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.

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