I have a bit of a file on Virginia Hewlett Douglass, but not much of her ended up in the book because her circle of action did not overlap enough with the ones that drove the narrative in my story. She may end up figuring into Ezra Greenspan's study of the wider Douglass family -- at least I hope she does.
In this file, however, I don't have a picture of her and, in fact, don't think I had seen a picture of her, although I found one of her father and her brother as well as those of her husband. Then, this weekend, a friend shared a story on Smithsonian.com about a photo album donated to the Boston Atheneum that had once belonged to Harriet Bell Hayden, wife of Lewis Hayden.
The Haydens, by the way, were some of the most interesting people of the nineteenth century. They should be up there with Harriet Tubman and Douglass himself. Their house on Beacon Hill has a landmark on it today, and is part of the National Parks walking tour. Here it is from a visit that I took with a Gilder Lehrman Teacher's Seminar, run by David Blight in 2017 (Yes, THAT David Blight -- he has been really cool, inviting me to speak to this seminar two years in a row and to go on this field trip. Alas, last summer the weather did not cooperate and I had a broken toe.):
|Lewis Hayden House, Beacon Hill, Boston, 2017|
Harriet Bell Hayden's album is supposed to contain many photos of the Boston black community, and Virginia Hewlett's is just one of many. The label on the image says "Mrs. Frederick Douglass," but the handwriting matches that on other pages, which suggest that it is not an autograph and was likely added later. The style of clothing suggests that this was Miss Hewlett rather than Mrs. Douglass, Jr., or, if Mrs. Douglass, Jr., very newly so.
Here she is:
|Virginia L. Molyneaux Hewlett Douglass|
Note the detailing on her dress, the quality of the cloth, the boning in the bodice and gathering at the waist. So pretty! Then, her direct gaze at the camera.
Frederick Douglass, Jr., remembered seeing her first in 1864 when she, at the age of fifteen, read a poem of her own composition to the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry of which his brother, Charles Douglass, was a part. Frederick, Jr., seven years her senior, was himself a recruiter at the time. Years later, he transcribed her poem in a scrapbook now in the Walter O. Evans Collection (from which most of this information comes):
To the fifth Mass. Cavalry. Presented to the non commissioned officers at a Ball given by them March 29th 1864 at Dedham Mass. Miss Virginie L. Molyneaux Hewlett.
Soldiers we have met together,
But soon we’ll part perhaps forever.
Though there may be sorrow in our hearts,
Though tears may fall from our eyes,
Still we feel, our loyal brothers
You are struggling for your right,
And you soon will win and keep it
By your bravery and might.
Brothers do ye feel afraid?
Would ye now give up the glory?
On, on, ye forever on, for God and victory
He has heard his people’s cry,
Has promised succor from on high.
There have many gone before you,
Many more are here to follow,
Forward, then, and let this be your cry,
‘Living we will be victorious, Or dying our deaths shall be glorious.'
[I confess that it continues from there, but I only transcribed enough to get the jist.]
Here he is about the time that he might have met Virginia.:
|Frederick Douglass, Jr.|
Handsome, no? I think this may have been taken at the same place where his brothers had their pictures taken in their uniforms; but that is a post for another time. For some reason, I love that all of the children have their mother's eyes, but you can see him setting his brow and expression like his father.
Anyway, to get on with the story.
Frederick, Jr., must have kept in touch because he escorted Virginia to a dance in 1868 upon her graduation from Cambridge high school. If only letters survived! The two married on 4 August 1869 at the home of he father in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One newspaper mistakenly reported that she was white.
