Saturday, November 15, 2014

Long Time, No See

One of my students inquired about my absence from this blog for the past year and a half. What can I say? Book or blog? Book wins. It is not yet done, but the end is within reach. What began as a project synthesizing research about Douglass and women, with some original research included, grew into a project that now relies almost wholly on original research with only passing mention of secondary sources. Much of that has to do with the weaknesses in the secondary work in regard to the women in his life.

In any case, I kept a list of good items for blog posts. These include many cool stories that just don't fit into the book. Now, I'm hoping to get back to this blog, especially as the book winds down -- or up -- and before the production begins (and the attendant slashing and burning of whole chunks of the book, since it has gone WAY over word count).

Hope springs eternal, but I do have cool odds and ends that will appear here eventually.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Douglass in the News

Frederick Douglass usually appears in the news during February, Black History Month, although stories about contemporary issues and Civil Rights figures usually dominate the features. 

Sadly, in the past week, stories about rolling back civil rights gains of the entire history of the United States have appeared in the news. I don't know what Douglass himself would have to say about the climate of today, but such moments should make people living now understand that these fights have a historical context and that things a man said or did almost 200 years ago continue to speak truth to the hostility toward equality and progress today.

Here are two stories that appeared in my Google Alerts for news about Frederick Douglass. The first, written by Stan Simpson and appearing in the Hartford Courant, tells of Douglass's awakening to the connection between literacy, critical thinking, and freedom of both the body and the mind. I confess that, over twenty years ago when I first read Douglass's Narrative (or remember reading it), that moment in his story made me love it. In this day,"they" or "the business community" or whoever drives education reform demean the liberal arts by demanding a "skilled workforce." Yet, Douglass's describes precisely the ways that reading and exposure to new ideas through words and books develop creativity and the skill of thinking necessary to survival in this complex world.

Stan Simpson, "Fight the Power of Ignorance to Enslave," Hartford (Ct) Courant, 28 Feb 2013.

The second story is by Leigh Fought -- ME!  In this story, which appeared in the Syracuse Standard, I make connections to interracial relationships, which were so reviled through most of U.S. history (and, I might add from personal experience, are still reviled today), Frederick Douglass's activism and second marriage, and gay rights. Please note, I am not saying that Douglass would support gay marriage if he were alive today. I don't want to speak for him over a century after his death. I was just using his life to illuminate and illustrate an issue today.

Leigh Fought, "Commentary: Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage," Syracuse (NY) Standard, 25 Feb 2013.

Also illustrated, the poor reading comprehension skills and ugly bigotry of the majority of commenters. That, I suppose, demonstrates a slight flaw in Douglass's connection of literacy to ideas. The reader has to understand what he reads before he can be enlightened by the words. That, or not exploit the newspaper's platform to hammer their own issue.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Ann Coughlan on Douglass's Visit to Ireland

Last week, during the preparations for the Frederick Douglass in Ireland event at St. John Fisher College, (which was -- as the Irish say -- grand!) organizer Tim Madigan interviewed one of the speakers, Ann Coughlan, for the college television station. Coughlan is a PhD candidate in literature at University College-Cork, and her dissertation is on Douglass's visit to Ireland. Her paper at the event was a lovely dissection of Douglass's language as he described poverty in Ireland. As she says, he was a marvelous writer, and that sometimes gets lost in all of the discussion over the contents of his writing and the actions of his life. He could put together a moving, beautiful sentence, and structure a story with the best of them.

