Sunday, September 24, 2017

Recent Sitings of "Women in the World of Frederick Douglass"

Alas, the best laid plans of bloggers and women were derailed last week by a blood drive. Although I don't consider myself particularly small nor particularly anemic, my weight, height, and iron counts just barely clear the bar for a blood donation. The result? I felt much as if I had contracted Lucy's wasting illness in Dracula for a week. Fortunately, no vampires were involved, and steak rather than stakes are involved in the cure. Steak, iron pills, big salad with spinach, and Dinosaur barbeque. I'm feeling much better; but my doctor says my days of blood donation are over -- or my day of donation, since this was the only time I've ever done this.

Meanwhile, recent and upcoming events on the book front.;

This one is a little older, but is a contribution to the blog The Page 99 Test. As the header explains, page 99 of a book is supposed to reveal the quality of the book. This blog, like My Book, The Movie, is associated with The Campaign for the American Reader. :

Lillian Calles Barger interviewed me about the book for her podcast on New Books Network. She was a fantastic host. I always love talking with someone who has read the book and can ask questions that delve deeper into the material.:

Jonathan Lande reviewed the book for The Civil War Monitor, and I owe him a drink or chocolate or the ambrosia of his choice for such a glowing praise. He gets what I was trying to say in the book better than I do!

During this week of anemia, I spoke to the Binghamton Civil War Round Table. While they apologized for the size of the crowd, I thought the room was full. On top of that, they asked great questions and bought books.

Then, the Onondaga Historical Association's book group had chosen my book for this month, so they invited me in for a discussion. They had so many great questions and admired all of these women who supported Douglass just as much as they found him fascinating. We had a lovely time -- an hour and a half if I was keeping track correctly -- just chatting about some amazing and quite human figures from the past.:

This may sound silly, but any indication that someone read and understood the book is such a thrill. When you write a book, you spend years feeling like you are sounding your barbaric yawp into the wilderness. Meanwhile, you spend your everyday life teaching, punctuated by paper presentations at conferences. Between the answers on exams and the questions at panels, all of which seem only vaguely related to what you actually said, you begin to doubt your ability to communicate in any verbal form. So, when people do understand -- ah! The joy!

In a few weeks, the British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) will hold their annual meeting in Warwick, England, and I will be presenting a paper on Douglass's Grand Tour (hence, the blog posts about it). One of my fellow panelists, Daniel Joslyn, will be giving a paper on Douglass in Egypt. Like Douglass, I am an unashamed Anglophile, so a visit there always gives me a little thrill.

Later, on October, a play about abolitionists, The Agitators, will be having a run in Rochester, New York. On the 24th, the theater will host a panel of historians to discuss the context of the play's events. I'll be participating and provide more information when I have it.

In November, I'll be down in Houston, Texas, to give a talk at Houston Community College. (Since I'll be down there, if anyone wants to bring me in to their school, contact me and I'll be happy to oblige.)

Then, on December 11, the Brooklyn Historical Society will be having me in to talk about the book. Tickets are only $5.:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tuesday, 14 September 1886: “And the mighty vessel moves quietly”

New York Times, 12 Sept 1886
So tired was Helen that the loading of cotton, iced beef, and all sorts of other freight outside her porthole throughout the night did not disturb her. She had arisen, prepared herself for the day, and arrived on deck at 5:30 a.m. When Frederick joined her eventually, he was impressed to learn that, “like a true Yankee,” she had already met the pilot and seen the captain. Then, with a shriek of the whistle, the “mighty vessel” got underway.

For the next three hours, tug boats pulled the great ship out of port and harbor, sending her off to sea. Helen marveled that” the ocean is as smooth as any river, and about 4 hours out takes on the dark, exceedingly dark blue hue that have never before seen.” Frederick noted “little wind and a remarkably Smooth Sea, less ruffled than I ever saw the sea before.” Helen, the less experienced, gazed out for an hour. “It has an anxious mottled appearance that for some time I study in vain,” she puzzled over the surface, “but finally conclude to be due to millions of little waves or ripples receiving the sunlight at different angles.”

“I had thought to cross the ocean quietly and without being recognized by any body I ever saw before,” Frederick confided to his diary, “but this notion was soon dispelled.”

