Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Random Paragraph about Douglass and his Mother

I have this paragraph that I really like but am afraid may be sliced up in revision. I'm posting it here so I can return and admire it from time to time:

The impossibility of answering these questions [about his mother] haunted Douglass and, in writing his autobiographies, he attempted to reconcile what he did know with what he hoped was true. Historians find themselves in sympathy with Douglass both in the absence of answers and the absence of his mother. In the face of the void, they accept his version with little question. The methods of the historical craft require that they do. In this case, at least, a conclusion of questions may be of greater service in understanding this world that shaped him from his birth. Unanswerable questions allow historians to understand the uncertainty that drove Douglass’s invention of his identity and that informed his responses to other people, particularly those with whom he was most intimate. This uncertainty also serves as a reminder that he was stripped of a network of family, which he attempted to reconstruct and defend through his own marriage and after the Civil War. Finally, these questions allow us not to know Harriet Bailey, but to consider her life with greater nuance in the absence of further evidence.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

From the First Draft of My Paper about Harriet Bailey, Douglass's Mother

This is from my first draft of my paper about Harriet Bailey, and an example of some of both my own limitations in sources at this particular time as well as an example of the way I'm trying to use questions to suggest a range of behavior without making up a conclusion in the absence of evidence:

Because Anthony seems a likely candidate for Douglass's father, and because so many both in Douglass’s time and since have accepted him as such, it is worth pondering what his fathering seven of his own slaves meant to the women in his household, especially Harriet Bailey.

How, for instance, did the white women in his own family react? These women included his sister, Elinor Malony, who hired Harriet during three of these pregnancies, and his daughter, Lucretia Auld, who was charmed by the child Frederick and made him her particular pet. Did Anthony impregnate his slave three times under the roof of his sister’s house? Did she approve, or turn a blind eye, or proselytize, or attack Harriet? Was this the reason that Harriet went to Holme Hill Farm rather than stay on with Malony? Similarly, did Lucretia Auld know that the little boy singing outside of her window in hopes of a little bread and butter was her half-brother? Did this explain her favor to the child, as some historians argue? Did she favor the other siblings, too? Was she wholly ignorant and Frederick’s natural charm alone captivated her? Did she not let herself know? Did she deny the veracity of rumors about her father, the ones that Frederick himself heard? Did she know but choose to respond kindly to the child who courted her favor? As Douglass himself pointed out, and hosts of historians who study slaveowning women have shown, the white mistresses very often hated and abused the children of their husbands. Ann Anthony, Aaron’s wife, did not figure into this story, living as she did, far from Harriet and her children and dying in 1818. The wives, however, had a different relationship to the master-father than his sister or daughter, so their reactions might vary. At the same time, their reactions also profoundly shapes the world of their enslaved nieces, nephews, half-brothers, half-sisters, and the woman who, in addition to being the victim of rape received the brunt of the white women’s wrath, the mother of these children.

With Anthony’s wife either on the far side of the county or gone, Lucretia Auld also on the far side, and Malony removed as her supervisor once she moved to Holme Hill farm, the question of ill-treatment by the white women of the Anthony family was rendered moot for Bailey. Still, she could not escape Anthony himself. What, then, was her range of choices in regard to his advances and her experience in bearing his children? His behavior toward another slave whom he also may have raped provides a clue. In his autobiographies, Douglass related a terrifying story of his aunt, Hester, Harriet’s younger sister, who was born in 1810, making just over two years older than Harriet’s oldest child. Douglass could not fix a date for this event; but, it took place during his two years at Wye House when Hester was between 14 and 16 years old. Hester and Edward “Ned” Roberts, one of the slaves belonging to Edward Lloyd, had taken an interest in one another and begun courting. Anthony forbid Hester to see Roberts and, when Hester defied Anthony, he beat her to a bloody pulp. In relating the story, Douglass intimated, “Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture.”
Contemporaries, historians, and literary scholars alike have used this incident as evidence of Anthony’s brutality. Dickson Preston, who studied this period of Douglass’s life in greatest detail, believed that the beating demonstrate mental illness or dementia. None, however, questioned the sexual dimension of the story, including Douglass himself. “When the motives of this brutal castigation are considered,” he wrote in 1855, “language has no power to convey a just sense of its awful criminality.” In 1882, he added that Anthony’s motives were “as abhorrent as they were contemptible,” and robbed his victim of any means “of the honourable perpetuation of the race.” In other words, Anthony had claimed Hester as his concubine and would not allow her a choice of husband for herself.

