Posts Tagged “Anna Douglass”

Henceforth, private life of Dr. Douglass is “without blemish,” unless scholarship & documentation proves otherwise, which it has not.

After walking Cedar Hill in the early morning Douglass would settle at his desk, responding to and beginning new correspondence. Photo National Park Service, Frederick Douglass NHS.I have attended many talks about Dr. Douglass over the years. Many are under-researched, under-cooked and/or underwhelming. However, there is hope. Prof. Lawrence Jackson at Johns Hopkins University has done some groundbreaking research on “Frederick Bailey in Baltimore.”

At a recent talk in Baltimore a young Ranger from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site discussed and addressed one of the most prevalent ongoing speculations that has hovered over the field of Douglass Studies for nearly two decades.

Ranger Brittany Hall said — to paraphrase using the words in which I received the message — that unless someone comes with some hard documentation and scholarship, the private life of Dr. Douglass is “without blemish.”

I can’t say it any better. If anyone, whether they be men who did their twenty years to return to 16th & W Street as self-studied Douglassonians or professors at Ivy League institutions, attempts to talk sideways about Dr. Douglass must be supported with proof at the ready. Otherwise all talk is unproven speculation.

Dr. Douglass’s life is for the public to examine and discuss openly, however, his private life requires a level of understanding and scholarship very few historians outside of the Douglass family and Bailey Tribe possess.

Dr. Douglass was a private man who lived in the public arena. It is a contact sport today and back in Dr. Douglass’ day branding, murder, lynchings, mental oppression was an every day thing.

Dr. Douglass does not need be unevenly exalted, worshiped or ennobled. But scholars will respect Dr. Douglass henceforth knowing that as I am concerned his private life and his marriages to Anna Murray and Helen Pitts is “without blemish.”



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Harvard’s John Stauffer has actively perpetuated a lie about Anna teaching Frederick how to play the violin for a decade. It is unnecessary and needs to be corrected. (Part 1)

Stauffer in BaltimoreLast year I saw the last show of The Agitators at the Geva Theatre in Rochester. Among some of my critiques of the play was a scene that insinuated Anna Douglass played the violin in tandem with her husband, Frederick.

While not a major technical foul it struck me as forced, unnecessary and without any source provenance I’d seen or could recall. While it was in the context of a play I can understand the need for imagination but the play’s handbill made the point that a dramaturge had closely reviewed the play. Mentioned as folks who had lent their expertise was Harvard’s John Stauffer.

In conversations with Douglassonians following the play it was advanced that Stauffer was the likely source for the violin reference as his 2008 book, Giants, makes mention of this make-believe embellishment on page 71.

Her name was Anna Murray and she was a free woman, having been born free on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She had almond-shaped eyes, a full round face, and dark skin, and she worked as a maid for the Wells family on South Caroline Street in Baltimore. At twenty-five, she was five years older than Frederick and had moved to Baltimore at age seventeen. Quiet and hardworking, she was virtually illiterate but could read music, and when she played Haydn or Handel on her violin her hymns seemed to enchant the room. She taught Frederick the violin, he was a quick study, and soon they were playing duets.

This weekend I met Stauffer for the first time.

I asked him about the reference of Anna teaching Frederick how to play the violin. He told me it was in Life and Times and said he’d send me the citation. Since he has yet to do so I am taking the initiative.

NO existing references in Life and Times in either 1881 or 1892 revision.

1881 version of Life and Times references to the violin.

p. 143

The fiddling, dancing, and “jubilee beating” was carried on in all directions. This latter performance was strictly southern. It supplied the place of violin, or of other musical instruments, and was played so easily that almost every farm had its “Juba” beater.

1892 version of Life and Times references to the violin.

p. 181

The fiddling, dancing, and “jubilee beating” was carried on in all directions. This latter performance was strictly southern. It supplied the place of violin or other musical instruments and was played so easily that almost every farm had its “Juba” beater. The performer improvised as he beat the instrument, marking the words as he sang so as to have them fall pat with the movement of his hands.

p. 691

But of all the interesting objects collected in the Museum of Genoa, the one that touched me most was the violin that had belonged to and been played upon by Paganini, the greatest musical genius of his time. This violin is treasured in a glass case and beyond the touch of careless fingers, a thing to be seen and not handled.

p. 692

So this old violin, made after the pattern of others and perhaps not more perfect in its construction and tone than hundreds seen elsewhere, detained me longer and interested me more than anything else in the Museum of Genoa. Emerson says, “It is not the thing said, but the man behind it, that is important.” So it was not this old violin, but the marvelous man behind it, the man who had played on it and played as never man played before, and thrilled the hearts of thousands by his playing, that made it a precious object in my eyes. Owing perhaps to my love of music and of the violin in particular, I would have given more for that old violin of wood, horse-hair, and catgut than for any one of the long line of pictures I saw before me. I desired it on account of the man who had played upon it–the man who revealed its powers and possibilities as they were never known before. This was his old violin, his favorite instrument, the companion of his toils and triumphs, the solace of his private hours, the minister to his soul in his battles with sin and sorrow. It had delighted thousands. Men had listened to it with admiration and wonder. It had filled the largest halls of Europe with a concord of sweet sounds. It had even stirred the dull hearts of courts, kings and princes, and revealed to them their kinship to common mortals as perhaps had been done by no other instrument. It was with some difficulty that I moved away from this old violin of Paginini.


