Frederick Douglass's Women
Helen Pitts Douglass
Over a century ago, one of
New York’s most famous African-American civil rights advocates
entered into what many considered an unholy union. On Jan. 24, 1884, 60-year
old Frederick Douglass and 46-year-old Helen Pitts defied the expectations of
their families and
society by joining in interracial matrimony. Washington
Neither black nor white communities offered many congratulations.
Neither black nor white communities offered many congratulations.
Grit called the marriage “a
national calamity” and “the mistake of his life.” Others considered his choice
to be that of a dotty, old man who had rejected his race. The groom’s children
never hid their disdain for his new wife, believing the marriage betrayed their
late mother, Anna, who was black. His daughter-in-law even sued him. The
bride’s sisters and mothers embraced her new husband, but her father and uncle
never accepted that a black man they once admired had joined the family. One of
her old classmates at Washington simply exclaimed,
“How could she?” Mt.
True friends, on the other hand, noted that the marriage was not only one of affection but also one that emerged from their principles. Another old classmate insisted that Helen “was true to her convictions to the last,” while a reporter for the
Leader pointed out, “Mr. Douglass has
simply put into practice the theories of his life.” Douglass himself demanded,
“What business has the world with the color of my wife” (Fought 1)? Indianapolis
However revolutionary the act of marrying across racial lines was at the time, Helen was a product of her upbringing. She grew up in Honeoye, in upstate
New York, a hamlet in what is now called . Her grandfather founded the village
(originally called Pittstown) after fighting in the American Revolution. Richmond
Helen herself was a ninth- or tenth-generation descendant of six Mayflower passengers who formed a long line of maverick minds. Her kin included powerful political, literary, and religious figures who inspired and influenced thought and action. From one family branch her presidential relations included John Adams and John Quincy
By 1838, the year Helen was born, the influential religious leadership in Honeoye preached that slavery must be abolished and that congregants must join the fight. In the eyes of their minister true Christians actively resisted slavery, and the Pitts family did so avidly. Reform-minded politics led Helen’s father, Gideon, to invite a prominent anti-slavery speaker to Honeoye in 1846. Helen was eight years old when Frederick Douglass first came to the town, captivating audiences with his booming voice and obvious intellect. On that occasion, and for decades beyond, Douglass was an honored guest in the Pitts family home.
Years later Helen would doubtless have known her home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Pitts mansion, located smack in the middle of
Main Street, was an important link
between the towns of Naples and Avon, a way station that Douglass had helped Gideon Pitts
establish. Over a decade, the Pitts family hid in their cellar runaway slaves
transported via a false-bottom hearse from a undertaker. By some accounts, more
than six hundred former slaves traveled through the Pitts’ basement passageway (Hansen 1). Naples
Helen entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in
in 1857. She graduated in 1859. “She
was among a growing number of young women from all over South Hadley, Massachusetts New
England who were leaving home for a seminary education, a move
that the feminist-leaning Pitts family greatly encouraged.” It was “a unique place for young women to
pursue their studies of languages, literature, philosophy, and science, and
participate in discussions with other intelligent women” (Hansen 2). Long
before she arrived, the sermons and speeches of Henry Ward Beecher (brother of
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) were read and hotly
discussed. On July 4, 1854, following
the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the territories for the
spread of slavery, students at the seminary, demonstrating their opposition, wore
black arm bands and draped objects in public view with dark fabric.
In May 1863 Helen took a teaching job in
a month earlier, the Norfolk,
Virginia had opened a
school exclusively for freed slaves, a project of the American Missionary
Roughly twenty more teachers arrived in
by September of 1863, and by the end
of that year there were more than three thousand students of all ages at the
school. Teaching in Norfolk
was a dangerous social experiment. Just a year prior the city had been surrendered
to Union forces, and many Confederate sympathizers in town were up in arms
about a school for African Americans and tried to have it shut down. The
unrelenting harassment of her students angered Helen. She “immediately caused
the arrest of the offenders and they were all fined,” said O.H. Stevens, a
longtime Pitts family friend, in an interview years later. Amid angry residents
and rampant disease, Helen taught for over a year. Only when falling ill (most
likely with tuberculosis) did Helen return to Honeoye, where she was bedridden
for years (Hansen 2-3). Norfolk
In the late 1870s, Helen lived in
with her uncle Hiram, a neighbor of
Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass, on Cedar Hill. She became corresponding secretary “for the
feminist, moral-reform newspaper, The Alpha. … she chose letters for publication and
moderated heated discussions on everything from women’s right to vote and
sexual reproductive health, to whether or not a woman should be blamed for
inciting men’s ardor with a low-cut dress (Hansen 3-4). Washington, D.C.
