According to the standard and accepted lore in Douglassonian Studies, Frederick Douglass met Anna Murray, a free person of color, in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1830s. This telling has maintained in all known and existing works of scholarship.
A seminal fact may be missing, evading the preceding investigations of all amateur and lettered Douglass historians equally.
In a conversation a couple years back with a decades-long Douglass scholar it was discussed that Anna may have met Frederick while he was still under the care of his grandmother on the Tuckahoe. The memory of their childhood connections in the Maryland backroads and creeks were still strong in both Anna and Frederick when they then met again as adolescents in the city of Baltimore. To this fact, Anna’s lifelong bond to her husband, Frederick, was first forged in the Maryland countryside and helps explain the depths of her commitment to him over nearly forty-four years of marriage, the scholar suggested. The scholar is a long-time Douglass re-enactor. To here him to describe, in person as Douglass, the feeling he had upon seeing Anna, his childhood friend, in Baltimore and the accompanying overwhelming rapture of emotion was powerful.
“Wait, wait,” I said. “Where did you hear this story? Where is this from?”
Two sources, the scholar said. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, he toured Talbot County with some locals. They tromped through the old land holdings of Col. Edward Lloyd to locate the presumed birthplace of Douglass. While trekking through the brush, some locals shared with the scholar the long-known story that Frederick and Anna had met as children on this hallowed ground. His senior, Anna had babysat Frederick, the local legend holds. Struck by this, the scholar asked more questions and was benefited to further stories confirming that Frederick and Anna were well acquainted before meeting in Baltimore.
Anna Murray was the first of her parent’s children born free. Anna’s eldest daughter recalled her mother was from Denton in Caroline County, Maryland. Anecdotes and official documents have confirmed Anna’s genesis.
In Douglass’s 1855 bio he writes:
“The first experience of life with me that I now remember – and I remember it but hazily – began in the family of my grandmother and grandfather, Betsey and Isaac Baily. They were quite advanced in life, and had long lived on the spot where they then resided. They were considered old settlers in the neighborhood, and, from certain circumstances, I infer that my grandmother, especially, was held in high esteem, far higher than is lot of most colored persons in the slave states.
He also recalled his grandmother’s trade and travel. “She was a good nurse, and a capital hand at making nets for catching shad and herring; and these nets were in great demand, not only in Tuckahoe, but at Denton and Hillsboro, neighboring villages.”
Did young Frederick travel to Denton with his grandmother as she sold these nets? Would her grandmother’s patrons have included the Murray family?
According to James Monroe Gregory’s 1893 work, Frederick Douglass the Orator: Containing An Account of His Life, complete more than a decade after Anna had died, tells:
“His wife, Anna Murray, came originally from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and lived for seven or eight years in Baltimore, where Mr. Douglass first met her. While she did not have the advantages of education in her childhood days, she was a woman of strong character, with much natural intelligence. As a housekeeper, she was a model, and the practical side of her nature made her a fitting helpmate to her husband in his early struggles and vicissitudes. In manner she was reserved, while he, as is well known, is of a jocose disposition.
She was the financier of the family. It was a settled principle with Mr. and Mrs. Douglass never to incur debts. If an addition was to be made to their home, or if they had under consideration any matter requiring the expenditure of money, they first counted the cost, and then made sure that the means were in hand before entering upon their plans.
In her death, which occurred in Washington in 1881, husband and children suffered a great loss and a severe trial, for she was a good mother and a faithful wife.”
In the primary document historians have used to mine information about Anna Murray, Rosetta Douglass’s 1900 address to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the telling of Anna meeting Frederick in Baltimore holds true.
“Anna Murray was born in Denton, Caroline County, Maryland, an adjoining county to that in which my father was born. The exact date of her birth is not known. Her parents, Bambarra Murray and Mary, his wife, were slaves, their family consisting of twelve children, seven of whom were born ill slavery and five born in freedom. My mother, the eighth child, escaped by the short period of one month, the fate of her older brothers and sisters, and was the first free child.
Remaining with her parents until she was seventeen, she felt it time that she should be entirely self-supporting and with that idea she left her country home and went to Baltimore, sought employment in a French family by the name of Montell whom she served two years. Doubtless it was while with them she gained her first idea as to household management which served her so well in after years and which gained for her the reputation of a thorough and competent housekeeper.
On leaving the Montells’, she served in a family by the name of Wells living on S. Caroline Street. Wells* was Post-master at the time of my father’s escape from slavery. It interested me very much in one of my recent visits to Baltimore, to go to that house accompanied by an old friend of my parents of those early days, who as a free woman was enabled with others to make my father’s life easier while he was a slave in that city. This house is owned now by a colored man. In going through the house I endeavored to remember its appointments, so frequently spoken of by my mother, for she had lived with this family seven years and an attachment sprang up between her and the members of that household, the memory of which gave her pleasure to recall.
