seriously consider before you take the step -- it may lead to a life of misery and wretchedness for which you alone must be responsible...I should rejoice to see you married tomorrow if I felt you were marrying some one worthy of you. It would in deed spread a dark cloud over my soul to see you marry some ignorant idle worthless person unable to take care of you or himself either -- I would rather follow you to your grave than to do that. You ought not to marry any ignorant and unlearned person -- you might as well tie yourself to a log of wood as to do so...

From the North Star, 20 October 1848:
A Word to the Ladies -- Is not much of the folly and dissipation of the times chargeable to the ladies? Do they not give their sweet smiles and pleasant voices to those who dress the best and are the most extravagant? Will a lady be so particular to stop in the street and talk with a mechanic as she will to a well dressed gentleman? -- pauper we were about to say.
                We can point to many a woman, who gave her heart and hand to a mealy-mouthed, delicate skinned, oily haired, fashionable young man, who has bitterly rued the day of her choice. A man who has but little business except to curl his hair, consult the tailor and talk insipidly, is not fit for a husband -- we care not how much money he may count.
                So long as young women are so unwise as to smile on such, there will be folly and dissipation among our young men. Ladies should be wise and consult their duty and future happiness. Young women, will you not reflect upon this subject?

Frederick Douglass to Rosetta Douglass Sprague, Port au Prince, Haiti, 23 Jan 1891, Addition 1, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.  Charles Morris was a young journalist in Washington, D.C.. Annie was Rosetta Sprague's eldest daughter and Douglass's granddaughter.

...If Morris and Annie are going to make a match, I hope they will not delay the matter. These long delays only bring trouble. None of my business I know it but one will think. I have known a good deal and among other things I have known young me to keep company with a lady and then keep all others at a distance and when the lady was no longer young leave her – I do not say that any such fate awaits our Annie – I hope otherwise....

And two months later:  Frederick Douglass to Rosetta Douglass Sprague, Port au Prince, Haiti, 6 March 1891, Addition 1, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress. Nathan was Annie's father, Rosetta's husband, and was generally in and out of Douglass's favor.

...I meant all I implied in my reference to the case of Morris and our dear Annie. He should declare his purposes of keeping company with her or leave her course in clear in the world, and Nathan should tell him so – Annie is no longer a child to be trifled with, and I hope Morris is not trifling with her or trifling with himself. The life of a young woman is a solemn concern: One mistak step and her life is spoiled – If after keeping her company two or three years she is not married but all at once dropt – people draw conclusions unfavorable to her Now my dear Ros, Do not hurt the feelings of either Mr Morris or dear Annie, but I charge you as you value the future of your Daughter, to have a decision in the matter. Depend upon it I am right. Talk it over with Nathan. Tell him of the serious face I put upon it. He has strong good sense and I think he will see the matter in the same light as I see it in....

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Document: "Woman's Protection Union," North Star, 15 Sept 1848

(Don't sign into your account for a few months and they go and change things up and you end up spending an hour just trying to muddle your way back in. Lesson learned.)

From the North Star,15 September 1848:

Woman's Protection Union
    At meeting held August 18th, 1848, a the Hall of the Mechanic’ Protection the following Preamble and Constitution were adopted, viz:
     Whereas, These truths are self-evident, that all women as well as men, are created equal -- that they are endowed alike with inherent and inalienable rights -- that the laws of nature and nature’s God, entitle them equally with men to the products of their labor or its equivalent; and Whereas, the usages and customs of society are such at the present day as to exert a prejudicial influence on woman as a class -- having a tendency to oppress and injure, rather than elevate and benefit -- to degrade and impoverish, rather than enrich and enlighten -- to encroach upon their rights and privileges -- to subvert their best interests, making them subservient to the will of man -- to obstruct, if not entirely to close all avenues leading to those stations of honor and respectability to which nature and right of equality so justly entitle them -- and whereas, individual effort is found insufficient to correct the existing evils of society in this respect:
     Therefore, We whose names are hereunto annexed, do agree to associate ourselves together for the purpose of our individual and collective benefit and protection -- and for the purpose of securing harmonious actions, we do adopt the following.
                 Article 1. The name of this Society shall be “Woman’s Protection Union,” of the city of Rochester, and shall be composed of such persons as will sign this Constitution.
                Article 2. The officers shall be a President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer, who shall hold their offices for the term of six months.
                Article 3. Each woman on becoming a member, shall pay the sum of five cents; each man, the sum of twenty-five cents; but when the time shall arrive that woman receive an equality of remuneration for the same labor performed as men -- then this inequality of assessment shall cease.
                Article 4. The weekly dues shall be one cent for women and two cents for men.
                Article 5. The regular Meetings of the Society, shall be held on Friday, semi-monthly -- and ten members may form a quorum.
                The officers of the Society for the present term, are,
Mrs. ROBERTS, President
Mrs. Cavan, Vice-President.
Miss. S.C. Owens, Secretary.
Mrs. Amy Post, Treasurer.
The Regular Meeting will be held on Friday, September 15th, at half past 6 P.M., at the Hall of Mechanics’ Protection, where the friends of the movement are respectfully invited to attend and give such counsel, assistance and support, as may be in their power.
                SARAH C. OWENS, Secretary.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Long Time, No See