Here, Coughlan discusses her own work and interests more generally.

cardinaltv on Broadcast Live Free

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sarah O. Pettit, Frederick Douglass's "Sister"

Louisville Ky Sept 26th 1883
My Dear Brother
        I again write you a few lines to let you know that I am still on the enquire -- for you as it has been a number of years since we have met still i have never forgotten that you are my Brother. -- I have written to you several times but received no reply.
        as I have some very important business to attend to & if I can only get a line from you then I can go through I am a S.M.T. & it is something of importance you will be ever so kind to me by answering this I am a member of Deborah Temple No 28 -- my W.P. lives on Tenth st hear by where you stoped when you was here some time ago at Mrs Harris' she died not long ago --
        I will write you a good long letter if you will only drop me a few lines then i will tell you the particulars & all about the Business that I wish to attend to for it will be by & through you that I can succeed in my undertaking

Alls Well All is Well & send much love to you
        Your affect Sister
                   Sarah O. Pettit

        direct your letter to me in this way
Mrs. Sarah Pettit
         Louisville Ky
         No 415 -- First street
         Bet Green & Jefferson

Please hasten to reply.

--- Sarah O. Pettit to Frederick Douglass, Louisville, Kentucky, 26 Sept 1883,
General Correspondence, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.
(p. 1, 2, 3)
Both Dickson Preston, author of Young Frederick Douglass, and William McFeely, author of Frederick Douglass, suspected that Sarah O. Pettit was Douglass's sister. After all, Douglass had an older sister named Sarah, born in 1814. In 1832, while Douglass was still Frederick Bailey and studying The Columbian Orator in stolen moments in Baltimore, Sarah and her infant, Henry, along with her aunt Betty and Betty's small children, Angeline, Lavinia and Isaac, were all cuffed into a slave coffle and sold south to Mississippi.
Preston assumed that a woman named Sarah, identifying herself as "sister" and noting the long time since their last meeting, would be that same Sarah lost a half a century earlier. McFeely, who characterized this letter as "bleak," (317), speculated that "Douglass may have concluded that Sarah Pettit was not his sister." (317) He implied that Douglass wanted to escape his slave past and concluded that, sister or not, "nothing in the record suggests that it [the letter] resulted in any sort of reconstruction of her family, or of Douglass's." (317) I confess that, as an editor on the Frederick Douglass Papers project, I went along with these assumptions, which led me to pull up this letter while working on the reconstruction of Douglass's childhood. 
Already, with my experience with Ruth Cox Adams, also known as Harriet Bailey or Harriet Adams, and with my passing familiarity with African American vernacular, I approached the use of the affectionate terms "sister" and "brother" with a more discerning eye. "Sisters" and "Brothers" are often related by kinship other than blood.
Both Preston and McFeely interpret this as the first and probably only correspondence between Douglass and Pettit. To me, that seemed off. Compare the tone and content of this letter with the one that he received from his brother Perry Downs.  Downs carefully established the veracity of his claim by mentioning their grandparents, their childhood home, the name of their master, and a particular incident that occured on the last time that they saw one another. None of that appears in Pettit's letter, which could mean that they had met more recently than the late 1820s and early 1830s.
The references to a Temple and the abbreviations, however, caught my eye. This seemed almost masonic. If not masonic, then some similar organization. That's where Google can be a good research tool, at least at first. A search for "SMT" of course turned up nothing of use. "'Deborah Temple' Louisville Kentucky," however, turned up History of the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten ( has a better version), with a Deborah Temple in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, SMT stands for Sisters of the Mysterious Ten. "Sister" and "Brother" meant that they were fellow members, or supporter in his case, of this organization (as well as in the battle against racism). Her business probably had some connection to that. I haven't been able to find her in the census just yet, although I have found a white woman named Sarah A. Petitt in 1850 and 1860. White people may have belonged to this organization, or she may have been light-skinned enough to pass to a census-taker, but Sarah A is probably not the same person as Sarah O; and Sarah O. Pettit was not the daughter of Harriet Bailey and sister of Frederick Bailey. That Sarah was gone.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Frederick Douglass in Ireland" Conference (Feb. 22, 2013)

Next Friday, St. John Fisher's College in Rochester, New York, will be holding a day-long conference "Frederick Douglass and Ireland." The conference is open to the public and yours truly will be on between 1:25 and 2:20 pm. The schedule suggests that I will be talking about Douglass and women's suffrage; but, after talking with organizer Timothy Madigan, we concluded that something connecting Rochester, women, and Ireland (or at least the British Isles) might be more intriguing and pertinent. So, expect something on Julia Griffiths and a tiny bit on Isabel Jennings.

