In this month’s Real Life Romance, I’m going to cheat a little bit and talk about two Real Life Romances. The first romance is that between Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray, his first wife. Anna and Frederick were married for forty-four years. During most of their married lives, they were separated by Fredrick’s work. Anna had the unglamorous job of holding down the fort and raising their five children.
After she died, Frederick married Helen Pitts, a white feminist who was twenty years younger than Douglass. Helen Pitts was an exciting controversial kickass woman – but in a less glamorous and arguably much more difficult and important way, so was Anna Murray. It’s doubtful that Frederick could have been as successful in his work as he was without the assistance of the women in his life, including his wives.
This story involves slavery, racism, and sexism, so trigger warning for those things. Because I’m focusing on his relationships, I’m not going to talk in detail about Fredrick’s truly amazing and influential life and work on behalf of abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. However, if you aren’t familiar with his life, please check out some of the links at the bottom of the post, and in particular read some of his own words. He was a powerful, eloquent writer and speaker who could cut straight to the heart of a matter without hyperbole one minute and wax lyrically eloquent the next.
Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818. He was born a slave, and he did not know his exact birthday, but for most of his life he chose to celebrate it on February 14th. His grandmother raised him in early childhood, but at around the age of seven, he was told to move into the plantation house to work. He barely knew his mother, who worked in the fields and who died when he was ten, and he knew his siblings by sight but had no personal relationship with them. His father was white and was presumably also his owner, although he never learned his father’s identity for sure.
Frederick was moved around according to the whims of his owner, who tended to loan him out to people. He found himself in the home of a family where one white woman, Sophia Auld, showed the slaves a certain amount of dignity. She taught Frederick to read, an endeavor which was not only illegal at the time but which got Sophia into considerable trouble with her relatives. Frederick ended up giving secret lessons to other slaves and was brutally punished when he was caught.
In 1837, Frederick met a free Black woman, Anna Murray, who was born in 1813. Her parents had been freed before she was born, and Anna worked as a laundress and a housekeeper. Anna used her savings and sold a bed to pay for train tickets for Frederick, which he used to escape to freedom. She also sewed a sailor outfit for him, which he wore as a disguise. Fredrick had tried to escape before, but it was not until Anna helped him that he escaped successfully.
Once Frederick got to New York, Anna joined him and they married and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. They had five children together. When they moved to Rochester, New York, she turned their home into an Underground Railroad stop, providing shelter for runaway slaves en route to Canada.
As Frederick became more involved in activism, their relationship became more strained. Anna could barely read and write, and felt out of place among Frederick’s friends. His friends, most of whom were highly educated and intellectual, openly looked down on Anna (to his credit, he vigorously defended her against any who suggested she was not a worthy wife). Anna enjoyed being part of the Black community in New Bedford, but in 1847 Frederick moved the family, and as his circle of friends widened, hers diminished. Anna was also tormented by rumors that Frederick had affairs during his many travels. On two occasions, Frederick had women he was rumored to be sleeping with move into Anna’s house, causing controversy between the couple and within Frederick’s political community.
Anna supported Frederick economically in his early years as an activist, and even after he earned enough money to hire servants, she bore most of the care of the home. His long absences made her essentially a single parent and her willingness to be that single parent, and support him financially in their early years of marriage, made his freedom and his career possible. She admired and encouraged his work, despite the strain it put on their relationship, and despite his many insensitivities towards her, he admired her as well. In the words of Oxford University Press:
Douglass, for his part, recognized the role that Anna played in his life. During his first visit to England he maintained a cordial distance from his enthusiastic female admirers, and he defended his wife when anyone suggested that she was not a fit mate for him. After his return home in 1847 Anna conceived their last child, Annie, and Douglass risked his own arrest to reenter the United States to comfort Anna in the wake of that child’s death ten years later. When Anna died in 1882, he fell into a depression that he described as being the darkest moment of his life.
One year after Anna’s death, Frederick remarried. His second wife was Helen Pitts. She was born in 1838. Her parents were abolitionists, and she was an ardent abolitionist and suffragette. In 1880, her family moved next door to the Douglass family, and Helen assisted Frederick with his work. She also worked as a clerk and co-edited a women’s rights magazine.
Their marriage was quite a scandal. Helen was white and twenty years younger than Frederick. His children felt the marriage disrespected their mother. Frederick and Helen’s friends were shocked because they felt the marriage was too sudden and because they were worried about the race and age differences. Helen’s family cut off contact with her altogether, and their local society was appalled that a black man and white woman were married at all.
Helen Pitts’ response: “Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”
Frederick’s response: “This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father.”
Frederick was appointed Minister and counsel-general to Haiti, and Helen lived in Haiti with him during that time (1889 – 1891). When they returned to America, Frederick continued speaking out for civil rights and women’s rights until his death of a heart attack in 1895. Helen devoted the rest of her life to preserving his legacy, and she struggled to turn their home, Cedar Hill, into a memorial and museum. Today, it’s run by the National Park Service.
Douglass’s wives played more of a supporting role in his life than they did an egalitarian one, yet in many ways their roles were essential to his success. Without Anna’s financial and homemaking support, he might never have escaped from slavery and he probably would not have been able to pursue his career as a writer and orator. Without Helen’s emotional support and energy, he might not have escaped the depression that haunted him after Anna’s death. Even though his name is the name history remembers, it’s in part through his relationships that he was able to persevere.
Suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton had this to say about his second marriage, but I believe it applies just as well to his often misunderstood first marriage as well:
In defense of the right to… marry whom we please – we might quote some of the basic principles of our government [and] suggest that in some things individual rights to tastes should control.
The sources this month are:
“Black History Month: Anna Murray Douglass,” by Leigh Fought, for Oxford University Press
“Women in Preservation: Helen Pitts Douglass and the Frederick Douglass Memorial,” by Emily Potter, for The National Trust for Historic Preservation
“Helen Pitts Douglass,” by Maggie MacLean, for Civil War Women
“Helen Pitts Douglass,” Wikipedia
“Frederick Douglass,” Wikipedia
“Anna Murray Douglass,” Wikipedia
As a coda: Here is James Earl Jones reading excerpts from one of the most famous speeches by Frederick Douglass, first delivered in 1852: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”