One of my students inquired about my absence from this blog for the past year and a half. What can I say? Book or blog? Book wins. It is not yet done, but the end is within reach. What began as a project synthesizing research about Douglass and women, with some original research included, grew into a project that now relies almost wholly on original research with only passing mention of secondary sources. Much of that has to do with the weaknesses in the secondary work in regard to the women in his life.

In any case, I kept a list of good items for blog posts. These include many cool stories that just don't fit into the book. Now, I'm hoping to get back to this blog, especially as the book winds down -- or up -- and before the production begins (and the attendant slashing and burning of whole chunks of the book, since it has gone WAY over word count).

Hope springs eternal, but I do have cool odds and ends that will appear here eventually.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Douglass in the News

Frederick Douglass usually appears in the news during February, Black History Month, although stories about contemporary issues and Civil Rights figures usually dominate the features. 

Sadly, in the past week, stories about rolling back civil rights gains of the entire history of the United States have appeared in the news. I don't know what Douglass himself would have to say about the climate of today, but such moments should make people living now understand that these fights have a historical context and that things a man said or did almost 200 years ago continue to speak truth to the hostility toward equality and progress today.

Here are two stories that appeared in my Google Alerts for news about Frederick Douglass. The first, written by Stan Simpson and appearing in the Hartford Courant, tells of Douglass's awakening to the connection between literacy, critical thinking, and freedom of both the body and the mind. I confess that, over twenty years ago when I first read Douglass's Narrative (or remember reading it), that moment in his story made me love it. In this day,"they" or "the business community" or whoever drives education reform demean the liberal arts by demanding a "skilled workforce." Yet, Douglass's describes precisely the ways that reading and exposure to new ideas through words and books develop creativity and the skill of thinking necessary to survival in this complex world.

Stan Simpson, "Fight the Power of Ignorance to Enslave," Hartford (Ct) Courant, 28 Feb 2013.

The second story is by Leigh Fought -- ME!  In this story, which appeared in the Syracuse Standard, I make connections to interracial relationships, which were so reviled through most of U.S. history (and, I might add from personal experience, are still reviled today), Frederick Douglass's activism and second marriage, and gay rights. Please note, I am not saying that Douglass would support gay marriage if he were alive today. I don't want to speak for him over a century after his death. I was just using his life to illuminate and illustrate an issue today.

Leigh Fought, "Commentary: Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage," Syracuse (NY) Standard, 25 Feb 2013.

Also illustrated, the poor reading comprehension skills and ugly bigotry of the majority of commenters. That, I suppose, demonstrates a slight flaw in Douglass's connection of literacy to ideas. The reader has to understand what he reads before he can be enlightened by the words. That, or not exploit the newspaper's platform to hammer their own issue.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Ann Coughlan on Douglass's Visit to Ireland

Last week, during the preparations for the Frederick Douglass in Ireland event at St. John Fisher College, (which was -- as the Irish say -- grand!) organizer Tim Madigan interviewed one of the speakers, Ann Coughlan, for the college television station. Coughlan is a PhD candidate in literature at University College-Cork, and her dissertation is on Douglass's visit to Ireland. Her paper at the event was a lovely dissection of Douglass's language as he described poverty in Ireland. As she says, he was a marvelous writer, and that sometimes gets lost in all of the discussion over the contents of his writing and the actions of his life. He could put together a moving, beautiful sentence, and structure a story with the best of them.

