Posts Tagged Helen Pitts Douglass
Henceforth, private life of Dr. Douglass is “without blemish,” unless scholarship & documentation proves otherwise, which it has not.
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.”
He came to Paris; and we paced the streets
As if we twain were truants out of school!
We clomb aloft where many a carven ghoul
And grinning gargoyle mocked our giddy feats;
We made a sport of sitting in the seats
Where Kings of France were wont to sit and rule!
‘A throne,’ quote he, ‘is a pretender’s stool –
For kingship is a fraud, and kings are cheats!’
He loved a hero. Nor can I forget
How with uncovered head, in awe profound
He hailed Coligny’s all-too tardy stone ;
And how, before the tomb of Lafayette ,
He said, ‘This place is doubly sacred ground –
This patriot had two countries for his own!’
2 Admiral de Coligny was murdered in the St. Bartholomew massacre, on the night of August 24, 1752.
3 Lafayette lies in the Picpus Cemetery, rue Picpus, Paris.
Tilton, Theodore. Sonnets to the Memory of Frederick Douglass. Paris. Brentano’s, 37 Avenue De Opera. 1895, p. 11.
The “elusiveness” of Frederick Douglass in the barely-existent field of Douglassoniana Studies is because scholars have done very little original investigative work. This is seen in the very few references in Douglassoniana to Tilton’s poetry and writings about his friendship with his brother-from-another, Fred. Philip Foner did the work.
Within days of catching word in Paris that his friend had passed Tilton composed and published a short book dedicated to the memory of his dear brother. He promptly sent it to Helen Pitts Douglass in Washington.
There are more folks alleged to be Douglass scholars that deal in speculation, conjecture, psychoanalysis, guesswork and their own genuflecting on Douglass than actual scholarship.
That said, it is clear Tilton loved Douglass as though he was his own brother. Fred was from the streets. He understood when you’re mobbing through the streets of Paris it’s better to be with your brother than on the solo mission. I know.
Evening Star profile on Mrs. Mary Gregory, president of Frederick Douglass Memorial Historical Association (11 Feb, 1973)
Brooklyn Historical Society hosts Leigh Fought, Dec. 11, 2017 _ Book Talk:”Women in the World of Frederick Douglass”
Historian 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.
In recent years a team of meticulous researchers have determined Frederick Douglass was the most “photographed” person (American) of the 19th century. More than 160 known images exist in public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean from daguerreotypes to carte-de-vistas either as the cynosure or with company, such as his grandson Joseph Douglass.
Last week I took a tour of the Douglass-related holdings at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. Items included copies of Douglass’ autobiographies, Douglass’ Monthly and a couple of photographs, including this image of an aged Douglass seated at a dinner table.
Have you ever seen this photo before? Where was this photo taken? Who is Douglass with? (Helen Pitts Douglass seems to be 3rd seated from the right.)
According to Jennifer Morris, archivist at the museum, this was donated many, many years ago without gathering complete information about his provenance. Speculative chatter has been this is Douglass in Europe. Douglass traveled throughout Europe and North Africa from the fall of 1886 until mid-1887. However, as NPS Ranger Nate Johnson pointed out that is unlikely due to Douglass’ appearance which is more closely consistent with photos taken in the last years of life.
Was this photo captured in Cedar Hill? There are contours of the room that appear both similar and dissimilar. What do you think? Anyone out there have any information on this image?
Mr. & Mrs. Douglass attract “considerable attention” seated in the Senate Gallery [Baltimore Sun, April 25, 1884]
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.
To any Minister of the Gospel authorized to Celebrate Marriages in the District of Columbia, Greeting
You are hereby LICENSED to solemnize the RITES OF MARRIAGE between
Frederick Douglass, of Washington, DC AND Helen Pitts, of New York
if you find no lawful impediment thereto; and having so done you are commanded to appear in the Clerk’s Office of the Supreme Court of said District and certify the same.
Witness my hand and the seal of said Court this 24 day of January 1884
There were only four people present at the exchange of vows between Douglass and Pitts. Douglass’ children literally learned about the marriage through the papers. Pitts’ father, an abolitionist in Western New York who had invited a younger Douglass into his home, disowned his daughter for now marrying Douglass.
Thanks is in order to the DC Archives for generously providing this document.
Family of Frederick Douglass acknowledgement of “letters and telegrams of condolence,” Cedar Hill, Anacostia, D.C., March 4, 1895
To the many friends whose letters and telegrams of condolence have been most gratefully received, and which have been sent in such numbers as to forbid an immediate personal reply, we, the family of the Frederick Douglass, desire to tender our heartfelt acknowledgement and thank them for their expressions of sympathy for our sorrow and especially for the testimony they have thus rendered of their reverent regard for the great soul gone.
ROSETTA DOUGLASS SPRAGUE
LEWIS H. DOUGLASS
CHARLES R. DOUGLASS
MARCH 4, 1895