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 (archive.org 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.
 

3 comments:

  1. People often ask if Douglass was a Prince Hall Mason. Nice detective work.

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  2. Hello,
    On this Salem walking tour they spoke about Douglass's friendship with Sarah Remond and her brother Charles. What kind of personal relationship did she have with him when he was staying in Lynn, Ma?

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  3. Just ran across this blog -has your book been published yet? This is my family. John L. Sears was my great great grandfather, married to Amanda Auld. I believe Aaron Anthony was Douglass' father, a story my family never wanted to tell. I have a spinning wheel owned bu Lucretia Auld, and

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