By that time, with the war over, Frederick, Jr., had moved on from recruiting. After receiving a note threatening his life in D.C., he and his brother Lewis had journeyed out to Colorado and worked in silver mining, helped open a black school in Denver, and then Frederick, Jr., worked as Superintendent of Construction for the Union Pacific Railroad. Anyone who has seen the t.v. series Hell on Wheels, set at that very same time, in that very same place, about the construction of that very same railroad, might think Frederick, Jr., would have been an interesting addition to the show. Alas, that wouldn't be the first filmic omission of the Douglass sons from historic events. But, I digress. When Frederick, Jr., brought Virginia from Cambridge to his home in Hillsdale, D.C., he had been running a grocery store but also begun printing the New National Era and serving as a representative to several different black organizations. He went on to hold a whole host of other positions, but that's a topic for another time.
Virginia taught and then became principal of schools in D.C., commended for her work. He also credited her with the authorship of the Frederick Douglass chapter in William J. Simmons's Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising, an encyclopedia of great black men in American history, published in 1887. That would put her among the earliest of Douglass biographers, but more importantly (at least to me), she placed Anna Douglass at his side as a partner, making her the earliest of Anna's biographers and an early player in the public effort to ensure that Anna was not forgotten after Frederick had remarried.
Much of Virginia's professional work in education seems to have taken place before 1874, from her husband's reminiscences in the Evans Collection (that requires more research required than for this blog post -- which seems to have grown with my cup of coffee since I only intended to say "hey, look at this picture!"). He also suggests that she was, like many African American women, involved in charitable or mutual associations. During all of her work, seven children arrived.
The first two, Frederick Aaron and Virginia Anna, came in June 1870 and September 1871. Then a pause for three years until Lewis Emanuel arrived in December 1874. Then another pause until 1877 when Maud Ardelle arrived, followed the next year by Charles Paul. Another break until Gertrude Pearl's birth in 1883 and then Robert Smalls' birth in 1886. This Douglass family seems to have been attempting some type of birth control, erratic and semi-successful as it may seem. Still, they had a larger family than any of the other Douglasses, and it could have been larger. Consider Rosetta's pattern of having a child every two years between 1864 and 1877, or Charles and Mary Elizabeth's between 1867 and 1874, with a later child arriving in 1877. Perhaps Virginia had miscarriages during the breaks.
Or perhaps the illnesses and deaths that surrounded their household affected their family, too. Virginia Anna died before her first birthday in 1872. Lewis Emanuel followed in 1875, then Maud in 1877, at three months. Their eldest, Frederick Aaron, died in 1886. Gertrude Pearl went in the same wave of illness that took her two cousins with her within a week in November 1887. Her mother died at their home in 1878 and her brother, Emanuel, in 1888. He suffered from the typhoid that seemed to plague Hillsdale and which may have infected Virginia, as well (and raises questions about environmental racism in the area). The children were all buried in either Graceland or Harmonial (possibly the Columbian Harmony or the National Harmony -- that would require more research than this blog post) cemeteries in D.C.
Along the way, Virginia contracted that most Victorian of diseases, tuberculosis. In the early hours of 14 December 1889, she suffered a severe hemorrhage and died at home, only forty years old. Her husband noted in his scrapbook that "she was married 4 months and 10 days longer than she remained single." In what must have been words that he spoke at her funeral, he wrote "She was loving and loveable; she did her duty well. No man ever had a better wife and few have ever been honored by having one as good." He seemed never to have recovered from her loss, and their surviving children went to live with Rosetta. Then he followed his wife to his own death in July 1892. The couple were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
But, I think I wandered far away from my point -- or wandered into it. Whatever. In any case, what we have here is a woman, Harriet Bell Hayden, who saved a picture of another woman, Virginia Douglass, who wrote a biographical piece (for which she did not receive credit) in which she memorialized the role of another woman, Anna Douglass; and that first woman, Hayden, also saved visual documentation of a whole community and the people whom they considered important. Women -- black women -- do the work of history here.
- Donna Lorch, "These Photo Albums Offer a Rare Glimpse of Boston's 19th Century Black Community," Smithsonian.com, 29 May 2019. [Accessed 11 June 2019.]
- Scrapbooks in the Walter O. Evans Collection, Savannah, Georgia. (See also.)
- Correspondence, Addition I, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress..
- General Correspondence, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.