We will follow-up this post with the existing source material which details how, where and when Douglass took up the violin, as well as a scholarly critique of Stauffer’s presentation on Douglass at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum where he failed to acknowledge the scholarship of Baltimorean Douglassonian Dr. Benjamin Quarles of Morgan State University, among other errors.

We are critical of “Douglass experts” at Yale and Harvard because their erroneous scholarship and speculation should not be acceptable from a high school student let alone from Professors at these two prestigious universities.

It shouldn’t be me calling them out, but call them out I will. Anything less would be a disservice to the truth.


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Brooklyn Historical Society hosts Douglass Minister Leigh Fought, Dec. 11, 2017 _ Book Talk:”Women in the World of Frederick Douglass”

FD statue in Rochester _ Leigh Fought bookHistorian and professor of American History at Le Moyne College, Leigh Fought, paints an alternative portrait of abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass by examining the lives of the women around him. In this latest work, Fought sheds light on Douglass’s relationships to his mother, grandmother, slave mistresses, wives Anna Murray and Helen Pitts, and many other women who nurtured, challenged, and united with him in shared struggles for emancipation, the right to vote, and equality.

Book Talk: Women in the World of Frederick Douglass
Monday, December 11
Doors: 6:00 pm
Event: 6:30 pm
$5 General Admission / Free for Members

BHS Members: to reserve tickets at the member price, click on “Tickets” and enter your Member ID on the following page after clicking on “Enter Promotional Code.”

REFUND POLICY Brooklyn Historical Society requires 24 hours notice before the date of the event to refund a ticket. No refunds are provided after that point. No refunds are provided on the day of the event and all subsequent days.

Founded in 1863, Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) is a library, museum, and urban education center dedicated to the people of Brooklyn, providing opportunities for civic dialogue and thoughtful engagement.

Phone: 718.222.4111

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Did Frederick Douglass meet Anna Murray in Talbot County in 1824 / 1825? [Part 1]

Rev. A. W. Wayman, D.D.

Rev. A. W. Wayman, D.D.

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 TimesIn 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…)


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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.”

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Talk on Anna Murray Douglass this Saturday, July 21st, 2pm at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Come out this Saturday, July 21st for a lively talk and Q & A session on Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna Murray by Dr. Leigh Fought at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at 1411 W Street SE (Metro – Anacostia on the Green Line / Bus – B2, U2, 90s) from 2pm – 3pm. Dr. Fought is currently writing a book on Frederick Douglass and women, to be published by Oxford University Press in late 2013.

Beginning this fall, Dr. Fought will be a professor at Le Moyne College. Previously, she spent four years at Montgomery College in Takoma Park and served an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence (Yale University Press, 2009). Her publications include “Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa S. McCord” (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and “Mystic, Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town” (History Press, 2007).

You can check out her current project on her blog, “Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress” at

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Did Frederick Douglass buy “The New Era” from colored newspaper boy? Front page of “The New Era” [Thursday, January 13, 1870]

For black newspaper boys holding their street corners throughout downtown Washington, on Thursday January 13, 1870 there was a new paper to hawk, a paper uniquely speaking to their emerging place in the country and city, “The New Era.”

We forget Frederick Douglass came up in the streets of 1830’s Baltimore; he was always for the youngster on the make. From students at Howard University invited into his home(s) in the city to adolescent runaways in Rochester that Anna and Frederick helped shuttle to Canada, Douglass was ALWAYS there for the youngsters. His attitude was not I got mine, so get yours. Douglass’ attitude and message was I got mine this way, you can get yours this same way or other ways, but you CAN get it if you work hard, work hard, and don’t stop working hard and while working hard you believe in yourself. And at least one person believes in you, I do.

Frederick Douglass could break it down, he’d been there before and never forgot.

Courtesy LOC

I’ve heard through the grapevine of an account of a black newspaper boy seeing Frederick Douglass one morning on Pennsylvania Avenue and running up to him to talk — and sell a paper! When I first heard this I thought Douglass surely would have cut an image on the Avenue. The story goes that Douglass not only spoke to the young man, asking him questions about who he was and what he wanted to be, but that he gave him a “large tip” in life advice and a couple extra dollars. With my research approaching the stop sign as I’m weaving the chapters together I probably won’t have time to pursue this but I have two solid leads on where this account might be — if it does exist. This is another post I will have to update when I either confirm or reject this account.

Intrigue and speculation often times leads nowhere but this account from what I know of Douglass rings true.

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