Saturday, December 17, 2011

How Should You Use Generalizations? Or Should You Avoid Them?

When you are studying a subject or person -- especially a person -- in depth, you start to notice things that make you say, "oh, he was always doing that sort of thing." I do it, for instance, when I say such things, as I did in an earlier post about Douglass, as  "He writes like this a lot to people." That was in a blog post, however; and, if I were to put something like that in my manuscript, I would add a couple of examples in either the text or a discursive end note. Am I being to picky or overly cautious about such things?

I am thinking about this because of some of the generalizations made in the book I love to hate to love to Zapruder, Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines. In one instance, she writes, "Several manuscripts in Assing’s handwriting in the Douglass Papers show that she sometimes served as his secretary, and it is possible that she even drafted letters, speeches, and editorials for him." [p. 193] Since Diedrich also makes the claim that Assing wrote Douglass's editorials in the New National Era, a claim I find troubling and that is based only on a letter from Assing to her sister (an interaction that renders the claim unreliable), that I cannot check right now because it is written in German 19th century script, and that I have no idea of verifying independent of Assing, I thought I should at least check similar claims that might strengthen or weaken that assertion. This seemed to be one.

Fortunately, there is a footnote for this sentence that refers readers to "Drafts of letters to George T. Downing on Ebenezer Bassett’s appointment as minister to Haiti (FD to G.T. Downing. Undated but 1869. FDP. LC) and to Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts (FD to H. Wilson. 12 September 1866. FDP. LC) are in Assing’s handwriting.”

You can see both of those letters online, as well as a sample of Assing's handwriting. They match.  So, yes, Assing seems to have sometimes written drafts of letters for Douglass. At least, she did so on two occasions during a three year period. Does the rest of Diedrich's assertion, then, follow from this citation? Did Assing also write "speeches and editorials for him"? Does this mean that she "served as his secretary"? Do these two examples -- and I have found no others in the two years in question, and I am looking for other examples, including among the other types of documents in the Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress -- even merit the adjective "several"?

Am I being too strict here? How do you convey something common that you have observed in your research that might earn "several" or "usual" or any such other sort of descriptor without entering every single instance in your notes? Should you enter every single instance, to CYA? Would a better note in this particular example have given citations of not only letters, but speeches and editorials, and given citations over a broader period of time? Would a better way to have handled this have been to write the sentence differently to narrow down the period of time or type of document? Was this an awkward use of these two letters, which may have served another argument better, if at all?

I'm also resisting the urge to say that Diedrich does this frequently. I feel as if I should give more examples to prove "frequently." Perhaps this should serve as another. The example in that post says that "Douglass hinted at marital problems in letters to friends, describing himself in 1848, for example, as a 'most unhappy man.'" In that post, I pointed out the problems with that citation, which I think might disqualify it from being an example for that particular point. Yet, no other examples appear in that citation. You can find evidence for marital problems -- this example just is not among them -- and you can find at least one example from Douglass himself from a rather shocking letter from 1857. Can, however, this be described  in the way that Diedrich does here? Is this just an example of a poorly argued point that might have been rewritten with better use of the sources? Should you avoid the use of generalizations at all?

This troubles me because the framing of the story in this way -- that this or that sort of thing was constantly happening, without defining when and under what conditions and without enough evidence to back up the assertion of continual behavior -- is the way that dubious information enters into the message creep syndrome. I have, in the past six months, heard repeated both the "fact" that Anna Murray was pregnant before she got married to Douglass and that the scene in Douglass's autobiographies in which a black man in Manhattan helped him find David Ruggles was a gay pickup. The first "fact" comes from William McFeely's biography, in which he asserts his claim in the face of evidence to the contrary, and the second comes from John Stauffer's book Giants, in which he throws in that interpretation into his narrative -- absent any queer theory or secondary literature about the history of homosexuality -- in order to have some sort of parallel with the oft-questioned belief that Lincoln was gay. In both instances, the ideas are intriguing, but the evidence weak if non-existant. Yet, the ideas are being repeated without examination of the source.

In other words, this troubles me because this is the way that myth gets made, not history.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Caught Between a Cliche and Some Jargon

This started out as a couple of postings and comments on Facebook.

Let's play a game. Translate the passage: "The theoretical problem in enjoining the phenomenology of daily life with the political history that periodizes the past and macro social structures is that it requires a structural analysis, yet one which while not being deterministic retains the activity and intentionality of women as a historical subject." (from "The New Historical Syntheses: Women's Biography," a 1990 article in the Journal of Women's History, by Kathleen Barry)

I honestly don't mean to be bitchy -- ok, not too bitchy -- because this is an interesting study in an attempt to convey a complex idea. You want specific language in order to explain this idea, but you also want to actually communicate that idea to other people. People who went to more theoretically based graduate programs than mine -- or who didn't curl up into the fetal position and whimper at their own inadequacies when faced with such passages -- might have no problem understanding this. Me? I had to pretty much sound this out, and I think it comes down to saying that the biographer should attempt to explain how their subject understood their own life in the context of the Big Picture events of their time without assuming that all women responded in the same way to something like, for example, the suffrage movement or abolition, simply because they were all women. In other words, all women are not from Venus, all women do not like shopping, nor have a shoe fetish, nor are dying to get married and have babies.