As they strolled about deck and gained their sea legs, a tall man of about sixty, “totally without appearance of affectation” and wearing “a dark blue woolen suit including cap” according to Helen, approached them along with his younger companion. The tall man introduced himself as the Reverend Heman Wayland, son of the former president of Brown University (and brother to a former lieutenant governor of Connecticut, but he left that part out), and his younger companion as – well, Helen and Frederick never could spell his name in the same way twice, but it was George Blelock or Brelock or something sounding like that. Frederick had met both before, although George Blelock Brelock Bullock or Whatever had been a child at the time. He had his own daughter along on the trip now. At breakfast, a young couple, George and Izora Chandler – “she very pretty and gentle in appearance and he low in voice but with an air of quiet authority that commends him as a man not to be trifled with,” Helen observed – sat across from them. George let Frederick know that he had never forgotten hearing him speak after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination now two decades earlier.

As it turned out, Frederick was glad of the Reverend’s company for he proved to be “a remarkable clever talker, and a man very free from pretenses.” Helen listened in on their chats and determined that Wayland had “the smell of mugwumpery on his mental garments,” adding “but it might have been ship smell.” Frederick thought the same, but nonetheless admitted “I like him."

Page from Helen Douglass's Diary
As the hours passed, the couple retired to the saloon to write in their travel diaries. Another tourist, travelling over twenty years earlier, observed his fellow passengers writing in their journals for hours upon hours at the start of their trips. “Alas that journals so voluminously begun should come to so lame and impotent a conclusion as most of them did!” he lamented. “I doubt if there is a single pilgrim of all that host but can how a hundred fair pages of journal concerning the firth twenty days voyaging in the Quaker City, and I am morally certain that not ten of the party can show twenty pages of journal for the succeeding twenty thousand miles of voyaging!”

So it shall be with Helen and Frederick.

She describes the saloon with its oak paneling and columns, its portholes and long writing table, her fellow travelers scribbling in their own journals, the plush green upholstery, the near-empty tables, the organ (where, Frederick complains, “a young man is persistently boring our ears”), the piano in the drawing room, the hanging plants, the canaries, the rails, the sties, the carpet, and so on and so forth.

Frederick seems pleased with the meals and worried about the possibility of seasickness, hoping that the smooth sailing of the ship will persist even if they run into foul weather. He observes the few ladies on the ship relaxing in steamer chairs with books lying open on their laps “more as ornaments than for use,” and men solemnly walking the deck as they “smoke, smoke, and smoke.” He notes the reserve of the passengers toward one another at this stage of the voyage, and that “everything between officers and men seems to go on very smoothly.”

What else is there to do but read and await landfall?

Helen Pitts Douglass Diary, 14 September 1886, and Frederick Douglass Diary, 15 September 1886, Family Papers, Frederick Douglass Paper, Library of Congress.

Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1869; New York: Signet Classics, 2007), 22.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Monday, 13 September 1886: The Steamer Called the City of Rome

At 1:00 pm the hansom cab picked the couple up at the Grand Central Hotel and drove them the few blocks where they boarded the massive steamer bustling with activity. They ensured that all of their luggage had arrived and was in order. Helen, probably suspecting that she might find herself confined to quarters revisiting more a meal or two, admitted to being “eager to see our room.” She described it as:

“a very comfortable little place, the space opposite the berths and under the window a port hole, a round eye of glass, is occupied by the couch. Over it and over each berth is a wall pocket and over the stationary wash bowl, between it and the mirror a fresh linen pocket for brushes, fresh water bottle, pneumatic bell call, and altogether a nice cosy little place.”

She claimed the top bunk. Then, they returned to the deck to watch the activity and local friends seized the opportunity of seeing them off to take a tour of this modern marvel.

The last of these, the only one of which she took note by name, was Gustav Frauenstein. This Jewish doctor had known Douglass for decades as part of Ottilie Assing’s circle of German ex-patriates in Hoboken. She, of course, was not far from their thoughts, and Helen noted, “we talked of Miss Assing.”

What a bittersweet reminder of one of Frederick’s oldest friends, dead now these five years, who would have enjoyed seeing him finally cross the ocean to visit the Continent. Even if she could not have been his tour guide, if her letters are any indication of her personality, she would have given him detailed instructions of what to see and what to do.

The hour grew late. “As the genial Dr. left,” Helen wrote, “he threw his arms around Frederick’s neck in a good old fashioned hug & kissed him, kissed me, and ran off the steamer.” Such a surprising display of affection, it seemed. As they watched from the ship, Helen reported, he tossed them “a cordial wave of his hat from the dock and he was gone.”

Helen, exhausted from the day, retired to her berth. Frederick stayed behind to stroll t
he deck.

Helen Pitts Douglass Diary, 14 September 1886, Family Papers, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress

Image from

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sunday, 12 September 1886: "Society Topics of the Week"

New York Times, 12 Sept 1886
From the New York Times:

“The American colony abroad which began to break up a fortnight ago is now pretty well scattered and its members are returning home by every steamer. Every stateroom and berth in the fleet homeward-bound ocean liners up to Dec. 1 are said to be engaged, and many people after waiting days in hopes of something being given up have been and are obliged to return in slower boats. Great as was the Spring exodus to Europe the Autumn return flight seems to be larger.”