Here, Coughlan discusses her own work and interests more generally.

cardinaltv on Broadcast Live Free

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sarah O. Pettit, Frederick Douglass's "Sister"

Louisville Ky Sept 26th 1883
My Dear Brother
        I again write you a few lines to let you know that I am still on the enquire -- for you as it has been a number of years since we have met still i have never forgotten that you are my Brother. -- I have written to you several times but received no reply.
        as I have some very important business to attend to & if I can only get a line from you then I can go through I am a S.M.T. & it is something of importance you will be ever so kind to me by answering this I am a member of Deborah Temple No 28 -- my W.P. lives on Tenth st hear by where you stoped when you was here some time ago at Mrs Harris' she died not long ago --
        I will write you a good long letter if you will only drop me a few lines then i will tell you the particulars & all about the Business that I wish to attend to for it will be by & through you that I can succeed in my undertaking

Alls Well All is Well & send much love to you
        Your affect Sister
                   Sarah O. Pettit

        direct your letter to me in this way
Mrs. Sarah Pettit
         Louisville Ky
         No 415 -- First street
         Bet Green & Jefferson

Please hasten to reply.

--- Sarah O. Pettit to Frederick Douglass, Louisville, Kentucky, 26 Sept 1883,
General Correspondence, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.
(p. 1, 2, 3)
Both Dickson Preston, author of Young Frederick Douglass, and William McFeely, author of Frederick Douglass, suspected that Sarah O. Pettit was Douglass's sister. After all, Douglass had an older sister named Sarah, born in 1814. In 1832, while Douglass was still Frederick Bailey and studying The Columbian Orator in stolen moments in Baltimore, Sarah and her infant, Henry, along with her aunt Betty and Betty's small children, Angeline, Lavinia and Isaac, were all cuffed into a slave coffle and sold south to Mississippi.
Preston assumed that a woman named Sarah, identifying herself as "sister" and noting the long time since their last meeting, would be that same Sarah lost a half a century earlier. McFeely, who characterized this letter as "bleak," (317), speculated that "Douglass may have concluded that Sarah Pettit was not his sister." (317) He implied that Douglass wanted to escape his slave past and concluded that, sister or not, "nothing in the record suggests that it [the letter] resulted in any sort of reconstruction of her family, or of Douglass's." (317) I confess that, as an editor on the Frederick Douglass Papers project, I went along with these assumptions, which led me to pull up this letter while working on the reconstruction of Douglass's childhood. 
Already, with my experience with Ruth Cox Adams, also known as Harriet Bailey or Harriet Adams, and with my passing familiarity with African American vernacular, I approached the use of the affectionate terms "sister" and "brother" with a more discerning eye. "Sisters" and "Brothers" are often related by kinship other than blood.
Both Preston and McFeely interpret this as the first and probably only correspondence between Douglass and Pettit. To me, that seemed off. Compare the tone and content of this letter with the one that he received from his brother Perry Downs.  Downs carefully established the veracity of his claim by mentioning their grandparents, their childhood home, the name of their master, and a particular incident that occured on the last time that they saw one another. None of that appears in Pettit's letter, which could mean that they had met more recently than the late 1820s and early 1830s.
The references to a Temple and the abbreviations, however, caught my eye. This seemed almost masonic. If not masonic, then some similar organization. That's where Google can be a good research tool, at least at first. A search for "SMT" of course turned up nothing of use. "'Deborah Temple' Louisville Kentucky," however, turned up History of the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten ( has a better version), with a Deborah Temple in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, SMT stands for Sisters of the Mysterious Ten. "Sister" and "Brother" meant that they were fellow members, or supporter in his case, of this organization (as well as in the battle against racism). Her business probably had some connection to that. I haven't been able to find her in the census just yet, although I have found a white woman named Sarah A. Petitt in 1850 and 1860. White people may have belonged to this organization, or she may have been light-skinned enough to pass to a census-taker, but Sarah A is probably not the same person as Sarah O; and Sarah O. Pettit was not the daughter of Harriet Bailey and sister of Frederick Bailey. That Sarah was gone.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Frederick Douglass in Ireland" Conference (Feb. 22, 2013)

Next Friday, St. John Fisher's College in Rochester, New York, will be holding a day-long conference "Frederick Douglass and Ireland." The conference is open to the public and yours truly will be on between 1:25 and 2:20 pm. The schedule suggests that I will be talking about Douglass and women's suffrage; but, after talking with organizer Timothy Madigan, we concluded that something connecting Rochester, women, and Ireland (or at least the British Isles) might be more intriguing and pertinent. So, expect something on Julia Griffiths and a tiny bit on Isabel Jennings.