This is related to a problem that I am puzzling through with Douglass. I struggle in comprehending the emotional lives of my subjects in order to explain those lives in a way that a modern audience will understand without falling into cliché or platitudes. The moment a cliché or platitude appears in the work, you know a writer has hit the limit of their ability to express a particular idea. I’m trying very hard not to do that. The clichés and platitudes are of the same sort of creature as the highly academic language, except that clichés overgeneralize while the academic language attempts to be overly specific. They still end up saying very little to most people because they are overly general or are understandable to only a select few who are willing to put in the work of reading past the first paragraph. Even then, I'm not certain that the actual idea is still being expressed with any clarity, even to those steeped in the language (and I wouldn't be surprised if people who write like that are still frustrated at their inability to completely explain exactly what they mean).

To be more specific about some of the writing problems that I am having, I am working on Chapter 1, which deals with Douglass's mother, grandmother, and slave mistresses. In the absence of documentation from the hand of any of these women, I have to piece together their lives relying upon plantation and state records, and Douglass's accounts, which were written at a remove of over a decade for a predominantly northern, white, middle class audience. In other words, I have to muck through a lot of contingencies to get to the real woman.

Now, an easy way to get around some of the problems that I am facing with these women would be to say something like, "well, all women would love their babies, so Harriet Bailey loved hers." What if those babies were conceived in rape? What if she hated their father? What if she loved them but knowing that they would be taken away from her meant that she had to steel herself against any affection? What if she was just a nasty person like the "Aunt Katy" whom Douglass despised and who attacked her own son with a knife?

Yet, I am also highly aware that, in going into the meaner, harder possibilities, as a white woman I can also run into my own unexamined racism. I don't want to sound like I am going to the other extreme by saying that "all enslaved women rejected their children" or "black women cannot be good mothers" because that is not it at all. I am trying to understand the behavior of Harriet Bailey, mother of Frederick, who probably had some complicated and conflicting emotions about her children that defy the stereotypes of good or bad mothers.

I think Douglass himself was guilty, although perhaps intentionally guilty, of using the stereotypes of a good mother about his own and about the women that appear in my chapter. Not really knowing his mother, wanting to portray her to this audience who still had much unexamined racism in their midst, and perhaps also wanting to understand his own abandonment, he relied upon stock characters of mothers. The same with Sophia Auld, his "tender-hearted" mistress, before she turned on him.

What I think I'm getting at here is that, as I read and re-read and ultimately Zapruder things written about Douglass's life, I become frustrated at this assumption that emotions have always been the same across time (tell tale by such phrases as "as any child would" or "typical of any young man"); and I am struggling to write around that place in the story in the absence of declarations. I fear that I am stripping my story of its emotional component, which is dishonest, but not as dishonest as relying upon a sort of flattening of all experience into some sort of ahistorical Hallmark card.

As I struggle to write around the emotions, I also struggle with the words. What words are best and in what order to explain something so slippery and ephemeral as the emotional life of a stranger in a different time and in circumstances that are wholly alien to myself? What words are original and also comprehensible and will in some way convey as precisely as possible the place in the world that these women occupied?

Alas, that is probably why that passage from that article preoccupied me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Research Links

Over to the right side of the screen, you will see a new feature, this list:

Douglass and Women Research Resources
(these are not linked -- you have to go over to the side bar for the link!)
  • "A Partnership in the Abolition Movement," University of Rochester Library Bulletin
  • Amy Kirby Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan
  • Anti-Slavery Literature Project
  • Black Abolitionist Archive
  • Boston Public Library Antislavery Collection
  • Dccumenting the American South
  • Epitaph, Friends of Mount Hope (cemetery) Newsletter
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (Cedar Hill), Anacostia, D.C.
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Virtual Museum Exhibit
  • Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, American Memory
  • Frederick Douglass Project, University of Rochester
  • Frederick Douglass, Maryland State Archives
  • Garrison Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection
  • Howard Coles Collection, Rochester Museum and Science Center
  • Lynn (Mass.) Museum and Historical Society
  • Porter Family Papers, University of Rochester
  • Post Family Papers, University of Rochester
  • Rochester History (journal) Index
  • Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan
  • Samuel J. May Antislavery Collection
  • Women's Rights National Historic Park, Seneca Falls
  • WorldCat (global library catalog)

The list links to various websites relating to Frederick Douglass and Women that you might find interesting for yourself or, if you are a teacher, your students. Some are finding aids for archival collections, which describe the collection and sometimes tell you specific items that are in the collection. Others take you to websites for museums and historic sites connected to Douglass. Some will take you to actual sources, both journal articles and scanned images of historic documents.

Many people are interested in the last because seeing the document, the thing written in the person's hand, is the real thrill of history research. If you want to see documents written by and to Douglass, take a look at Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, American Memory; Frederick Douglass Project, University of Rochester; and Boston Public Library Antislavery Collection. These are the ones that I use the most online. The Library of Congress site contains the bulk of Douglass's papers, preserved by his second wife, Helen [Pitts] Douglass at Cedar Hill. The project at the University of Rochester has images of letters and some transcriptions of the correspondence to and from Frederick Douglass that are contained in the Post and Porter Family Papers. The Boston Public Library collection has, as of now, the Weston Sisters Papers and good chunks of the William Lloyd Garrison Papers, as well as some Samuel May Papers. Their site is very sophisticated, being more recent and plugged into Not only can you see scanned images, but they have included summaries of the letters (to varying degrees of quality) and the letters are indexed for key words.

In fact, if you want a night of history nerd fun, go to the BPL collection and read letters to or from Richard D. Webb, John B. Estlin, and Maria Weston Chapman. They were the living embodiment of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's (often misattributed to the equally scathing Dorothy Parker) recommendation, "if you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me."

The National Parks Service at Cedar Hill also has some terrific images of Douglass, his family, the objects in the house, historic images of the house, and a virtual tour of the house.

