Monday, June 20, 2011

The Porters

Last week I spent most of my time in the Porter Family Papers in the Special Collections of the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester. Much like the Garrison Family Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, when the title is "Family Papers" they do mean "family," as in "no matter what else the family was involved in, all you are going to get out of these papers is family news." They tell you when babies are born, when babies died, who got married, who visits who, who wants who to visit, what the travel plans for visiting are, who is sick and all of the specific symptoms (there is a particularly grisly description of an operation on Samuel D. Porter's arm in one letter), putting up preserves and pickles, and the details of how various people died. Great stuff for everything but my purposes. You would never guess that this was a family at the center of anti-slavery activity in Rochester or that two of the women were officers in the Rochester Ladies' Anti-slavery Society. That is, perhaps, telling unto itself.

After spending all of my week crawling through their private lives, I thought I should honor them by paying my respects to their bones in Mount Hope Cemetery. Saturday was a lovely day for traipsing about amongst dead people; and since my sojourn in the Rochester Public Library had reached a crossroads, and the crossroads indicated that I would have to delve into the type of research that would lead to a whole other project, and since the hour was late in the afternoon,  and since I was cold and hungry, I decided to take the research into the field (or graveyard). Often, you can find interesting information in the graveyard...or so I told myself in order to not feel quite so guilty for leaving the library before it closed.

The Porter mausoleum lies not too far from the Douglass family plot, where Frederick, Anna,  and Helen are all buried. I've got some interesting information on Anna's burial, but that will have to wait for another post since this one is on the Porters. Meanwhile, this is the Porter mausoleum:

It resembles the sort of mausoleum that you find in Louisiana along the lower Mississippi in places like New Orleans. I, in fact, have ancestors and relatives buried in such structures. This type here differs in a few respects. The Louisiana sort resembles a beehive with each body sliding into a discrete compartment. When you inter a person, you open only the space for that person's coffin and slide it in. The design of the structure acts like a giant oven, especially in the Louisiana heat, and speeds decomposition. After a period of time -- a year and a day, at one point in history -- you can reuse the space by opening it up, pushing the remains of the previous occupant to the back, and sliding in another body. Modern mortuary practices and coffin construction have interfered with this process, and have created a much messier process of reusing a space, especially in the decomposition of the bodies and disposal of the coffin.

The sort of crypt like the Porters' is an open room. When a person dies, you open the door, bring in the deceased, and lay the body on a shelf, a bit like in Romeo and Juliet, but nastier and probably smellier to our modern sensibilities. You continue to do that, moving older remains to make room for newer ones. At one point in history, bodies were not placed in coffins, by lain down in shrouds, unembalmed as if the person were asleep.

Douglass,  incidentally, would have been embalmed since his body travelled from D.C. to Rochester and was present at funerals in both places. What the Porters did I do not know.

I do know that you don't see this on many mausoleums in Louisiana:

Windows. Given that there is no visible evidence of hinges to suggest a hatch or door, I'm going to guess that this was a window, probably stained glass. Whatever was there, however, has since disappeared and left an opening that the groundskeepers have covered with plywood. Any kid who has build a clubhouse out of plywood in their back yard knows what happens to plywood when exposed to the elements of sun, rain, and, in some climates, snow. It buckles:

Yes, you see cracks about the edges of the wood. What you don't see are the big, fat, buzzing flies swarming about those cracks; and the combination of the cracks and flies made me curious as to what was inside. "I wonder if I could peep in around the cracks and see anything," I thought. Then, I thought, "Of course, I don't wonder enough to actually go try to peep around the cracks and see anything." The second I had that last thought, I actually did wonder enough to go try to peep around the cracks, but I stopped myself. I stopped myself not because the wood might pop off and I would be accused of desecrating a grave, nor because the groundskeeper was nearby, nor because of any health or legal or even ethical hazard. No, I stopped myself because, if I did see something, I could never ever un-see it. I wasn't prepared to not un-see something.

You may well wonder who the Porters were and whose remains lie within that crypt? The Porters, intermarried with the Farleys and along with the Posts, were at the center of abolitionism in Rochester and supported Douglass as he broke away from the abolitionist circle in Boston. Samuel D. Porter was a businessman, a Liberty Party man, and aided fugitive slaves (I'm investigating just how, since the Douglass biographies seem to attempt to marry myth with the actual evidence). His wife, Susan Farley Porter, was the president of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society; and his sister,  Maria G. Porter was the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society treasurer. Their activities in the society included rasing funds that they used to help fugitives, as well. I have to go to the Clements Library in Michigan to read those papers (a certain historian mis-cited them as being in Rochester, thus I must alter my summer plans, which will also allow me to drop into Oberlin en route to see what I can learn about Rosetta Douglass's time there).
Little Annie Douglass,  who died at the age of ten while her father was in England, was also interred in the Porter mausoleum. When she died at her home only a few blocks from the cemetery, the Douglasses had not yet purchased their own burial plot, so she was placed here in the Porters'. As far as the research staff at Mount Hope knows, she was never moved, although the Douglass family monument includes her name and dates.

