Posts Tagged Helen Pitts

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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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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Washington Grit’s acerbic editorial on Frederick Douglass’ second marriage [Feb. 16, 1884]

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.

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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.

“THE SECOND MARRIAGE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS

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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Don’t believe everything you read; the offices of “The New Era” were not in Uniontown, McFeely error “blasphemous”

1870 Boyd’s City Directory, Washington, DC

I can say with metaphysical certitude that Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (for his 1982 work on U.S. Grant) William McFeely is well off-target when he writes in his 1991 book, Frederick Douglass, that “when the New Era, of which [Douglass] was a sponsor, began publication in January 1870, its offices were in Uniontown, a part of the District of Columbia across the Anacostia River; the number of black citizens in Washington was growing, and a good many of them were building houses there.” [Pg. 271, 4th paragraph, 1995 edition]

McFeely got the first part wrong, the second part right (which we will address in future posts). I have found no evidence to support McFeely’s claim that The New Era was published in Uniontown. All sources I’ve discovered contradict McFeely, whose careless reference is not cited.

Arguably the “official” or definitive source on where the offices of The New Era were when it began publication is the 1870 Boyd’s City Directory (the 19th century version of the 20th century Yellow Pages). The New Era, a weekly paper, is listed as being published at “406 11th st.” While there is no quadrant identifier – nw, sw, se, or ne – at this time, in Uniontown the streets did not have alpha-numeric names. Uniontown streets had Presidential-themed names, established in 1854 when the Union Land Association began sales of the suburb’s first lots. Furthermore, if The New Era was, indeed, printed in Uniontown the city directory would have noted that clearly.

“Newspaper Row” Jan. 1874, Harper’s

All five years The New Era, which would change its name slightly in ensuing years, is listed in the City Directory with its offices noted on the 400 block of 11th Street. This location put the paper “[e]dited by colored men” in approximate proximity to “Newspaper Row” which is immortalized in a January 1874 Harper’s article, “Washington News,” by Benjamin Perley Poore.

While McFeely is an industry lauded historian, Leigh Fought (working on a book about Douglass) has also found room to quibble with McFeely over a minor, yet rather consequential detail in his book about the background of Helen Pitts, Douglass’ second wife.

The New Era is only mentioned four times in McFeely’s work of more than 385 pages. In those four references, one of which we have already noted, McFeely never offers to say when, why, or how this upstart paper would have moved its offices crosstown from Uniontown, the rural southside of the city, to the hub of journalistic activity, right off of Pennsylvania Avenue, “America’s Main Street.”

I find this error to not be minor; it is major.

It is egregious, sloppy, and as a journalist with respect for and a shared fraternity with the “black press” we find this error blasphemous to the legacy of Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC. A legacy which is yet understood, and yet appreciated. We owe ourselves, our city, and the memory of one of the greatest Americans of the 19th century the honor to do his memory justice.

Both Benjamin Quarles and Philip Foner’s works on Douglass treat “The New Era” critically, respectfully, and accurately based on scholarship. McFeely’s work can make no such claims.

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