I will gradually add to the list; but, if you know of any other online resources, feel free to add them in the comments section!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Shameless Bragging

Last Wednesday, I delivered a paper on "The Feminine World of Frederick Douglass" here at Queens College in Belfast, Northern Ireland.:

The Queens faculty who had invited me, Anthony Stanonis, Brian Kelly, and most especially, Catherine Clinton (who must be one of the most supportive historians for junior colleagues in the history of historians), all welcomed me and ensured that I had a packed room, coffee beforehand, and drinks and dinner afterward. They also made this cool poster to publicize the event.:

Great choice of picture! Also, note how they publicized my other two books there at the bottom?

Everyone was friendly and polite. Audiences on this side of the ocean either pay attention very well, or do an impressive, Tony Award winning performance of faking it. I tend to believe the former.

So, my gratitude to all!

Also, thank you to Angela Murphy for passing this along.:

Thank you also to Ann "Historiann" Little, who herself is an incredibly supportive historian. We have met at the Little Berks conference and she is an amazing, funny, smart person. With luck, her influence will drive this humble blog's readership up from an average of 15 readers per week (five of whom are me)!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Source Message Creep

Here is an object lesson on the reasons that you should avoid "as quoted in" in your own citations.

In Love Across the Color Lines, Maria Deidrich wrote of Ottilia Assing's interpretation of her relationship with Frederick Douglass and that Assing "believed that the Douglass marriage had been over long before she entered the scene, and in a way she was right." As evidence, Diedrich wrote, "Douglass hinted at marital problems in letters to friends, describing himself in 1848, for example, as a 'most unhappy man.'" [Diedrich, 175] The argument here, then, is that Ottilia Assing had a twentieth century understanding of a marriage being "over." This is based on Douglass saying one time, eight years before he even met Assing, that he was "most unhappy." The implication being that Douglass was unhappy in his marriage and, extrapolating from that unhappiness in 1848, his marriage was probably headed for divorce by 1856. I say "headed for divorce" because, it is clear through the rest of the book, Diedrich thinks Assing thinks this.

The source for this "unhappy" quote is this: "FD to Abigail and Lydia Mott, 21 February 1848, quoted in mcFeely, FD, p. 154." O.k. Let's take a look at McFeely, p. 154. McFeely wrote:
Late in February, Douglass wrote the Mott sisters that he was a "most unhappy man." His "house hunting had not been successful and "Anna has not been well--or very good humored since we came here. She," he added, a bit less gloomily, "however looks better." In April, things looked up. [McFeely, 154]
Has anyone ever been in Rochester in February? Imagine it without central heating. His mood improved, according to McFeely, because he had found a house in which to live. Now, perhaps you could infer that his unhappiness had to do with his wife's mood, but also he had to find a home in a new city while also trying to start up a new business. Nothing here says anything that might indicate that the marriage itself was unhappy or in anyway on the path to being "over."

The source for McFeely was "Douglass to Abigail and Lydia Mott, Feb. 21, 1848." No repository because "Except where otherwise noted, citations of letters to or from Frederick Douglass are from the photostatic copies of his correspondence in the Yale University Frederick Douglass Papers." [McFeely, 387] Not to sound catty -- but to be totally catty -- would it have been too much trouble to find the actual source in the actual repository, not a photocopy in a project's office that might not exist ten or fifteen years down the road given the funding of such projects and the fate of some of the project papers? At least he was honest and did not try to claim that he did research at places where he did not.

So, alas, that is his source, and his source is no longer at Yale. His source is at the Frederick Douglass Papers project at IUPUI in Indianapolis. The actual source, the letter itself, is located in the Ida Husted Harper Papers at the Huntington Library, so I can forgive using the Douglass Papers project. It would have been rather a needle in a haystack in the pre-internet days.

Guess where I used to work? I even did some of the annotation for that letter. Those Mott ladies were a pain to track down, let me tell ya! You can find it in the first volume of the project's Correspondence Series on pages 296-7. Here is what the relevant part of the letter says (I'm leaving out the two post scripts that actually run about as long as the letter itself):
The mail of this moment is a most welcome one. Friendship like every other good thing -- needs constant cultivation. Kind words which are so cheap and yet so useful -- and blissful. Why should we ever be sparing of them? -- I have been -- oh! What a weak confession a most unhappy man -- and simply because I have not been able to make all my arrangements for the last completely square with my wishes. What weak -- foolish and discontented creatures we are. I half think had you been near in my gloomy moments, and could have poured into my ear, those words and sentiments of love and sympathy with which your full hearts abound, my troubled spirit would have soon freed itself from its burden -- leaped up like a tired camel from its load. I have been house hunting ever since we arrived -- and have not yet secured a suitable location. Anne has not been well -- or very good humoured since we came here. She however looks better -- as I feel better to day. We are a weak set of mortals. I have many things I should like to say but hurry prevents.
I emphasized the quote.

First of all, he was sorta flirting with them. He writes like this a lot to people like Amy Post, women whom he liked and whom he was friendly with on a personal basis. These two women are caring for his daughter, so he is of course going to be solicitous and flattering.

Second, he was poking a bit of fun at his own self-pity with all of the hyperbole. He even seems to be quoting something although, even now with Google, I can't seem to find the quote. While he may have been "kidding on the square" -- that is, stating a fact but phrasing it as if he were not serious about the statement -- and suffering from the pressures of finding that new home and starting that new business and having a sick wife and three small children, all while trying to, you know, fight the system of slavery...well, you can see that he might be referring to things other than his marriage.