Two days later Helen reported the same, with more precision, from aboard the steamer City of Rome:

"Only 71 passengers lose themselves in the spaces of this mighty ship that one week ago landed at New York hundreds of home returning travelers, and we are told that in London are many waiting passage, as the books of all the steamers westward bound are filled till into November."

The Douglasses travelled in the off-season, then, possibly economizing, possibly avoiding the pitfalls of his celebrity, possibly planning to arrive in southern latitudes at a more amenable time of year.

"Society Topics of the Week," New York Times, 12 September 1886.

Helen Pitts Douglass Diary, 14 September 1884, Family Papers, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Saturday, 11 September 1886: Dinner at the Wendell Phillips Club

The Wendell Phillips Club gathered at Boston’s Revere House for a dinner in Frederick’s on the evening of the eleventh. This illustrious hotel was not the North End address of the famed Revolutionary patriot, but nearer to sites dear to the early days of the American Antislavery Society. Boston’s black community, the African American Joy Street Church, the society’s Antislavery Office, the home of militant black abolitionist and former state representative Lewis Hayden, and the offices of the Liberator all lay in the neighborhood to the west of the hotel. The town home of the Shaw family, under whose son, Robert Gould Shaw, Douglass’s son Lewis had served in the Massachusetts 54th and fought in that fateful assault on Battery Wagner in the Civil War could be found further south along the edge of Boston Common. Indeed, the 54th had marched along Beacon Street past the home as Douglass stood on its balcony. He had followed the men – that great hope for their people – to the docks to see them off to “thunder at the gates.”

Veterans of the American Antislavery Society dominated the dinner, of course. Douglass had parted ways with them quite acrimoniously in the 1850s, but decades had passed, slavery had ended, alliances had shifted, participants had died. Garrison had passed away in 1879 and when Wendell Phillips followed him five years later, Frederick and Helen attended the funeral despite having just married.

Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd’s son, planned to attend the September 11th dinner, but he had also organized “an informal gathering” a few days later on the 13th or 14th,“say between 4 & 7 P.M.” He hoped to “bring together all the old ‘original’ antislavery friends in this vicinity” to meet both Douglass and his guest from out of town. Alas! Douglass would be boarding the City of Rome on the thirteenth and unable to join the soiree at the Garrison home. Garrison’s get-together seemed more a sentimental and private occasion to reminisce. The Club dinner clearly had a public purpose considering its location and its illustrious guest list.

First, true to the name of the organization, such longtime abolitionists as James N. Buffum of Lynn, who had accompanied Douglass on his first voyage overseas, Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, whom he credited as his first host in Boston, newspaper editor Oliver Johnson, and former state representative Lewis Hayden took seats at the table. Douglass noted each along with the departed in his remarks. “If I have done anything for the colored people,” he declared, “it is in a great measure due to my having had the good-fortune, when I escaped from slavery, to become acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison, and with Wendell Phillips, and with our friend Oliver Johnson, and with Dr. Bowditch.”

Like the bon voyage party at Cedar Hill, this one also implicitly highlighted the accomplishments of African Americans. Hayden had sheltered many escaping slavecatchers and served in the Massachusetts legislature. The first black graduate of Harvard Law School, Judge George Lewis Ruffin, also joined the company.

While Douglass continued to insist his Grand Tour would be a private visit, others seem to have made particular requests of him. “I am not going as an advocate,” he reminded his audience. Nevertheless, should he have reason to speak in England, “I shall not hesitate to declare my own entire sympathy with that grand old man, Mr. Gladstone, in his endeavors to remove the reproach of oppression from England and to extend the desired liberty to Ireland.” The urging here to pressure the British Prime Minister to support Irish Home Rule probably came from the dinner’s most prominent guest, Boston’s first Irish Catholic mayor, Hugh O’Brien.

Hayden, too, made a request. He asked that Douglass write to him, and he seemed most curious as to the racial attitudes toward people of African descent in other countries. The Irish, English, and Scots had all amazed Douglass before with their absence of prejudice against his race and, indeed, their embrace of him as something akin to beautiful. Only Americans abroad had shown hatred.