This incident suggests two points. First, if Anthony was the father of Harriet’s children, then these children were probably the product of serial rape, with beating as the penalty for resistance and, unlike the case of Sally Hemings, no discernable reward for submission. There is also no evidence to suggest that she could turn to another white man, as did Harriet Jacobs. While Douglass tactfully does not speculate specifically on his mother’s sexual treatment at the hands of their master, his inclusion of this event serves not only as a graphic example of both physical and sexual violence under slavery, but also as a way of shifting what he would not imagine about his mother’s experience onto her sister. That is not to say that the event did not take place and for the reasons stated. To also accept this story as fact leads to the second suggested point. This incident took place within the same period of time that Harriet gave birth to her last child and died. With his wife dead and his concubine dying, Anthony may have settled on Hester as her sister’s replacement. Jenny, Harriet’s next younger sister, was married and escaped north in 1825. Betty already had three children. Maryann was sold south in 1825, leaving Hester as the remaining sexually mature woman who was not already married or producing children. Anthony did not necessarily have to respect the bonds of marriage, such as they stood with slaves, but if one of his enslaved women were already producing children, thereby increasing his property, he had no reason to alter the arrangement if another woman were available. In Hester’s case, that other woman had no desire to take on the role.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Frederick Douglass's Parents

I'm working on a paper about Douglass's mother, Harriet Bailey. I confess that I'm at a slight disadvantage in that Dublin is not exactly the best place to get your hands on the secondary literature about American history. Nor is it the best place to get microfilmed versions of some of the documents that you need. Nonetheless, I soldier on, and will worry less about this when I'm focused solely on the shitty first draft of the book and not on papers that will pave the way to fall flat on my face in front of a learned audience.

In the case of Douglass's mother, one of the first steps toward an original interpretation of her life is to take what people know about her in relation to Douglass and turn it about. What does her life look like when she is at the center and not a supporting character or symbol in Douglass's work? One of the first things that I've discovered is that she gave birth at a fairly steady pace. Take a look at this list of her children and their birth dates (adapted from Dickson J. Preston, Young Frederick Douglass, p. 206):

Perry - b. January 1813
Sarah - b. August 1814
Eliza - b. March 1816
Frederick - b. February 1818
Kitty - b. March 1820
Arianna - b. October 1822
Harriet (Jr.) - b. c. 1825

She gave birth roughly every two years, with an average of 23.5 (or thereabouts -- my math ain't so good) between children. If you saw this list, not knowing that these children were slaves but knowing that they were siblings, you might suspect that they all had the same mother and father since this is the regular childbearing that you find in most nineteenth century families.

Most of Douglass's biographers just assume that he had a different father from his siblings. One even refers to his siblings as his "half" siblings; but, from the looks of this he fits right in as if he had the same father as those sisters before and after, who fit right in as if they had the same father as their brother and sisters before and after themselves. In other words, if Aaron Anthony, their master, was Douglass's father, then he was also their father.

That also shifts our perspective on the life of his mother, whoever the father might have been. He could have been another slave belonging to another master. He could have been a free black man. He could have been a white man other than her master; or, he could have been Aaron Anthony. Whoever he was, by either consent or force, he had access to her body from 1812 until she died in 1825 or 1826. That rules out Perry Ward Steward, the overseer on one of the farms where she worked; James Nabb and John Malony, to whom she was hired out during her teens; and Thomas Auld ( a theory of William McFeely, which holds no water for logistical reasons, too), Douglass's second master. Because of age or death, none of these men had access to her for the entire period of her childbearing years.