That is to say, the context of the quote in this letter does not indicate that his marriage was on its way to being "over" or that he was in any way unhappy with the marriage. Yet, that is what it has become between the document itself and Diedrich's use of the "most unhappy man" quotation.

So, let that be a lesson: check the primary source before you use "as quoted in," especially if that quote is your sole piece of evidence for what will ultimately be a speculative claim about a long-dead couple's marriage. "As quoted in" may be obscuring the context of the quotation and then you get it all wrong.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Snag in Chapter One

I get trapped in my periodization sometimes. Originally, Chapter 1 broke down neatly into mothers and mistresses, with little overlap. Douglass's mother, the near non-entity he struggled to know as he wrote his autobiographies, is followed by his grandmother, whom he knew better and longer for the first few years of his memory. Then, he moved under the supervision of Lucretia Auld, then Sophia Auld, then Rowena Auld, then Sophia Auld again, then he ran away.

As I begin to get deeper into the story, this arrangement, which is a good skeleton, is far too simple. The mother and grandmother overlap; and, in the telling, the grandmother comes second, not first. At the Anthony house, where Lucretia moves to the front of the story, her counterpoint in the kitchen, Aunt Katy, begins to demand space (and she was quite the demanding woman in Douglass's version of events). Rowena Auld is little more than a guard dog of the pantry, and Douglass spent few months under her supervision for her to merit too much attention. During those months, however, it seems that his sister Eliza has some small role that he suggested but upon which he did not elaborate. His cousin Henny also pushes her way into the story. Yet, in this particular series of episodes in which he lived in Talbot County as a teenager, he carefully constructed and described a male-dominated world. Sophia he knew the longest and most intimately, and she appeared and re-appeared three times in his life. She will take up a good chunk of the chapter, and she will also reappear in a later chapter.

My initial divisions, too, have not taken into account the women scattered throughout his autobiographies who suffered brutal beatings and, he implied, rape. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, while he spoke in general terms of men being beaten, he described specific instances of beatings as happening to women (and one elderly man). I can buy that he saw few black women when he was hired out as a field hand in his teens in Talbot County, but in Baltimore, where he spent over half of his life until his escape, black women were in the majority. He only mentioned two, and they were beaten by a neighbor. As for free black women, he mentioned Sandy’s wife only. Otherwise, you would never know that black women could be free in Fells Point until you get to his marriage in New York to Baltimorean Anna Murray who, by the way, he mentioned in a footnote in the Narrative, was free.

As I organized this chapter, I had overlooked women who were not the primary caretakers of Douglass. Since this chapter has to do with his formative experiences with women and, by extension, his formative experiences with race, I cannot omit these women and the function that they served in creating the world in which he grew up. I also cannot omit the fact that he uses their stories in making his own point and that those stories only told what he saw and could use. He was not maliciously appropriating their lives, he seemed to be trying to speak for them when they could not, but he did not know or relate much more of their story than the beating, and they might have told the story in a different way. These often unnamed women haunt this chapter in a way that I have not yet fully incorporated and I have to do something with the absence of the free black women from his autobiographies.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Problem With Assing

I've debated about writing this post since it comes off as a review of Maria Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999) and I don't intend to review it. This is considered a pretty important book, and, as they say on The Wire, when you go after the king, you best not miss. I'm not sure that I won't miss just yet. I don't have all of the evidence to make the necessary conclusions about it or about Assing and Douglass. I am just having problems with the book as I re-read it while trying to place Assing in my own work; and in reading the book yet again I am finding that I question the premise of the work, the methods and interpretations of the research, and -- most importantly -- the overall significance of Assing herself.

This is a dazzling book. By “dazzling” I mean that it raises a very provocative prospect that can distract the reader from some very significant problems in the work. As you read the book, you think, "wow! I didn't know this! This is fascinating!" As you read the book again, you think, "wait a minute. Something is not quite right about that." At least I did. The biggest problem that is "not quite right" is that the book takes as a foregone conclusion that Douglass and Assing were “soul mates” [p. 288] constantly in search of “new beginnings” [passim – with quotes] away from the United States. The author doesn't show her work in how she got to the conclusion that this affair was a sexual affair, she doesn't discuss how she deduced that and interrogated that deduction and then come to that conclusion. The conclusion is just there as an accepted fact that guides everything afterward.

Thus, everything that Assing and Douglass say or do is motivated by or interpreted only as furthering that relationship. Thus, Assing moves from New York City to Hoboken, NJ, to have a place to meet with Douglass, not because she is quite poor at that point and a boarding house Hoboken might be a less expensive place to live. She moves from Hoboken to Washington, D.C., during Reconstruction again to be near Douglass, not to (or not also to)be near the center of political action as a political journalist.

Such real, practical considerations are ignored elsewhere, too, and with greater implications. If this affair went on for two decades, at least half of which were before Assing entered an age for menopause, and during which she stayed with the Douglasses for months on end, why did she not get pregnant? Where, in fact, did they have sex? Under the same roof as Douglass’s wife and children – and later in laws and grandchildren? Under the boarding house roof where her landlady and landlords were raising children? Why was it not brought up in Louisa and Nathan Sprague’s lawsuit against Douglass – or by anyone at all? The Garrisonians who made such gossip of Julia Griffths only a year before Assing showed up make no mention of Assing at all (and they were as gossipy as a clique of 12-year-olds). No alternate explanations are explored nor practicalities considered. All the reader receives are contradictory dismissals that the landlady and landlords were German and liberal, and therefore exempt from American middle class sensibilities, that the Douglass family – in laws included – were forced to accept whatever Douglass imposed on them (likely, but still not satisfying), and that no one talked about the affair because everyone wanted to protect the movement as a whole and, besides, no one ever visited the Douglasses anyway.