But, I did not begin this post in order to indulge my ghoulish tendencies. I intended to write about the dry well of my research and what that means. Since this is only a blog, and blog posts by nature should be short, I shall save that for another post. Suffice to say for the moment is that many historians and Douglass biographers have cited the Porter Family Papers, and a single digit number of letters in particular, as containing a wealth of information about their involvement in aiding fugitive slaves. I'm not saying that the Porters did not aid fugitives. That is clearly there in the evidence. I am saying that the generalizations extrapolated from that single digit number of letters do not necessarily reflect the actual evidence in those letters, or at least represent only a cursory reading of those letters.

I think those questionable -- not wrong, just questionable -- generalizations have something to do with the way that people attempt to make "common knowledge" and evidence fit together, or to use scraps of evidence to support that "common knowledge" without questioning the creation of that "common knowledge." I'm referring specifically to such things as aid to fugitives or the Underground Railroad myths, but it can extend to a whole host of information about social history, women's history, Native American history, and African American history. In fact,  I've discovered that the most important question I ask myself is, "how do we know what we think we know?" In research, that may be the only real question, or the one that guides all others.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Honeoye, part 2

I ended up going back to Honeoye. Saturday morning, I went to the Rochester Public Library's Local History Room to see what they might have that will help me flesh out the context of Douglass family in Rochester. I'm particularly interested in the African-American community in that area since it works into some of my understanding of Anna and her own sense of community. Sadly, very little scholarly work has been done on African-Americans in Rochester. Happily (especially for her prospects as a historian), a graduate student at University of Rochester,  Monique Patenaude, is working on this subject.

As has been happening all week, I was digging a dry well. There are patterns to the dryness that I will write about later, so dry wells are not a loss. They are, in fact, quite valuable in guiding the way to a more accurate understanding of the subject; but, as I just said,more on that later. In the process of digging this well, I came across one of those WPA Writers' Project guides, this one concerning Rochester and its vicinity. These guides are fantastic in showing historic preservation and routes of travel in the 1930s; and this one included a "tour" that brought the traveller through Honeoye. The "tour" through Honeoye mentioned landmarks: a statue to Major General John Sullivan of Sullivan's Expedition (in)fame, a historical marker for the home of Gideon Pitts, and a historical marker for the home of Captain Peter Pitts. Peter Pitts was one of the earliest settlers of Honeoye and the father of Gideon Pitts; and Gideon Pitts was the father of Helen Pitts, the second Mrs. Douglass. (I may be missing a generation in there. My copy of the biography of Helen Pitts is, unfortunately, not on  hand.)
"Maybe they are still there," I thought. I also wondered, "How could I have missed a whole statue?" Of course, missing a statue may have had something to do with the fact that I had probably not seen the entire town since hunger,  exhaustion, and traffic from road construction made me  conclude that I had seen everything when, as it turned out, I was only about half to three-quarters of the way through the village. So,  after leaving the public library,  and after making a pass through Mount Hope Cemetery to see the Porter mausoleum (I thought it only respectful after having trawled through their family letters all week -- plus,  I'm a bit of a ghoul), I turned my green machine toward Honeoye.

Now alert and also more familiar with the route than I had been two days earlier, I did not miss this sign as I entered the village:

The marker to Peter Pitts's home.

I followed the same path through the village as I had before,  but did not let traffic deter me. Beyond the road work, the street went uphill and past this house:

What should be standing in front of this house? This marker!:

"Pitts Mansion. Built 1821 by Gideon Pitts, son of Capt. Peter Pitts, pioneer settler in 1789." Also, this was the birthplace and childhood home of Helen Pitts. Whether or not the house is the actual house,  I do not know and someone more versed in architectural history, especially the architectural history of western New York, or the local history of Honeoye could probably tell me more.

I did not find the statue of John Sullivan. I'm not sure if that is good or bad. On the one hand,  Sullivan's Expedition was a nasty, genocidal bit of American history, and a statue celebrating him is not the best idea. On the other hand, with the proper signage, perhaps that nasty, genocidal bit of American history and the reasons certain people  wanted to celebrate it might be addressed. Then, my sarcasm kicks in as I think about how well such attempts have gone in places like Mystic, Connecticut, and Deerfield, Massachusetts, when the older, celebratory statues and signs met with effort to update those sites to include more complicated and current knowledge of the violent historical events that occurred there. Perhaps that is what separates heritage from history: heritage is a celebration of a particular person's or group's past, while history is an attempt to understand the intricate interactions and points of view of the past, without too much identification with any one person or group.

In any case, I find something poetic, or ironic, in the fact that Peter Pitts participated in the oppression of one group of non-white people while his granddaughter challenged the oppression of another group of non-white people. He made war, and she quite literally made love.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Home of Jermain Loguen

In Savannah, I read many letters from Lewis Douglass, Frederick's oldest son, to Amelia Loguen, the woman who became Lewis's wife. Early in their courtship, Amelia lived in the home of her father, Jermain, on Genesee street at the corner of Pine, in Syracuse, New York. Since I went to Syracuse after I left Savannah (with a short pause in Silver Spring in between), I decided to see where all of these letters had gone.