Helen moved to
in 1878 to teach school alongside
her sister Eva. She and Douglass corresponded,
shared their interest in literature and politics. “Helen clashed with locals over race
issues. The local newspaper wrote that
she was ‘sprightly and a good scholar, though unfortunately possessed of a
fiery temper which frequently brought her in trouble …’” (Hansen 5). She was forced to resign before the end of
the 1879 term. Indiana
Helen returned to the nation’s capitol to live with her uncle.
She took a job as a clerk in the federal pension office, where she worked for two years. Douglass was the Recorder of Deeds for the District at the time, and when a clerkship opened up in his office in 1882 he hired Helen. Within months Douglass’s wife died, and he sank into depression. He sought solace up North for a time with old friends, including the Pitts family.
Sometime in the next year, 1883, Helen moved into her own apartment in downtown
She and Douglass continued to see one another every day and to exchange ideas.
In addition to their politics, “they bonded over gardening, traveling, theater,
art,” says curator of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site Collection,
Ka’mal McClarin. Their esteem for one another was evident, and somewhere along
the way it grew into more (Hansen
6). Washington, DC
Their marriage incited sharp public and private criticism. Newspapers, emphasizing the age difference (21 years) and that Helen was white, assailed the union, some declaring it illegal. The Weekly News, a Pittsburgh-based, African American-run newspaper, went so far as to print: “Fred Douglass has married a red-head white girl. Good-bye black blood in that family. We have no further use for him. His picture hangs in our parlor, we will hang it in the stables” (Hansen 7).
Douglass detested the hypocrisy that produced segregation and inequality. Himself the product of mixed-parentage, he deplored those who would limit his choice of partner to only one race and quipped that his marriage to a black woman would be just as interracial as to a white woman. Full integration, he believed, was the only path to justice. Integration should include not only the acceptance and legal protection of freedom, citizenship, and equal access to education and public facilities, but also of the most intimate and private relationships in life (Fought 2).
Frederick and Helen were not universally condemned. They had their supporters, famous, not yet famous, and not at all famous. Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching crusader, was a frequent guest in the Douglasses’ home during their eleven-year marriage. In her autobiography she recalled, “The more I saw of them, the more I admired them both for the patient and uncomplaining way they met the sneers and discourtesies heaped upon them, especially Mrs. Douglass. . . . The friendship and hospitality I enjoyed at the hands of these two great souls is among my treasured memories” (Hansen 7).
Helen had written: “Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color,”
Douglass continued a rigorous schedule of writing and public speaking all over the country, on racial tensions and women’s rights. It was, by most accounts, a productive and happy time. During that period, he wrote, “What can the world give me more than I already possess? I am blessed with a loving wife, who in every sense of the word is a helpmate, who enters into all my joys and sorrows.” Helen ran the busy household, handled much of the correspondence, and likely acted as a sounding board for Douglass’s ideas (Hansen 8).
Weary of near constant scrutiny, the Douglasses toured Europe and
and 1887. The trip abroad was a breath
of fresh air. They did not receive automatically
malicious looks. In her diary, Helen
wrote: “People will look at Egypt wherever we go but they wear no
unpleasant expressions” (Hansen 8). Frederick
After Douglass’s sudden death in 1895, Helen’s focus changed from supporting his ambitions and their shared ideologies to securing his legacy. While Douglass’s will had left almost everything to Helen, including Cedar Hill, his children fought its legitimacy. (It was witnessed by two people, not the three required by law.) Helen secured a loan to buy the house from the children and then took to the lecture circuit, earning money to pay the mortgage (Hansen 9). Her speeches frequently criticized the Southern states’ Convict Lease System, in which incarcerated blacks were leased to perform chain gang labor for White property owners. [See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convict_lease]
Helen fought to save Cedar Hill as a monument to her husband. In 1900 she succeeded “in having Congress establish the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which would maintain Cedar Hill and its contents after her death, [which occurred] in 1903. … the house was opened to visitors in 1916. In 1962 Cedar Hill was added to the national park system. The National Park Service (NPS) now safeguards the extraordinary property, preserving roughly 80 percent of the original furnishings” (Hansen 10).
Helen Pitts Douglas died at the age of 65. Ida B. Wells wrote: “She loved her husband with as great a love as any woman ever showed. She endured martyrdom because of that love, with a heroism and fortitude” (Hansen 10). Helen had wanted to be buried on the grounds of Cedar Hill. Laws, however, prevented it. She had no funeral service. She was buried quietly beside her husband in
Fought, Leigh, “Commentary: Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage.” Syracuse.com., February 25, 2013. Net. http://blog.syracuse.com/opinion/2013/02/frederick_douglass_and_interra.html
Hansen, Heather Baukney, Heather. “Right Is of No Sex. Truth Is of No Color.” Mount
CollegeAlumnae Association, April 7,
2017. Net. https://alumnae.mtholyoke.edu/blog/right-is-of-no-sex-truth-is-of-no-color/ Holyoke