Part of the problem in questioning this interpretation has to do with the primary source for the relationship, which is the correspondence between Assing and her sister Ludmilla. These letters are written in German and held by a Polish repository. Since most American scholars who would be interested in these documents would most likely not have either the language skills or the means to read these letters, they must rely upon the author’s interpretation of them, including the quotations in the text. Yet, the most provocative statements receive no quotations nor citations.

For instance, at the end of the Civil War, “No longer observed and watched, he [Douglass] kwould finally be empowered to solve his domestic problems, and her [Assing’s] letters to her sister Ludmilla document that there was not the slightest doubt in Assing that this could only mean separation from Anna Murray and legalization of their liaison. Frederick Douglass had liberated his race; it was time for him to liberate himself – for Ottilie Assing and their love.” (p. 255) Why not show an example that documents this certainty? Why not cite a source for the entire paragraph in which this appears – or the paragraph before, or the paragraph after? Are the statements about Douglass being “empowered to solve his domestic problems” a projection or summation of Assing’s attitude or the author’s interpretation of the situation? If the latter, then that is patently untrue, and the author even shows how untrue in the next chapter.

That passage also is an example of another problem in the use of sources. Assing’s is the only description of this relationship. There are, of course, clear reasons that Douglass’s family might excise her from his and their own records, but she appears in no one else’s correspondence, including Douglass’s enemies. Furthermore, the most telling descriptions – of which there are very few quoted – appear in her correspondence specifically with her sister Ludmilla, with whom she had a frequently acrimonious rivalry. The quotation about her near marital relationship with Douglass, “The last seventeen years being not married and still lining in a union of the deepest mutual affection, more firmly found than many who are married, without the faintest hope that it might be different, and kept apart by being incapable of valuing or giving love” came in a letter after Ludmilla’s marriage and can be read as part of sisterly competition (“You’re getting married? Ah, well, I would but I can’t because of the cruel world, and our relationship has lasted sooo much longer than any of yours”).Ottilie, after all, fancied herself a libertine, but Ludmilla was; Ottilie seemed to want marriage, but her sister got it. Then, when Ludmilla’s marriage fell apart, Assing wrote, “if one stands in so intimate a relationship with a man as I do with Douglass one comes to know facets of the whole world, of men and women, which otherwise remain closed, especially if it is a man who had seen so much of the world and whom so many women have loved,” which perhaps could be gloating (“oh, poor thing, I’m so happy that my very desirable man – who I’ve been with longer than you ever have with a man – is faithful”).

Assing’s bragging about her own influence over Douglass’s work, even insisting that she wrote his columns that were read throughout Washington, are in the context of Ludmilla’s greater success as a writer. One long quoted passage that opens a chapter, shows Assing bragging that she has converted Douglass to atheism, and yet that was patently untrue and Assing was either lying to her correspondent or fooling herself. In other words, Assing is not a particularly reliable source, and the question of her reliability is not fully analyzed. In fact, her version of events is fully and wholly accepted, then also projected onto Douglass, without questioning that Douglass’s behavior clearly does not align entirely with Assing’s own interpretation. His ambivalence is explained by his commitment to his cause, not to a perhaps less flattering – for either her or for him – explanation.

Which brings me to my real problem that cannot be solved by reading this book: what is going on in this relationship? I originally thought that I could rely upon this book. My careful reading of it came from my need to examine the pieces of her argument to see how this one relationship fit in with the rest, and to find the sources that might help me see other dimensions in this relationship that would help me with the whole project. Instead, what I found was serious problems with this book as a whole, and that I almost need to follow in the author’s footsteps to see what is really in those sources. In fact, I need to follow in Assing’s footsteps – Douglass’s as well – in order to measure her reliability. So, I’m contacting the archive with her papers to get copies or make a trip, and will have to muddle through the script and translation.

What I am thinking here is that Assing was very deeply taken with Douglass, but him not so much with her. I think he got something out of the relationship with her – she was a journalist, he was an editor, she had connections on the European continent, perhaps she was a kind listener, clearly she would have been a willing booty-call (or “friends with benefits” as the young folks say – and if they did that sort of thing in those days – and again, what kind of birth control was she using?) – but he wasn’t deeply in love with her and certainly wasn’t going to follow her to Europe or leave his wife, or really go out of his way for her. That, right now, is my hypothesis that I have to test through rigorous research in the documents.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Douglass in Belfast

Last weekend, I went on a long weekend to Belfast and points further north. Douglass spent a little time in Belfast during his tour of the British Isles between 1845 and 1847, and had a contingent of support from women in the city when he and the Garrisonians based in Boston had a parting of the ways.

Today, Douglass appears in the scarred Belfast landscape in a mural:

Twice, even, as you can see the younger Douglass up to the left of the older man.  The rest of the mural has interesting references to black history.

Here, on the left side of the mural, you can see slave ships, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Barack Obama (who, incidentally, is very popular in the Republic of Ireland) and Rosie the Riveter, who seems like she might be mixed race or light skinned:

On the right side of the mural, you see references to Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid, Muhammad Ali, and Bob Marley.

You can also see images of the Mothers of the Disappeared, Indian women, what appears to be one of the Grimke Sisters, and Daniel O'Connell. I don't instantly recognize the other figures, and you also can see images from recent Northern Irish history interspersed through the mural.