Jermain Loguen was not just anybody in Syracuse. He was a fugitive slave who had become a minister and a leader of the black community in the city. Unlike many (and I'd venture to say most) other alleged Underground Railroad sites, his home is actually quite well documented as a haven for people escaping slavery. In fact, just the other day I read a letter that noted it as such.

Since this is central New York, and since the Underground Railroad is huge heritage tourism business, the location of his home actually has a marker:

That is him, incidentally, in the upper left corner of the image.

He is also memorialized downtown in the monument to the Jerry Rescue:
You can't really see him in this image, but he is the figure on the far side of the fugitive slave, Jerry Henry, in the center.  You know Jerry Henry is the fugitive because he is shirtless and has ripped pants. That's the uniform.

Seriously, to make a long and involved story about race and ethnicity and politics and so forth short, Jerry was a fugitive who was being returned to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act and Loguen pretty led a large group of people who busted him out of jail, where he awaited the slave catchers, and helped him to Canada. Loguen had to take a trip there, too, for his part in the bust.

The canal, incidentally, ran behind this statue.

Getting back to the home. Loguen's home sat on the corner of Genessee and Pine, the second dot from the right on the map below:

Do you know what is there now, at the corner of Pine and Genesee, beside this sign?


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Honeoye, New York

It is late, and I have been in the archive all day, drilling a dry research well. Fortunately, there is a pattern to what I am not finding.

After a disappointing day, I decided to go out to see where Helen Pitts, the second Mrs. Frederick Douglass, grew up. The drive took me off of the interstate (imagine!) and down winding highways to Honeoye.

 This is essentially the whole town, which is a hamlet, actually, complete with a sheriff ensuring that you observe the speed limit. He's the white car on the right in the distance.
 I do know that the Pitts lived along this street somewhere, but little evidence is left of that period of time in this area. So many layers of time can erode small places sometimes.

If you keep going straight down the street, you eventually go up a hill where you can find a scenic overlook. This is the view from there:

I imagine there were fewer trees then, as well.

This is a lovely, small, quiet place; but I imagine for a young woman in the nineteenth century, one with a burning to end slavery, to do good in the world, to do something at all in the world, it was much too small and much too quiet. She went to college at Mt. Holyoke, also a lovely, small quiet place.

Then, in the Civil War, she went south, into the Confederacy, to teach freedpeople in Norfolk, Virginia. After the war, she ended up in Washington, D.C. working on the women's journal The Alpha and in the Recorder of Deeds office where her boss was Frederick Douglass.  She now rests in Mt. Hope Cemetery, next to him and Anna Murray, the first Mrs. Frederick Douglass,  and not too very far from where I am researching.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Submitted for Your (Dis)Approval

Courtesy of Prof. Bob Buzzanco, University of Houston, (who would know about something like this!) via Facebook:

To be entirely pedantic, Frederick Douglass knew all about natural hair as he had a very impressive head of it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Second Funniest Thing Found In the Garrison Family Papers

In the Garrison Family Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, I found a special issue of the British journal Anti-Caste.  This issue had been published in the spring of 1895 in memorial to Frederick Douglass, who had died in February. In this issue,  the editor, Catherine Impey, reprinted "Extracts from the Editor's Diary of a Visit to 'Cedar Hill,'" the visit in question having taken place in September 1892.

At one point in her week long visit, Impey described an excursion to the Art Gallery with Douglass; his wife, Helen Douglass; Helen's sister, Eva Pitts; Helen's friend, Miss Foy; and Douglass's granddaughters, Annie and Estella Sprague. "F.Douglass and six ladies," Impey parenthetically reported. Parenthetically, I am  surprised that she did not include an exclamation mark. Furthermore, on the way to the Art Gallery, they met with two other women, "a Mrs. Lee and her daughter, from Chicago (coloured)." Now, the party consisted of F. Douglass and eight ladies.

Understand that, in 1892, Douglass was 74 years old. Yet, he still had the physique to command this description from Impey as she, from her guest room window,  saw him strolling in the yard below. "What a grand majestic figure it is," she wrote. "Fine features, with a crown of white hair like the Egyptian monarchs of old." The magnetism of his youth was still present as he aged.

Yet, what struck me in this description, as in other indications of his life from the earliest accounts, including his own, was that he was surrounded by women and seemed most at ease among them. The only men who appear in this description of Impey's week at Cedar Hill were the carriage driver and Douglass's grandson, Joseph Douglass,who only appear to escort ladies off-stage. He is most jovial,  most relaxed, and most compliant around the ladies, and I am wondering why. Could this be his conservative or patriarchal streak? They are not a threat to him and generally in service (or thrall) to him; but is there something else there, something that carries me into the realm of "psychohistory"?