As the Wendell Phillips Club raised their alcohol-free glasses to toast Douglass’s upcoming trip, African Americans elsewhere worried about their futures. The Supreme Court no longer considered their civil rights worth protecting when it overturned the Civil Rights Act in 1883. Lynchings went unprosecuted and often undocumented. White audiences laughed themselves silly at the grotesqueries of minstrel shows. The Lost Cause and reconciliation narratives began to dominate not only popular but academic histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Remembering abolition had importance for current events. Knowing that another way of living – visiting a place where one could be free from the noise of racism to simply think and be – meant hope. Thus began Douglass's reporting of the African diaspora in Europe.

Account of the Wendell Phillips Club dinner, including excerpts of Douglass's speech and people in attendence:  Frederic May Holland, Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator (1891; New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1895), 362-63.

Francis Garrison to FD, Boston, 2 Sept 1886, General Correspondence, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress:

FD to Lewis Hayden and "Watson" [I haven't identified him, yet], Paris, 19 Nov 1886, in Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip Foner (1955; New York: International Publishers, 1975), 4: 444-47.

Revere House Records, Massachusetts Historical Society:

Revere House images: Revere House, Wikipedia, 9 Sept 2017:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Friday, 10 September 1886: To the Broadway Grand Central Hotel

With the last of the "modern zinck covered Rochester made trunks" packed and final instructions issued to Cedar Hill's caretakers, Helen now set out for New York City where she checked into the Grand Central Hotel to await the arrival of her husband from Boston.

The hotel, incidentally, was located at 671 Broadway, occupying the block between Bond and Third Streets. Anyone today who knows anything about that part of Manhattan probably already suspects, first, that a massive Victorian-era building no longer stands in that spot and, second, that the real estate has been absorbed by the sponge that is New York University. Both suppositions are, of course, correct. The hotel structure became apartments, that became low-income apartments, which meant they fell into disrepair. A section collapsed in the 1970s, leading to the demolition of the site. NYU dorms now occupy the property.

Back then, Helen could look forward to her first trip abroad in relative luxury. While much of this trip has the focus on Frederick, remember that Helen came from a modest background. She grew up in rural New York. While not poor, and certainly among the upper class of her town and now elevated in social class in her marriage to one of the most recognizable black men in the country, Norfolk, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Iowa, and Connecticut were probably as far away from the place she had been born. Unlike her husband, she had never been overseas. Furthermore, she was not just going to see the exiting places that everyone went to see on the Grand Tour. She was also going to see the places that Douglass had visited and wrote about during his younger, feistier abolitionist days, back when she herself was a mere child presumably being fired to action by his autobiographies and speeches.

Indeed, the abolitionist movement played a "now and then" harmony through the first leg of their journey.

Image from Frederick Douglass National Historic Park Flickr:

Quote about trunk: FD to H.C. Kudlich, Cedar Hill, Anacostia, D.C., 14 Sept 1887, General Correspondence, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.

Hotel: Helen Pitts Douglass Diary, 14 Sept 1886, Family Papers, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.

Hotel: Michael Pollack, "Broadway Central Hotel's Heyday Before a Fatal Collapse," New York Times, 6 Nov 2015.

Hotel (any of my students reading this, don't do this at home!): Grand Central Hotel, Wikipedia, 10 Sept 2017:

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sunday, September 5, 1886: Bon Voyage!

Washington Bee, 11 Sept 1886
In the afternoon, the guests arrived. Former Senator Blanche K. Bruce escorted his socialite wife, Josephine. The black Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Milton M. Holland, and his wife, Virginia, made their way up to the Hill, too. John Smythe, who had returned from his second term as U.S. minister to the black republic of Liberia, a position he had gained through Douglass's influence, joined them, as did Dr. John F. Cook and Dr. Furman Jeremiah Shadd of Howard University.

These lights of the capital's black bourgeoisie were only those named by the Washington Bee. This leading African American paper assured its readers that "many others" attended. So, too, did Lewis, Frederick, Jr., Charles, and Rosetta, along with their spouses. The grandchildren roamed the grounds; and, while the Bee did not specifically mention croquet, most knew that the wickets had become a
fixture of the Douglass back yard during any gathering.

This would be the last of such gatherings at Cedar Hill for some time. Literary societies, Shakespeare clubs, calling hours all would be suspended for the coming year or two. Upstairs, except for the baggage that Frederick would take with him the next day for a scheduled engagement at the Wendell Phillips Club in Boston, the trunks awaited packing. Otherwise, Lewis had been granted power of attorney, Charles left in charge of Cedar Hill, and caretakers left to oversee its daily care.  In a week, Frederick and Helen would rendezvous at the Broadway Grand Central Hotel in Manhattan, then board the steamer City of Rome for their Grand Tour of Europe.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

"My Free Life Began on the Third of September, 1838"

He "finally resolved upon the third day of September, as the day upon which I would make a second attempt to secure my freedom." For three weeks he prepared, seeming to go about business as usual. Finding employment for himself, turning over his wages to his de facto master, Hugh Auld, lulling Auld into believing that Frederick had once more submitted to the conditions of his enslavement. "My object in working steadily," Douglass later confessed, "was to remove any suspicion he might entertain of my intent to run away; and in this I succeeded admirably."

