Francis Grimke tells story of “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass” [The Journal of Negro History, 1934]

Writing in The Journal of Negro History in 1934, Francis J. Grimke reveals details about Frederick Douglass’ 1884 marriage to Helen Pitts previously known only by a very intimate group.


In connection with the last anniversary of Mr. Douglass’ birthday, I became reminiscent, and recalled many events, and among them the marriage of Mr. Douglass. While he was Recorder of Deeds, one day, while I was in the neighborhood of his office I thought I would drop in and pay my respects to him. When I entered the room he was seated at his desk eating his lunch, and by his side was a lady seated in conversation with him. In a few minutes she left the room. On seeing me, Mr. Douglass said, “You are just the man that I want to see. I was just thinking about calling on you.” To which I said, “Well, what’s up?” He said, “I am thinking about getting married, and I want you to perform the ceremony.” I said, “I will be delighted to do so.”

I then said to him, “and who is the fortunate lady?”

There were rumors afloat in the community that he was interested in one of two prominent women of the race, and that one or the other, if he ever got married [Anna Murray Douglass, his wife of 44 years, passed away in the fall of 1882], would be his choice. I was curious to know which of them. But to my surprise, neither of them was mentioned. He said, “Did you see the lady that was sitting by me when you came into the room?” I said, Yes. “She is the one.”

And then he went on to tell me her name, Miss Helen Pitts. He said also that he had known the family for years. The father was a well-to-do farmer in Western New York, and was a staunch abolitionist. He had often been at her father’s house; and remembered her well, little dreaming, that in the years to come, she was to be his wife. The time fixed for the wedding was January 24, 1884. Mr. Douglass was sixty years of age, and she was forty-six.

On the evening set for the wedding, two carriages drove up to my door, 1608 R Street, N.W. The bell rang, and Mr. Douglass, Miss Pitts, and Senator and Mrs. B. K. Bruce entered. After bidding them welcome, and chatting for a few minutes, the ceremony was performed. Miss Pitts became Mrs. Douglass. ”

For some background on Grimke and his family, I suggest taking a look at, Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family’s Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders.

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