Daniel O'Connell is the key to understanding the connection between African American history and this mural in Belfast. This mural is one of a series of murals in both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, which are separated by a tall wall. The murals on the Protestant side reinforced their connection to the British and participation in the two world wars in the 20th century. The murals on the Catholic side referenced various global freedom and human rights struggles, particularly those against racism. The Douglass mural is on the Catholic side.

Initially, I wondered what a mural featuring Frederick Douglass would be doing in Northern Ireland on the Catholic side. Douglass himself did not mix with many Catholics. His supporters in Ireland tended to be Protestant, usually Quakers. Also, his visit coincided with the beginning of the Great Famine and took place during the Repeal movement, led by O'Connell, which intended to end the Act of Union that made Ireland part of the United Kingdom. In other words, the Irish as a whole had more immediate concerns than ending slavery in the U.S.

During Douglass's visit, those involved with the Repeal movement drew direct connections between American slaves and Ireland under British rule and between African Americans and Irish Catholics. Their positions relative to their respective governments and societies were analogous, according to this argument.

In this mural, you see that argument expanded. Douglass is central but connected to a broader struggle for rights for oppressed people of color. The artists trace this history from the origins of the slave trade through resistance to slavery in the U.S., the U.S. Civil Rights movement, resistance to apartheid in South Africa, opposition to South American dictatorships, and even -- with Muhammad Ali -- resistance to wars of imperialism in Southeast Asia, and all the way to the election of the first black American president. I think the Indian women may have something to do with Indian independence (although, note the absence of Gandhi himself), and Rosie, despite her connection with World War II, may suggest women's rights.

This mural, then, had it appeared in the U.S., might seem like a tribute to great black figures in history, something for Black History Month. Here, in Belfast, among the Catholic murals, a few blocks from the offices of Sinn Fein, and right next to a former checkpoint between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods -- Douglass himself looks toward the checkpoint -- it seems to be a statement of ongoing resistance.

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!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bad Research Day

I started the day off by posting this on Facebook:
Off to the Archives of American Art. What I hope to find: salacious details of Ottilia Assing's forbidden love for Frederick Douglass. What I will probably find: leads on 19th century artists' addresses, the status of her dogs, and various travelogues, but not a dang thing pertinent to Douglass. All in German. Still, it is Ottilia, and she is usually a chatty correspondent.

I was so naive 12 hours ago.

The Archives of American Art is very easy to find, just a block down 9th Street from the National Portrait Gallery and Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop. The archivists -- all painfully young -- are friendly and helpful. The young woman working the manuscripts reading room had even processed the Sylvester Rosa Koehler Papers in which the Ottilia Assing letters were located. Plus, the whole design of the space looked like a modern art gallery. Very cool.

The box was big, not one of those grey Hollinger boxes, but a cube-ish file box with lots of folders. The Assing folders have several letters each, and each letter is 3-5 pages long and in superb condition. This was going to be awesome. Sure, I expected them all to be in German, and that I would be transcribing German all day to translate later. I have about three words of German -- at least one of which is obscene -- but a general knowledge of the grammar and syntax that, with a dictionary and a translation website, could help me get the gist of the contents. I've done it before with the Karl Varnhagan von Ense finding aid. Plus, from her letters in English, I know Assing's hand writing is quite legible. Here is an example from the Library of Congress:

Not bad, right? Nicely shaped, no smudging, clearly delineated words. You can read it, which is not always the case. Gerrit Smith is a legendary case in point.

Her German handwriting is not quite as good. It's neat, that is certain, but the shapes of her letters made me wonder if I were not perhaps reading Russian. I spent thirty minutes deciphering the words "Hoboken" and "Rochester" -- and I'm still not certain that "Rochester" actually does say "Rochester." The jumble of letters that seems to say “Linber Hnow Rouflar!” may or may not actually say "Liebe Herr Koehler!" I read over another series of linked loops at least ten times before I realized that it said "Douglass." It looks like it says "Largfuff." Don't ask me how I managed to decipher the shape that spelled out "Washington."

In fact, I began to make a list of squiggles that I had deciphered:
  • What looks like Hobuknn is Hoboken
  • What looks like Rosfuflao is Rochester
  • Hs look like Wz
  • Small h looks like and f – loop above and below
  • T is never crossed
  • Capital S looks like cursive S, so does Capital A
  • Little e looks like tiny capital E or r
  • “ist” looks like Ift
  • Little p has a definite loop at the front like a p, but backbone goes above the loop
  • W looks like NB
  • Baltimore looks like “Lultimoon”
  • Greetings look like: “Linber Hnow Rouflar!” but might be “Lieber Herr Koehler!” Or “lieben Herr Koehler!” or “Liebe Herr Koehler”
  • Closings look like “Tpen Ottilie Assing”

In fact, Ottilie Assing actually looks like "Ollilir Affug."

Even with legible writing in English, you have to sometimes spend a little time over a word, comparing its loops to similar loops elsewhere in the document, discerning a few letters and playing with their sounds in your head and with the context of the rest of the sentence before the word suddenly appears to you, like one of those hidden pictures so popular in the early 1990s. That, however, requires agility with the language and familiarity with the shapes of the letters. In this case, the shapes of her German letters are not like the shapes of her English letters; and I, with my three years of high school and one semester of college German (which stuck with me longer than my six semesters of college French, but c'est la vie), all taken when leg warmers were still in style, cannot play with the shapes and sounds and make anything appear. Even the simple words that I do know, like "ein" and "ist" and "und," took me at least ten minutes to pick out.

"Ach, scheiss," I said, over and over and over. "I am totally effed." (Except I used another word, and I don't know the German for it.) How on earth am I going to get through this? I can't even transcribe them at this point. A shortcut occurred to me, that I could just use Maria Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines and cite these types of documents "as quoted in." Except I hate when historians do that. It's a graduate school trick, and casts doubt upon your argument because you never know if the person who quoted the passage originally quoted it in proper context. You have to see the quotation in context, and the context might give you so much more information.

That is, if you can actually read the context.

Also, in this case, while I'm not challenging Maria Deidrich's interpretation, I am questioning some of the finer points and I can't even really question in my own head, much less in print, if I can't read the letters she read and on which she based her arguments.

Now, if there were only some way I could trace out Assing's handwriting and puzzle over it on my own or with someone who has a better reading knowlege of German. If there were only some way that I could duplicate the image. If there were only some way in which I could blow that image up or shrink it down. If there were only some way that I could do this without paying a quarter per page.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Frederick Douglass Hall

In my research yesterday, I came across this letter, dated 4 May 1934:
My dear Friends:
It was pleasant to receive your telegram expressing appreciation of the University’s action in naming its new classroom building after your distinguished grandfather. We are sorry that the notice reached you too late for your attendance. I am happy to report to you that the dedication was well attended, that many eminent persons were present, including six members of the Douglass family. For your full information, I am sending you, herewith, a copy of the University’s news release of the occasion.
With cordial regards and best wishes, I am
Sincerely yours,
Mordecai W. Johnson
What building had been named after Frederick Douglass, might you ask? This one:

The Frederick Douglass Memorial building on Howard University campus, right across the quadrangle from the library in which I was sitting while reading that letter and in front of which I ate lunch (because the Moorland-Spingarn closes for lunch) all week.

Now, I find that I absolutely must locate (wherein "absolutely must" means "it would be cool, but not really necessary except for fun") "L'ouverture Terrace" in Takoma Park. Rosetta Douglass Sprague, Frederick Douglass's daughter, had a home there in the 1890s. Since I have worked in Takoma Park for the past 4 years, finding her home might be rather interesting. If the same house is standing, then I might be able to ascertain the style of living enjoyed by her family at that point in time. Her husband, after all, was supposed to have been a former slave and had to struggle for survival (and respect) in the aftermath of Emancipation and the rise of Jim Crow. That's a story that I'm still trying to tease out.

The "dear Friends" to whom this letter was addressed, Hattie B. Sprague, Fredericka Douglass Perry, and Rosabelle Sprague Jones, were three of Rosetta and Nathan's five children.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Douglass and "Johnny Come Down to Hilo"

In one of the three versions of Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry's reminiscences about her grandfather, Frederick Douglass, she wrote about one of the games that Douglass played with the grandchildren when they were young. He would lead them into the dining room at Cedar Hill to the music of his violin, then teach them "songs of the rollicking slave urchins he had learned as a slave boy." She transcribed two of them, and one of them seemed surprisingly familiar to me, hearkening back to my days at Mystic Seaport:
Oh John Low! Johnny went down the hi-lo!
Oh John Low! Johnny went down the hi-lo!
Went down the hi-lo to get some gin,
Johnny went down the hi lo!
Drank so much he tumbled in,
Johnnie went down the hi-lo!
This actually sounds very much like an old sea shanty, work song, that has been transcribed this way:
Never seen the like since I been born
An Arkansas farmer with his sea boots on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

I got gal across the sea
She's a Badian beauty and she says to me…
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

Sally's in the garden picking peas
The hair on her head hanging down to her knees
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

My wife she died in Tennessee
And they sent her jawbone back to me
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man 
I put that jawbone on the fence
And I ain't heard nothing but the jawbone since
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

So hand me down my riding cane
I'm off to see Ms. Sarah Jane
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Of course, you have to rearrange Perry's lyrics, remembered approximately fifty years later, to:
Went down the hi-lo to get some gin,
Drank so much he tumbled in,
Johnny went down the hi-lo!Oh John Low!
Johnny went down the hi-lo!Oh John Low!
This was a work song that that could go on and on as long as the leader, who set the pace, could make up verses or as long as the task took. It has an upbeat rhythm and was good for fast moving jobs. So, the song wasn't so much a "slave urchin" song as it was a maritime working class song. The musicologist at Mystic Seaport said that it can be traced to the south, most specifically the Mississippi River, but such things did not stay in one place very long on the water, and white Marylanders did much nefarious slave trading down that way.

I imagine that Douglass learned this song on the docks and in the shipyards in Baltimore. His de facto master there owned and worked in shipyards; and before Douglass himself learned the caulking trade, he himself lived on and roamed the streets down by the wharves in Fells Point.

Douglass's daughter, Rosetta, mother of Fredericka, however, did not appreciate this song and looked on in "great disgust." For Douglass, this was one of the few things that he brought from slavery, and he actually seemed to have loved all music, regardless of its origins. For Rosetta, however, this song (even if the "shake her" part were omitted) was undignified, with shameful and low-class connections from which she seemed to have wanted to distance herself. For the grandchildren, it was a rollicking song taught to them by their grandfather and they, two generations removed from slavery, saw no degradation in it.

For your enjoyment, and to illustrate the song, here is a video of shantymen Fisherman's Friends singing:

I'd be curious to know if the other song that Perry transcribed sounds familiar to anyone:
Oh Suckey Susan lend me a string
Oh lend me a string to tie my shoe,
A cotton string – it will not do,
A cotton string is like miss Lou (an aunt of ours)
A cotton string will break in two
A cotton string – a cotton string –
Oh do, oh do, oh do Mr. Babcock do!

