Archive for July, 2012
Frederick Douglass’ name misspelled in 1877 Congressional Directory [45th U.S. Congress, First Session]
“As stated previously, Ellison also represents Frederick Douglass in Invisible Man. For instance, Brother Tarp hangs a poster of Frederick Douglass on the wall in the office of Invisible Man. He asks Invisible Man if he has ever heard of Frederick Douglass. Invisible Man states that his grandfather used to speak of Douglass. This could be an allusion to the fact that the implications of Douglass’s leadership are far-reaching and long lasting. Further, Ellison possibly alludes to both W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglass and their stances on women’s rights to vote. This occurs when the narrator’s focus in the Brotherhood changes from the downtown Harlem district to the women’s issue while the Brotherhood investigates him for wrongdoing (Ellison 406). According to background information about Douglass and Dubois, Dubois was “the leading black male spokesperson for women’s rights since Frederick Douglass (Hill 771)3.”
Full essay HERE.
Helen Pitts Douglass was no simpleton; she could handle a lunatic who knocked on her door with ease [Wash Post, Jan. 27, 1889]
Historic memory has been rather unfair to the wives of Frederick Douglass. Simply told, Douglass’ first wife couldn’t read and his second wife was “second-rate.” These attitudes still exist to this day, just ask the Park Rangers at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (FDNHS) who field questions from the general public seven days a week. The forthcoming work of Dr. Leigh Fought should help to eviscerate these fallacies which have held the minds of both the general public and insular academics for decades.
One of the more interesting items I discovered going through thousands of newspaper stories was this one from January 1889 which ran in the Washington Post. The text speaks for itself and I have been told by staff at the FDNHS that this story has helped calm the nerves of some visitors who rush to uninformed judgments about Douglass’ second wife, Helen Pitts.
“At 9 o’clock yesterday morning John Anderson, a colored man living on the Flats in Hillsdale, and who has been acting in a peculiar manner for several days, became violently insane and rushing from his house ran down Nichols avenue, yelling, gesticulating and scattering pedestrians right and left. Turning up Jefferson street, he ran to the house of Fred Douglas and rang the bell. Pushing his way past the frightened servant girl, he confronted Mrs. Douglass and at once proposed to offer prayer. Mrs. Douglass, who was alone, took in the situation, and tried to quiet John, but suddenly he rushed into the dining-room and entered a closet. Mrs. Douglass quickly shut the door and locked it keeping the lunatic a prisoner until Officer W. T. Anderson came and took him in custody. John is a carpenter by trade, and has been subject to temporary attacks of insanity for some time, but was always considered harmless. He was sent to the police surgeon’s for examination and will probably be committed to the asylum.”
In nearly all I have read on Frederick Douglass and his second marriage, biographers use the same repeated source — The Pittsburgh Weekly News and a paper from Franklin County, Virginia — as a near monolith to represent the public and the press’ reaction. I find this lazy, amateurish, and unfitting of true scholarship. There are only a handful of true biographies (for adult readers) on Douglass, and yet, even with he best of these works, these two sources are repeated and regurgitated.
Why not look at newspapers in Washington, DC? In 1884 there were a couple of papers in the city…including The Washington Grit edited by black nationalist John Edward Bruce, who had contributed to The New National Era.
On February 16, 1884 an editorial ran reading, “We are opposed to colored men marrying second-rate white women, yet we do not see anything in the above threat to deter them from so doing if they wish. There has been as much fuss and noise about Frederick Douglass’ marriage to Helen M. Pits as if she were the daughter of the Secretary of State or some other dignitary. In our judgement neither of the contracting parties have gained anything. [Phineas Taylor] Barnum could make a mint of money out of this couple if they would consent to go on exhibition. We do not believe that it adds anything to the character of good sense of either of the two races to intermary with each other, and when it is done it will generally be found that moral depravity is at the bottom of them.”
To note, Helen Pitts, a college educated women in 19th century America, was white, but she was not “second-rate.”
Bruce, a fascinating figure recently given some long overdue scholarly attention, later reconciled with Douglass.
John Muller has done America a favor nonpareil. With his new book, Frederick Douglass’ Washington: The Lion of Anacostia, Mr. Muller brings Douglass to life as few have done or even attempted. The Lion of Anacostia, as it turns out, loved to play violin for his guests, mentored countless numbers of youth, and could eulogize American soldiers and never leave a dry eye in his audience. No more effective advocate for black advancement existed during his lifetime, yet he frequently counseled personal responsibility and merit as the best means to overcome bigotry.
Mr. Muller’s volume offers a strong narrative to explain the civil rights movement of the 19th Century, a movement that inevitably led to the successes of Martin Luther King in the 20th Century. Douglass, in Muller’s deft hands, was no two-dimensional figure, but a complex man who understood slavery in his bones and was determined to take America past it. Douglass never invited the extremes of pity or violence, but instead stood with other titans of abolitionism as a legalist who refused the entreaties of John Brown to arouse insurrection. If ever there was a post-racial civil rights advocate, Frederick Douglass is the one man who understood that character, discipline, and education, not the cheap appeals we know today as race-cards, would overcome the dry rot of racism. John Muller, through Frederick Douglass, has erected a mirror for America to look into and the reflection it casts is one all of us can be proud of.
“Nearer, my God, to the Thee” sung at Frederick Douglass’ funeral at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church [Feb. 24, 1895]
“Though like a wanderer, daylight all gone / Darkness be over me, my rest a stone / Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God to thee / Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to thee!” – Choir at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1518 M Street NW, funeral of Frederick Douglass, February 24, 1895.
* This song was reportedly one of Douglass’ favorites. It is still sung as part of Sunday services at Metropolitan AME. *
Baltimore, March 5. – Some weeks ago Frederick Douglass visited Baltimore in company with his son for the purpose of paying off the mortgage on the Centennial Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The church is the one in which Mr. Douglass first received his religious education, and, finding that it was in financial straits, he came to the rescue and lifted the mortgage.
In the presence of 1,300 persons the Rev. J.L. Thomas, the pastor, burned the mortgage papers. Sunday has been set aside as a day of special service. Fred Douglass will deliver an address.