For a while, I was suspicious of claiming Anthony as Douglass's father. So many have, but without any thought beyond Douglass's word in the Narrative alone. Then, he said that it was mere rumor. In he second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, he said that he had reason to believe that his master was not his father. He completely dismissed the matter in all versions of his final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. The whole discussion of his parentage, too, is shaded by the propagandist purpose of each version of his life. Much of what he says is true, but spun for a variety of reasons at a particular point in time, and maybe not true in quite the way that he thinks it is.

In any case, I still will not say certainly that Anthony was his father, but I'm seeing a stronger case for Anthony. Not only was he Harriet's master, which meant that he could do as he pleased with her body; but, at the time she became pregnant with her first three children, she worked for his much older sister. She worked on his farm during the conception and birth of the rest of her children. I also have another piece to consider in regard to Harriet's sister, Hester, but will save that for another time. Yet, even without that piece, Anthony cannot be ruled out entirely.

If Anthony was the father, then, what sort of interaction produced these children? (I mean, besides from the obvious.) At the most basic level, these children were always the products of rape because Harriet did not have the power or right to refuse Anthony. Yet, as Annette Gordon-Reed demonstrated, the Hemings women also did not have the power or right to refuse the Jefferson, Wayles, Randolph and other men who went after them. Still, they were able to leverage whatever influence they had over these men into improved conditions for themselves, their families, and the children of these encounters. Was Harriet able to do the same? I'm not discerning any advantage that she earned from giving birth to these seven children.

So, was her interaction with Anthony more brutal? He beat the living daylights out of Harriet's sister Hester because Hester preferred a black man to him (again, more on that story later). Did Harriet experience a similar beating or expect a similar beating if she herself refused? If the latter was the case, might that explain her absence from so much of Douglass's childhood before her death? Douglass said that he did not remember seeing his mother the entire time that he lived at his grandmother's cabin when he was between 2 and 6 or 7 years old. He explained his mother's absence by the restrictions of slavery that prevented his mother from travelling the long distances to visit him; but that long distance of twelve miles to which he referred only separated them for two years, when he was between 7 and 9. For those other years, she lived less than a mile away.

The unspoken question  in his autobiographies, as he attempted to comprehend his mother's absence, is "why did she not visit me?" accompanied by the insistence that the single visit that he did recall in detail was proof of "a bright gleam of a mother's love, and the earnestness of a mother's care" (Bondage and Freedom, Yale edition, p. 32).  Mothers of children who resulted from rape respond to those children in a million different ways, so might Harriet have found a visit to her children too painful in too many complicated ways to endure? This is not to question her love for her children, but to consider the range of emotions that she may have felt as she contemplated these reminders of the violence done to her body. These reminders being small children who had no way of understanding these conditions of her life.

Friday, October 7, 2011


In the paper that I'll be presenting at the BrANCH meeting in Cambridge next week, one of the minor points on which I touch is that of trust. A paper doesn't permit the time to truly evoke an atmosphere, so I could only suggest the near-paranoid degree to which Douglass trusted no one in the late 1840s. On the one side, he was pretty sure that the American Anti-Slavery Society was trying to sabotage his newspaper, a not entirely unjustified fear overlaid on several years of prior mistrust. On the other side, he seems not to have trusted the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society that was supporting his paper, obscuring the extent of the mess into which his finances had become tangled in order to keep their support. The antislavery world watched him, his success or failure a statement on the integrity of his race, his ideas, and his person. That doesn't even begin to touch on the importance it had for sustaining his family. All of this meant that he was suspicious of everyone.

When I was talking with my very good friend and fellow historian, Douglas Egerton, about this, Doug pointed out that Douglass came from a place where you trust no one at all. Everyone was a potential threat. He pointed to the compatriots who turned in Gabriel in the 1800 conspiracy and Vesey in the 1822 conspiracy. True, so true, I thought but had to move on to the next paper.