(I call him "Frederick" throughout this post for he was shedding Bailey, would not take up Douglass for another week or two, and had perhaps not yet assumed the name "Johnson" that he used when he married Anna a few days later.)

Those three weeks had their moments of apprehension. He knew that he would be severing the ties that he had with the community he had formed in Baltimore that had helped him develop his mind and sense of self. "The love of them was my tender point," he admitted, "an shook my decision more than all things else." Furthermore, while he had failed in a previous escape attempt, he felt certain that a failure this time would doom him to slavery forever. "I could not hope to get off with any thing less than the severest punishment," he knew, "and being placed beyond the means of escape."

(Imagine, for a moment, an alternate history in which he was discovered, punished, and sold into a coffle to New Orleans. What mischief would he have wrought on the Mississippi? Would he have led a school? A revolt? A maroon community in the swamps? Would he have survived another Covey-like encounter? Would he have found a wife and had children and died an early death of overwork or stroke or heart attack from containing the rage to preserve their lives?)

He was not entirely alone, however. Anna planned to join him, and she was among those helping him prepare. She and their future life and children were also a reason to make this escape succeed. He protected her respectability just as he protected his Baltimore friends' identities by not mentioning them by name in the planning in his first two autobiographies lest the "underground railroad" become and "upperground" one.

Decades passed before he told the details of his escape, and you can find an account in the first chapter of the second part of his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He begins by telling of the dangers in telling the tale before the end of slavery, "for publication of details would certainly have put in peril the persons and property of those who assisted." The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was still in the country's future when he lit out for freedom in 1838, but aiding a fugitive was still a crime and federal law sided with slaveholders.

He told his audience that he would have shared his story much earlier "had there been anything very heroic or thrilling in the incidents connected with my escape." How to top Harriet Tubman's multiple missions to retrieve her family from Maryland, or the Crafts' ingenious disguise of master and "man servant" when they boarded a train in Savannah, or Henry "Box" Brown mailing himself north, or the "Jerry Rescue" in Syracuse? "My success was due to address rather than courage;" he demurred, "to good luck rather than bravery."

First, he borrowed a Seaman's Protection Certificate from a black sailor friend. who clearly trusted him to return it. (Mystic Seaport has a database of many.) After all, that sailor was vulnerable to kidnapping or arrest during the time that he did not have the papers upon him. Then, he purchased a ticket with the money that he had saved and the money donated by Anna Murray from the sale of a featherbed. Black hackman Isaac Rolls brought his baggage to the train station, timed to arrive just as the train departed. Frederick, dressed in a sailor's uniform sewn by Anna, grabbed his belongings and hopped on the train as it began moving. His life in a maritime community allowed him to fit into his role well-enough to evade detection, "for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an 'old salt.'" Even his cocky attitude toward the conductor asking to see his free papers suited the part.

The train sped through Maryland, and while fast for the time, not as quickly as Frederick would have liked. They crossed into Delaware, which he reminded his readers was still "another slave State, where slave catchers generally awaited their pray, for it was not in the interior of the State, but on its borders, that these human hounds were most vigilant and active." At Havre de Grace, he boarded a ferry, where a black boat hand hoped to trade sea stories and nearly blew his cover. The same nearly happened again after the crossing when, on his second train of the trip, he spied a white captain from Baltimore on the opposite platform and a blacksmith "whom I knew well" on the same train as himself. The blacksmith, Frederick was sure, recognized him, "but had no heart to betray me."

This second train took him to Wilmington, Delaware, where he transferred to a steamship. The steamship took him upriver to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, he found his way to the Willow Street train station, and too his third train trip to New York. The whole business took place in the space of twenty-four hours.

When you drive I-95 or take Amtrak from Baltimore to New York City, you follow roughly the same path (but not exactly). I used to call it the Frederick Douglass Freedom Route when I lived down that way. At the end of this chapter he wrote that the end of this journey was "the end of my experience as a slave" and began the next chapter by declaring that "my free life began on the third of September, 1838. So, I like to call September 3rd "Frederick Douglass Freedom Day."

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, ed. Blassingame, et al (1845; paperback, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, ed. McKivigan, et al (1882; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Seaman Protection Certificates, and Register of Seaman Protection Certificates, G.W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport.