Saturday, January 15, 2011

Compiling the Evidence: Frederick Douglass on Anna Murray Douglass

These are some of the things that Douglass wrote directly about his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.

Narrative (1845):
“At this time, Anna* [*She was free], my intended wife, came on; for I wrote to her immediately after my arrival at New York, (notwithstanding my homeless, houseless, and helpless condition,)informing her of my successful flight, and wishing her to come on forthwith. In a few days after her arrival, Mr. Ruggles called in the Rev. J.W.C. Pennington, who, in the presence of Mr. Ruggles, Mrs. Michaels, and two or three others, performed the marriage ceremony, and gave us a certificate, of which the following is an exact copy: --
‘THIS may certify, that I joined together in holy matrimony Frederick Johnson+ [+I had changed my name from Frederick Bailey to that of Johnson] and Anna Murray, as man and wife, in the presence of Mr. David Ruggles and Mrs. Michaels.
New York, Sept. 15, 1838’
Upon receiving this certificate, and a five-dollar bill from Mr. Ruggles, I shouldered on part of our baggage, and Anna took up the other, and we set out forthwith to take passage on board of the steamboat John W. Richmond for Newport, on our way to New Bedford.”

My Bondage and My Freedom (1855):
“I was hidden with Mr. Ruggles several days. In the meantime, my intended wife, Anna, came on from Baltimore – to whom I had written, informing her of my safe arrival at New York – and, in the presence of Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Ruggles, we were married, by Rev. James W.C. Pennington.” Mentions “we” in relating his living conditions in New Bedford. Then, he wrote, “During the hardest of the winter, I hired out for nine dollars a month; and out of this rented two rooms for nine dollars per quarter, and supplied my wife – who was unable to work – with food and some necessary articles of furniture.”

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Gates version is the 1893 version – check the earlier and later versions):
“With Mr. Ruggles, on the corner of Lispenard and Church streets, i was hidden several days, during which time my intended wife came on from Baltimore at my call, to share the burdens of life with me. She was a free woman, and came at once on getting the good news of my safety. We were married by Rev. J.W.C. Pennington, then a well-known and respected Presbyterian minister. I had no money with which to pay the marriage fee, but he seemed well pleased with our thanks.” He uses the pronoun “we” through the rest of the paragraph

FD to Maria Weston Chapman, 10 September 1843, from Cambridge, Indiana, on page 13 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“P.S. I have received a few lines from my wife asking for means to carry on household affair[.] I have not to send hir[.] Will you please see that she is provided with $25 or $30.”

FD to Harriet Bailey (aka Ruth Cox, Ruth Adams, and Harriet Adams), 16 May 1846, from England, on page 125 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“Read the enclosed letter which I send to my Dear Anna over and over again till she can fully understand its contents[.]”

FD to Isabel Jennings, 22 September 1846, from Glasgow, Scotland, on page 166 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“You may easily suppose the conclusion come to reluctantly when I tell you I had already written to my Anna telling her to expect me home on the 20th Nov. It will cost her some pain. Disappointment is the common lot of all – this may afford slight relief till I come.” (He had decided to stay in Britain for a bit longer after having been absent for a year.)

FD to Anna Richardson, 29 April 1847, from home in Lynn, Massachusetts, on page 208-209 of the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project:
“I am once more at home; once more with the wife of my bosom, and in the midst of the dear children of my love…My dear Anna is not well, but much better than I expected to find her, as she seldom enjoys good health. She feels exceedingly happy to have me once more at home. She had not allowed herself to expect me much, for fear of being disappointed; but she was none the less glad to see me on that account…Dear Anna and myself are intending to visit Albany in a few days: and we shall then see our only girl Rosetta.“

FD to Thomas Auld, 8 Sept. 1848, published in North Star, source here is the first volume of Douglass’s correspondence by the Frederick Douglass Papers project (312-313) and can also be found in their edition of My Bondage and My Freedom:
“I married soon after leaving you: in fact, I was engaged to be married before I left you, and instead of finding my companion a burden, she was truly a helpmeet. She went to live at service, and I to work on the wharf, and though we toiled hard the first winter, we never lived more happily….So far as my domestic affairs are concerned, I can boast of as comfortable a dwelling as your own. I have an industrious and neat companion….”

FD to Lydia Dennett, a Maine abolitionist, 17 April 1857, the original is in the Houghton at Harvard, this comes from Philip Foner’s edition, Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights, page 21-22:
“Suppose I begin with my wife. I am sad to say that she is by no means well – and if I should write down all her complaints there could be no room even to put my name at the bottom, although the world will have it that I am actually at the bottom of it all. She has the face – I was going to use terms scarcely up to the standard of modern elegance – neuraligia. She has a great deal to do, but little time to do it in, and withal much to try her patience and all her other very many virtues. You have doubtless in your experience, met with many excellent wives and mothers, who have been in very much the same condition in which my wife is. She has suffered in every member except one. She still seems able to use with great ease and fluency her powers of speech, and by the time I am at home a week or two longer, I shall have pretty fully learned in how many points there is need of improvement in my temper and disposition as a husband and father, the head of a family! Amid all the vicissitudes, however, I am happy to say that my wife gives me an excellent loaf of bread and keeps a neat house, and has moments of marked amiability, of all which good things, I do not fail to take due advantage." (Well, Me-ow.)

FD to Doctress S. M. Loguen, 12 August 1882, after Anna Douglass’s death on August 4, just a week earlier; the original is at Howard (have to haul my rear-end over there), this is quoted in Philip Foner’s edition, Frederick Douglass and Women’s Rights, page 22:
“Mother was the post in the center of my house and held us together.”

I'm sure this isn't all he had to say about Anna. That is, not all he had to say about her in writing. I'm sure he had much to say in all manner of ways in life. They were, after all, married for a long time.

Now, to compile what others have said about her both in her time and since, especially historians, and figure out what it all means. I do know one thing: She's rather a blank slate, given that she left no writing from her own hand, so people liked to project on to her what they wanted or needed her to be.

1 comment:

  1. The shift from Anna/my wife to Mother at the end is interesting; does he refer to her as Mother anywhere else??

    The reference to her as the center post of his house was interesting as well. It could be a strictly architectural/structural analogy, of course. But I've been reading a lot lately on black American spiritual practices in the nineteenth century, and this brought to mind a particular article I read that overlay the crossroads cosmogram on dwellings, interpreting the dwellings themselves as sacred spaces. Wild tangent? Wild goose chase? Possibly (probably), but I'll toss it out there anyway.

    Happy to send the citation/more detailed discussion, if you'd like.