Here is the schedule:

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Exploring the Lives of Anna Douglass through History and Poetry"

Last fall I participated in the program "Exploring the Lives of Anna Douglass through History and Poetry" at Villanova University along with poet Nzadi Kieta. I presented my paper "Anna Murray: Mrs. Frederick Douglass," and Nzadi read from her cycle of poems in Anna's voice. This is the video of that lovely evening. I go first, giving Anna's story the historical bones, then Nzadi fleshes out and animates her life.

Many thanks to the Gender and Women's Studies and Africana Studies department who made this happen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Two New Books on Frederick Douglass

Two new books are out on Frederick Douglass, each taking a look at different aspects of his life.

First up, L. Diane Barnes's Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman (click on title to order), part of the Routledge Historical Americans series. From the website:
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, in February, 1818. From these humble beginnings, Douglass went on to become a world-famous orator, newspaper editor, and champion of the rights of women and African Americans. He was the most prominent African American activist of the 19th century. He remains important in American history because he moved beyond relief at his own personal freedom to dedicating his life to the progress of his race and his country.

This volume offers a short biographical exploration of Douglass' life in the broader context of the 19th century world, and pulls together some of his most important writings on slavery, civil rights, and political issues. Bolstered by the series website, which provides instructors with more images and documents, as well as targeted links to further research, Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman gives the student of American history a fully-rounded glimpse into the world inhabited by this great figure.
I worked with Diane on the Frederick Douglass Papers correspondence series, and she is both a fabulous researcher and writer.

The second book is Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia, by John Muller (click on title to pre-order) and published by The History Press. From the website:
The remarkable journey of Frederick Douglass from fugitive slave to famed orator and author is well recorded. Yet little has been written about Douglass’s final years in Washington, D.C. Journalist John Muller explores how Douglass spent the last eighteen years of his life professionally and personally in his home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia. The ever-active Douglass was involved in local politics, from aiding in the early formation of Howard University to editing a groundbreaking newspaper to serving as marshal of the District. During this time, his wife of forty-four years, Anna Murray, passed away, and eighteen months later, he married Helen Pitts, a white woman. Unapologetic for his controversial marriage, Douglass continued his unabashed advocacy for the rights of African Americans and women and his belief in American exceptionalism. Through meticulous research, Muller has created a fresh and intimate portrait of Frederick Douglass of Anacostia.
John is a journalist in D.C. and has combed through previously untapped sources to reconstruct Douglass's life in the nation's capitol, both at home and in the halls of power, in ways that no other biographer has done.

In bypassing a traditional, born-lived-died, biography of Douglass in order to focus on a particular aspect of his life, both Muller and Barnes will enrich understanding of the Big Man's life, providing detail and nuance that can shift perceptions of Douglass with seismic force.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sir Walter Scott Memorial, Edinburgh

Frederick Douglass to William A. White, Edinburgh, Scotland, 30 July 1846:

"You will perceive that I am now in Edinburgh. It is the capital of Scotland -- and is justly regarded as one of the most beatuful [sic] cities in Urope [sic]. I never saw one with which for beauty elegance and grandeur to compare it. I have not time even had I the ability to describe it. You must come and see it if you visit this country. You will be delighted with it I am sure. The monument to Sir Walter Scott -- on pinces street , is just one conglomeration of architectural beauties.

The Calton Hill -- Salsbury Craggs and Arthur Seat give the city advantages over any City I have ever visited in this or your country.

I enjoy every thing here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue -- no distinction here."

I confess that I have wanted to see the Scott monument since I read this letter over a decade ago. I also confess that the main reason that I wanted to see it had nothing to do with Douglass or with Scott or with the architectural wonders of Edinburgh.

No, the main attraction of this monument was this:

Not Scott, but the furry companion next to him.:

Although he said nothing about the inclusion of the faithful companion, Douglass probably had a fondness for the monument that went beyond his own appreciation for Scott's poetry. After all, remember Nellie Grant?