Source: Box 28-4, Folder 88: Sprague, Rosetta Douglass, Notebook 1886, Frederick Douglass Collection, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Founders' Library, Howard Univeristy, Washington, D.C.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Clements Library

For the past week, I have been researching in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The collection that I'm visiting is the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society Papers. I originally thought that this collection was in Rochester at the Rush Rhees Library, where I have been for the greater part of the past month. The reason I was under this mistaken impression? Well, a biographer listed it as being there in a bibliography. Fortunately, another bibliography in another book cleared that all up, and here I am.

Much of my research these days has not turned up much meat. Most of the letters to or from Douglass have been published. Many of the letters about Douglass are fairly well known. Most of the current work has more to do with finding more clues to more clues, but also filling out the stories of the women beyond their interaction with Douglass, placing them within a community and thereby opening up the context of Douglass's story. I'm trying to say more in this book than simply, "Douglass did this -- and these were the women there -- and Douglass did that -- and these were the women there." That's boring. That's note taking. I want to expand this story about the gender interactions within the abolitionist movement both in public and in private. Or something like that. It will sound more eloquent in the book.

Which reminds me: The scholarship around the public/private division of "separate spheres" has been slowly erasing that line, showing how that was not the way most women lived their lives. I think the divide was much more a male experience, if any one experienced it at all. In what I am studying, Anna Murray Douglass (the first Mrs. Douglass) was probably the most exemplary of a fully private life, with several caveats, of course. Douglass seemed to prefer as public a life as possible. Much of what he did, he did for an audience, and when he was at home, he tried to keep that locked up tightly. At least, that's what the documentation seems to say at this point. As usual, I have much more secondary work to do.

To get back to this collection, I wasn't entirely certain of what I expected it to contain,  but I didn't expect it to be this interesting. The majority of this past week, Box 1, full of correspondence, occupied my attention, and gave me an idea of the way that these women conceived of their antislavery work and some of the ways that the work extended into Reconstruction.

A fascinating series of letters came from Julia A. Wilbur, a woman -- I can't say "young" or not, but she identifies herself as a "spinster" -- who took on the task of going down to Washington, D.C., to aid the "Contraband," in 1863. Eventually, Harriet Jacobs joined her, and the two of them fought government bureaucrats, Union officers, a military governor, and ordained ministers to make sure that the "contraband" had decent living conditions, education and medical attention. The narrative of the letters is itself fascinating; but more interesting is the way that she starts out calling the freed people "contraband" and "poor creatures" and attempting to impose her ideas of "civilization" on them, to calling them "the people" and listening to their needs as articulated by "the people" themselves and both responding to and advocating for them.

Box 1 also includes some notes about aiding fugitives. I use the term "notes" because clearly someone at Douglass's office carried them to the sender. In once case, the writer, William Watkins, identified the messenger as Douglass's oldest son, Lewis. These letters show just how "upper ground" the Underground Railroad actually was in western New York. They all clearly identify the sender, the recipient, and that the fugitives with the sender need money. The sender is generally in the Frederick Douglass' Paper office, and the recipient is usually Maria G. Porter (who I mentioned in the posts on the Porter family graves), treasurer of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society.

I finished Box 1 on Thursday, and moved on to Box 2, thinking that there would not be much in it, and that I might be able to move this show on down to Oberlin to look up Rosetta Douglass in their archives. After all, how much can you find in an account book?

Clearly I forgot Watergate Deep Throat's dictum, "follow the money." One of the aspects of the antislavery movement that often gets lost in the ideology and action is the importance of money. There were only so many antislavery dollars out there to go around, and there seems to have been huge competition for them, which became tangled in the ideology and action. Much of what the women in the movement did, too, involved raising funds. Speakers needed salaries and expenses paid, lectures required advertisements, fugitives needed aid, rendition cases has court costs, Beecher's Bibles were not cheap, and every newspaper published struggled. Activism is not cheap!

All of this is to say that I found an amazing amount of data in this second box, which contains the Society's annual reports and account book. I'm in the account book, which, incidentally, required me to figure out how account books work (if you know me in the physical world, then you know that I am famed for my inability to understand numbers). The account book shows speakers' fees, the cost of renting a hall for the speakers, the amounts taken in at fairs both from foreign and from domestic goods (which will figure in with my analysis of Julia Griffiths, if I can round it all out with the same from the American Anti-Slavery Society), and the amounts given to fugitives or to bury fugitives who died.

Between the account book and the correspondence, however, you can see that these women saw their primary task as aiding not Frederick Douglass but enslaved -- or formerly enslaved - people themselves. They deployed the same networks and methods as emancipation advanced, sending an agent into the South, as they had when they provided railroad tickets, clothing and funerals to those running North. I have to dive back into the secondary literature -- fast becoming my greatest weakness -- in order to see how this fits into the larger pattern of women in the antislavery movement, and the ways that they differed or modeled themselves on other women.

What I am seeing is that there is a distinct difference in the way that they conceive of their activism and the way that Douglass sees his activism, and that, sometimes, the women believe that their work is, in fact, morally superior to his. Furthermore, the more that Douglass becomes famous and moves into party politics, the less feminine his world becomes. For Douglass -- and this is just a hypothesis at this moment -- the abolition movement was much more female or, at the very least, integrated by gender. The Civil War took him into a world in which men and masculine citizenship and political action dominated his work. He was a connection and a wedge for the women and their work, and, at the moment, the number of women working with him in reform seems to decrease or their activism and organizations seem separate from him in some way that made their relationship different than before the Civil War.

Here, too, I must sort out politics, activism, and reform.

After Michigan, I'm back to Syracuse, then off to D.C. to close shop there. Then, off to Ireland until May.