The next paper I will present at the University College, Dublin, Department of History and Archives' weekly Research Forum. This next paper will be about Douglass's mother, Harriet Bailey. Because it is also a part of yet another chapter (eventually, I will complete another whole chapter and not just several bits and parts of many), I started to think of her in the context of the full chapter in order to figure out which ideas would be best to develop in the paper. The paper is turning out to be pretty straightforward, or as straightforward as a paper can be about someone who made so little an impression on the historical record. Meanwhile, I am working out an idea that the four, maybe five, women in this chapter all represent mother-figures to Douglass and that he had certain unarticulated expectations of these mothers that they were able to fulfill or not fulfill based upon their own status. At some point, no matter how good of a "mother" the woman might be, and whether she wants to or not, in the eyes of the little boy Frederick, she ultimately abuses or abandons him. She betrays him.

These two thoughts, the first being that Douglass trusts no one and the second that he feels betrayal by these mother figures, coming one after the other as they did, made me think more about this childhood he experienced. From the age of six or seven, the continual lesson he learned was to trust no one, black or white. His grandmother dropped him off at Wye House and left, never to be seen again. His mother seldom visited and then died. His mistress in Baltimore began to teach him to read, then backed off when her husband forbid the lessons, and was not as sweet to him afterward. His mistress at Wye House, who treated him kindly, died. His buddies turned the rest of their group in when they planned to escape. Some slaves, like Aunt Katy, used what little power they had to abuse those weaker than themselves. Fellow apprentices in the shipyards beat him. Northern caulkers refused to work with him in New Bedford. The Narrative and early parts of his later two autobiographies are catalogues of betrayals and evidence that trust in his fellow Man was misplaced. That's what a slave society and a racist society did to a person. Not only was his humanity under assault, but also his ability to form human connections. As he says about motherhood and slavery, the system was designed "to blunt and destroy the natural affection."

So, when he does trust someone, I think it is important to ask "why?" I touch slightly on that in the paper next week (but not in great detail), but I'm thinking that I should also incorporate that into my completed (yea!) chapter on Anna and the "revise and resubmit" version of the Harriet Bailey/Ruth Cox Adams article (which I shall get to one day!), as well as her part in that Anna chapter.

Also, I have two instances in which he reacts rather emotionally toward the prospect of losing someone he trusts, the first being his outrage at Adams announcement of her marriage, and the second in a letter that indicates he did not behave "beautifully" when Julia Griffiths planned to return to England in the early 1850s (eventually she did in 1855).

What about these women did he deem trust-worthy, assuming, of course, that he does trust them? Was that trust so precious and fragile that he experienced abandonment or perhaps betrayal when they tried to leave? Did he trust mostly women because, as women, they were in a subordinate position to him? I have to think a lot about these sorts of questions because I think they are also related to the ways in which he was best friends with a person at one point and in mortal combat with them at another, sometimes over only the slightest shifts in ideology.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Grandfather Isaac

Douglass hardly mentioned his grandfather at all. He wrote of his grandmother, Betsy Bailey, mentioning her in all of his autobiographies but in greatest detail in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). He also brought her up in his second letter to his master in which he pleads that Auld send Bailey to him for care in her old age. Of his grandfather, he only notes that Isaac lived with his grandmother, that both of his grandparents had lived in their cabin a long time, and that Isaac was free.
Yet, in his descriptions of his grandmother, he led his readers to believe that she was a single woman, raising "her" children and "her" grandchildren under "her" authority in "her" cabin. Only, in his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, does he refer to the cabin as "theirs." Even the name Bailey is suspect. He writes their names as "Isaac and Betsey Bailey," which could be read as "Isaac Bailey and Betsey Bailey" or as "Betsey Bailey and Issac [no last name]."