The free people of Baltimore had their own circles from which the slaves were excluded. The ruling of them out of their society resulted more from the desire of the slaveholder than from any great wish of the free people themselves. If a slave would dare to hazard all danger and enter among the free people he would be received. To such a little circle of free people-a circle a little more exclusive than others, Frederick Baily was welcomed. Anna Murray, to whom he had given his heart, sympathized with him and she devoted all her energies to assist him. The three weeks prior to the escape were busy and anxious weeks for Anna Murray. She had lived with the Wells family so long and having been able to save the greater part of her earnings was willing to share with the man she loved that he might gain the freedom he yearned to possess. Her courage, her sympathy at the start was the mainspring that supported the career of Frederick Douglass. As is the condition of most wives her identity became so merged with that of her husband, that few of their earlier friends in the North really knew and appreciated the full value of the woman who presided over the Douglass home for forty-four years.”
[* In the 1837 Baltimore City Directory Peter Wells of “69 Caroline st.” is identified as a “letter carrier.”]
If Douglass and Anna knew each other before their mutual time in 1830s Baltimore, wouldn’t their eldest and outspoken daughter know and retell this key article of import? Why doesn’t Frederick Douglass mention Howard University in Life and Times? In the field of Douglass studies these questions, among many others, have not thoroughly studied.
Wait, what about Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years, one of the most thorough and original Douglass biographies yet published? What does Dickson J. Preston write?
On page 149, Preston writes that Frederick met Anna in Baltimore, citing Rosetta’s claim.
Case closed? What if all of these previous works, for more than one hundred years, have obscured and overlooked one vital source?
Though not a man of the cloth, Frederick Douglass was frequently addressed as Reverend. He was a disciple of Charles Lawson. His earliest public orations were in the church. He knew the leading theologians of his day, of all denominations – both of European and African descent. (Douglass’s relationship with the church and its leaders is another subject severely understudied.)
A prominent theologian of Douglass’s day, who has been lesser remembered by history, was Bishop Alexander Walker Wayman. Wayman, like Anna, was born free, in Tuckahoe Neck, Caroline County, Maryland in 1821. Wayman and Anna knew each other as children. In adulthood, Wayman and Douglass attended events and camp meetings together. In January and April 1894, Wayman wrote a letter to Douglass addressing him as “My Dear Old Friend.”
How long did Wayman and Douglass know each other?
In 1881 Wayman wrote an autobiography. In the first pages he reveals a clue as to the origins of Frederick and Anna.
“The first A. M. E. Minister, that I heard of, who visited the Eastern Shore of Maryland, was Rev. Shadrack Bassett. He came over from Baltimore and went to the town of Easton, in Talbot County, and preached under some trees, selecting for his pulpit a cart. He read for his opening hymn, “Oh! tell me no more of this world’s vain store.”
And when he came to that verse:
“To dwell I’m determined on that happy ground,” he pointed in a certain direction. The people thought that he intended to say, there was the place for him to build his Church. And upon that very spot the first A. M. E. Church of that region was built.
From Easton Rev. Shadrack Bassett passed up to Caroline County, and stopped at my father’s house. Learning that there was a certain local preacher by the name of Samuel Todd, living in another part of the County, and if he could get him (Todd) to join his Church, he would have a strong man, my father gave him the direction where to find him. Mr. Bassett started, and after walking some miles he reached Todd’s house, and inquired for him. His wife suspected what Mr. Bassett wanted with her husband. She reluctantly told him he was out in the field ploughing, and he moved off in that direction. When he drew near to Mr. Todd, he said, “Turn out those oxen;” and by the time he was up to where Mr. Todd was the oxen were unharnessed, and he was ready to go to the house.
Samuel Todd then and there agreed to unite with the African M. E. Church. He subsequently filled Baltimore City station, Washington, D. C., and New York. When stationed in Baltimore City, on one New Year’s Eve, while singing “My soul would leave this heavy clay, At that transporting word,”
I heard the late Rev. Robert Collins, of Philadelphia, say he was converted.
In the autumn of 1837 he died in Philadelphia. My father was on a visit to that city at the time, and when he returned home was speaking of being present at the funeral of his old friend and brother, Rev. Samuel Todd. How long Rev. Shadrack Bassett remained in that part of Maryland I have no means of knowing.
The next minister that I recollect hearing them speak of was Rev. J. G. Bulaugh. How long he remained there I do not know. The first minister that I recollect seeing was Rev. William Richardson. He was very kind to children, and therefore they all loved him. During his stay he held a camp-meeting at a place called Dick’s Old Field. Miss Anna Murray, now Mrs. Frederick Douglass, came and kept house for my mother while she was attending this camp-meeting.
There was one thing about this meeting that was very disagreeable, as I heard those who were there speaking of it. Several attempts were made to kidnap colored men; one man was seized by them, but he cut his way out.
This must have been about 1824 or 1825; for I recollect hearing the old people speaking about persons going to Hayti. There occurred one circumstance that makes me think it was about that date. A white man named George Calahan owned a slave who was called Moses. On account of bad treatment he ran away and went to the free country. After he was gone some time a colored woman went to Philadelphia, and when she returned home, Bamberry Murray, Mrs. Frederick Douglass’ father, told Mr. Calahan that this woman was just from Philadelphia, and perhaps she had seen Moses. He made haste and rode up to her house and called to her, and said, “I hear you have been to Philadelphia?” She answered, “Yes, sir.” Then she said, “I had a boy by the name of Moses, that went away for no cause.”
This excerpt is not as revealing as one might hope but it does establish, firmly, that Anna Murray and Frederick Bailey were both in Talbot County at the same time in the early / mid 1820s. So, what does this mean?
(To be continued…)