Here is the schedule:

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Exploring the Lives of Anna Douglass through History and Poetry"

Last fall I participated in the program "Exploring the Lives of Anna Douglass through History and Poetry" at Villanova University along with poet Nzadi Kieta. I presented my paper "Anna Murray: Mrs. Frederick Douglass," and Nzadi read from her cycle of poems in Anna's voice. This is the video of that lovely evening. I go first, giving Anna's story the historical bones, then Nzadi fleshes out and animates her life.

Many thanks to the Gender and Women's Studies and Africana Studies department who made this happen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Two New Books on Frederick Douglass

Two new books are out on Frederick Douglass, each taking a look at different aspects of his life.

First up, L. Diane Barnes's Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman (click on title to order), part of the Routledge Historical Americans series. From the website:
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, in February, 1818. From these humble beginnings, Douglass went on to become a world-famous orator, newspaper editor, and champion of the rights of women and African Americans. He was the most prominent African American activist of the 19th century. He remains important in American history because he moved beyond relief at his own personal freedom to dedicating his life to the progress of his race and his country.

This volume offers a short biographical exploration of Douglass' life in the broader context of the 19th century world, and pulls together some of his most important writings on slavery, civil rights, and political issues. Bolstered by the series website, which provides instructors with more images and documents, as well as targeted links to further research, Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman gives the student of American history a fully-rounded glimpse into the world inhabited by this great figure.
I worked with Diane on the Frederick Douglass Papers correspondence series, and she is both a fabulous researcher and writer.

The second book is Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia, by John Muller (click on title to pre-order) and published by The History Press. From the website:
The remarkable journey of Frederick Douglass from fugitive slave to famed orator and author is well recorded. Yet little has been written about Douglass’s final years in Washington, D.C. Journalist John Muller explores how Douglass spent the last eighteen years of his life professionally and personally in his home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia. The ever-active Douglass was involved in local politics, from aiding in the early formation of Howard University to editing a groundbreaking newspaper to serving as marshal of the District. During this time, his wife of forty-four years, Anna Murray, passed away, and eighteen months later, he married Helen Pitts, a white woman. Unapologetic for his controversial marriage, Douglass continued his unabashed advocacy for the rights of African Americans and women and his belief in American exceptionalism. Through meticulous research, Muller has created a fresh and intimate portrait of Frederick Douglass of Anacostia.
John is a journalist in D.C. and has combed through previously untapped sources to reconstruct Douglass's life in the nation's capitol, both at home and in the halls of power, in ways that no other biographer has done.

In bypassing a traditional, born-lived-died, biography of Douglass in order to focus on a particular aspect of his life, both Muller and Barnes will enrich understanding of the Big Man's life, providing detail and nuance that can shift perceptions of Douglass with seismic force.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sir Walter Scott Memorial, Edinburgh

Frederick Douglass to William A. White, Edinburgh, Scotland, 30 July 1846:

"You will perceive that I am now in Edinburgh. It is the capital of Scotland -- and is justly regarded as one of the most beatuful [sic] cities in Urope [sic]. I never saw one with which for beauty elegance and grandeur to compare it. I have not time even had I the ability to describe it. You must come and see it if you visit this country. You will be delighted with it I am sure. The monument to Sir Walter Scott -- on pinces street , is just one conglomeration of architectural beauties.

The Calton Hill -- Salsbury Craggs and Arthur Seat give the city advantages over any City I have ever visited in this or your country.

I enjoy every thing here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue -- no distinction here."

I confess that I have wanted to see the Scott monument since I read this letter over a decade ago. I also confess that the main reason that I wanted to see it had nothing to do with Douglass or with Scott or with the architectural wonders of Edinburgh.