Dickson J. Preston, who conducted the most research into this period of Douglass's life, discovered that Isaac made his first an appearance in the records in 1797, five years after the birth of Douglass's mother, Harriet.  His last name was rendered "Baley." Preston also found that the Bailey name in Betsey's family, as well, as well as several other Isaac Baileys, significantly older than Betsey. So, was this just a coincidence that the two had the same name, one uncommon in Talbot County, or did Isaac take Betsey's last name -- or, was that last name assigned to Isaac because of his association with Betsey? Of course, this is presuming that the Baly who lived in the same household as Betsey's presumed grandmother lent his last name to the family. As Preston puts it, his connection to Betsey's family was "obscure."

Preston also raises the question as to Harriet's paternity. Since Isaac didn't show up until 1797, five years after her birth, maybe he wasn't Betsey's husband at the time. Harriet had an older sister, Milly, born two years earlier in 1790. Nine of her younger siblings came along in steady intervals of two years between 1799 and 1816 (and some of them died, too, that same year). Then, there is a break of four years, and the tenth came along, when Betsey was forty-two. So, there are really only two gaps in Betsey's childbearing, one between 1792 and 1799 and one between 1816 and 1820. Preston did not say if he found evidence for any still births or miscarriages in those gaps. I don't know about menopausal rates among enslaved women in the nineteenth century to make any sort of speculation about the last gap; but it isn't the one that I'm interested in. I'm interested in that first gap of seven years. Preston doesn't really know about Betsey's father or the father of her first two children.  Was she perhaps married a first time to someone who died or was sold by his master and Isaac was her second husband who fathered the rest of her children?

Preston also doesn't know about the fate of Isaac. Douglass's former master, Thomas Auld, told him many decades later about the death of Betsey, but Auld, Douglass and the person recording this account mentioned nothing about Isaac. That was something odd that I discovered with Ruth Cox/Harriet Bailey Adams. Sometimes, recovering the lives of poor free blacks is more difficult than recovering the lives of slaves because someone had a vested interest in keeping notes about certain aspects of slaves' lives.

I don't know where to fit all of this just yet, which is the reason that I put it here. I'm writing about Harriet Bailey for a paper, so I'm piecing together her life beyond her son's childhood memories, so Isaac came up. When I turn the paper into the chapter, expanding it to include Betsey, among others, then he will show up there as her companion. So, I'm thinking about his place in the story and, as with Harriet, how absent he is from the story. One thing I do know is that spacing of the children of Betsey, Harriet, and Harriet's sisters have a role in this chapter.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The 1860 Census, Mrs. Marks, and Ottilia Assing

Alas, some time has passed since my last post, what with the research, and the moving, and the moving again, and the moving yet again but across the ocean and then the writing of papers and the writing of a book and so forth. This little blog kind of got left out of the fun. Yet, I still have so many little, silly observations and things to share.

Here is one. When I was researching in the Walter O. Evans Collection in Savannah, he showed me a framed letter. He didn't think it was of much use because it had been mounted and framed with Douglass's picture by the seller, and he had bought it early in his collecting days. On the face of it, the letter wasn't on the level of, say, the one from Lewis Douglass, written to his fiancee' the night before the Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry Volunteer Infantry stormed the barricades at Fort Wagner (that's the final scene of the film Glory, if you want a reference point). The letter was just a note from Douglass to "Mrs. Marks" saying that, no, he had heard nothing from their friend, Ottilia Assing.

Ottilia Assing was a German Jewish journalist who was friends with Douglass for about 20 years. The German, American Studies scholar Maria Diedrich wrote about this relationship in her 1999 book, Love Across Color Lines. I could go into this book and its methods and conclusions, but not yet. Suffice to say that there are some contradictions, but I'm not sure how important they are until I see the documents on which much of the book is based, and those documents are written in German handwriting and living in Krakow. Let's just take the conclusions as they are. The conclusions say that Douglass and Assing had an extra-marital affair for those twenty years. Any mention of it could be a clue toward fleshing out parts of the story. So, I made a note to investigate Mrs. Marks, which also served to let me engage in my fantasy of being a mystery novel detective.

I had come across Mrs. Marks, who turned out to be a different person, in another document in the Post Papers up in Rochester before I finally sat down and focused on her. Since Douglass had written to her in connection with Assing, I looked in the index of Diedrich's book. There she was, "Marks, Mrs., 143, 217, 218, 260, 275." Turns out she was Assing's landlady in a house on Washington St. in Hoboken, NJ. Assing boarded there with Marks, her daughter, and other boarders from 1857 until 1865. She supposedly gave Douglass shelter as he escaped from arrest after being implicated in the Harper's Harpers Ferry raid, and she supposedly had no problem with two unmarried people engaging in open miscegenation under the same roof as her adolescent daughter.* 

I wanted to know more about Mrs. Marks. Why, for instance, was she no longer able to provide Assing with a home? Who else was living in the boarding house? What was her first name? None of this was probably going to end up in the book, but I just can't stop my impulse to annotate a letter.

If you have not already, or if you don't have access to a good genealogical library, or if you don't have a friend with a subscription, get one to HeritageQuest, available in many public libraries, is not as good. In HeritageQuest, you have to write the name correctly, or at least as it is spelled in the document, and it will only return the head of household's name for the U.S. census. will think a little more creatively for you and turn up variations on the spellings, names, and places and provide you with a list of alternate possibilities. That is much better because databases of public documents have all sorts of variables that will make the name you are looking for appear much differently in the database than in your notes. The transcriber may not be familiar with abbreviations of names, the handwriting on the document may be so impenetrable that one person's guess about the name as good as another's, the census taker or other bureaucrat may have written the name differently or phonetically, and so forth. Ages are always fun, as are skin colors. Anna Douglass, for instance, is never consistently older than her husband. Ruth Cox Adams was mulatto in one census and black in another. Sally Hemings was white the one time she appeared. We aren't even getting into the people who weren't at home the day the census taker showed up. They didn't try to track people down in those days like they do now.

All of this is to say that I had some difficulty with Mrs. Marks. I knew where to find her at one point in time, but she would not show up there. She actually showed up at other times, but not where she was supposed to be when she was supposed to be, or anywhere else during that time. So, I began to look for variations on her name. Then, I began to look for any female with a name beginning with M living in Hoboken. Finally, I just resorted to scrolling through each page of the 1860 U.S. Census for Hoboken. Do I know how to spend a Saturday night,  or what?

This is what I found:

Here is the closeup of the relevant part:

The head of household is "Clara Morse" and one of the people in the household in "Otilla Hassie," who is also listed as a male. Now, I know from the census before and after this that Mrs. Marks is named Clara, and I know that she has a daughter named Pauline, and I have a questionable source that says Assing taught music (which is the profession that she has listed here) and was from Hamburg (her place of birth listed here). All of the ages match with those of the other sources. So, is this my Mrs. Marks and Ottilia Assing?

Incidentally, the Neel or Neil Douglas a the bottom there, doesn't have any aspects of his description that match any aspect of Frederick Douglass's description except the phonetic spelling of the last name. Wouldn't that be interesting if it were otherwise? No, Douglass was back at home in Rochester with his family, for perhaps the only time in the census with no boarders in his house.

Of course, the census taker misspelled Rosetta's name as "Rosana" and Lewis as "Louis." This is why a good historian should always corroborate their sources.
* As did the Koehler family, with whom Assing boarded after she left Marks's home. I would jest "those Germans and their libertine ways!" but that seems to be the argument in answer to that question. Apparently, no one, including Douglass had that problem, either. Those Victorian New Yorkers and their libertine ways! But, I said I was not going to engage with the arguments of the book yet, and here I am, kidding-on-the-square about them.

ETA: Strike-throughs are corrections made courtesy of proofreading by Douglas Egerton. Thank you!