No, the main attraction of this monument was this:

Not Scott, but the furry companion next to him.:

Although he said nothing about the inclusion of the faithful companion, Douglass probably had a fondness for the monument that went beyond his own appreciation for Scott's poetry. After all, remember Nellie Grant?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A "Douglass" in the Jefferson "Family"

It's been a while because it's been a short, busy summer. The book is still moving forward, now with access to more secondary sources. I will be giving a talk on Anna Douglass at Villanova University on September 29, 2012, (that's a Wednesday) at 4 pm, sharing the program with Prof. M. Nzadi Keita, who has written poetry about Anna. Then,  in October, off to Northumbria University for the BrANCH conference where I will give a paper on the Douglass marriage on a panel with the fabulous Angela Murphy, who will be talking about the marriage of Jermain Loguen. More on both as details develop.

Meanwhile, for your amusement, I found this at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in their exhibit on Jefferson's slaves. This is a tree for the enslaved family of Joseph Fossett and Edith Hern, who lived on the Monticello hilltop. Originally, I took this picture because I liked the way that it represented the generations -- much better than the standard tree shape.:

Then, I noticed the grandson there at the bottom of the circle. His name?:

Frederick Douglass Issacs (1851-1904).

As I always joke with my students, all things lead to Frederick Douglass.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Suicide in the Bois de Boulogne: Ottilia Assing's Death

Henry Berg Esq.
President S.P.C.A.
Dear Sir,

It is my painful duty to inform you of the death of our dear friend, Miss Ottilia Assing. She died in Paris on the 21st of August being about to start on a journey to Spain. I have reason to believe that Miss Assing took poison (which she always carried wither) in the Bois de Boulogne where she fell suddenly dead to the ground. The body was taken to the morgue, where it remained sometime for identification. A fortnight after I was notified of it and have taken care that she was suitably buried in the cemetery de la morgue a’ lory. Had I not been timely informed the body would have been delivered to the medical students for dissection.

Miss Assing was suffering from a cancer in the breast and it is supposed that being convinced of the incurableness of the disease she committed suicide in a moment of despondency.

She had in the Post Office Savings Bank here 3000 francs bequeathed to the servants of her defunct sister. I was made executor of the will and have taken steps accordingly. So far I have not succeeded in obtaining possession of her papers and effects she had with her in Paris. Most of these according to the report of the American Consul, Mr. George Walker, appear to have been lost and those left here cosist (?) (consist) of a few trifling ornaments not worth sending to New York. Besides the exportation from Italy of articles “used” is at present prohibited on account of the cholera.

I have received from the American Consul Mr. George Walker, the sum of 1260 francs in cash which Miss Assing had with her. This amount, however, was not sufficient to pay all expenses.

I would, therefore request (1) that the funeral charges (331 francs 50 c) be refunded to me; (2) that provisions be made for placing a plain cross slate, in memory of Miss Assing, on her grave in the cemetery (?) (cemetery) de la Morgue a’ lory pres Paris. (See French receipt)

As agents I can recommend to you Messrs Curtin & Rivoire H rue Beaurepaire in Paris who will furnish the funeral certificate necessary for the opening of the (extrait mortuaire) will you have in hand.

I should not have delayed informing you, dear sir, of the death of our beloved friend had I not hoped to received more papers, documents, valuables etc. from Paris. This hope having vanished I will no longer defer to officially convey to you the mournful intelligence.

I have the honor to be, dear sir,
Your most obedient servant
Rinaldo Kuntzel

Source: Rinaldo Kuntzel to Herman C. Kudlich, Florence, Italy, 27 Oct1884 , copy of a translation, General Correspondence, Frederick Douglass Papers,  Library of Congress.

If you search for Ottilie or Ottilia Assing in Google, you would think that she killed herself because Frederick Douglass had broken her heart by marrying Helen Pitts, another white woman, twenty years their junior. Online sources say this because her biographer, Maria Diedrich, painted a tragically romantic portrait of her despite evidence to the contrary. All sources, which Diedrich cites, say that Assing had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Despite the 21st century image of breast cancer being pink ribbons and survival narratives, the disease is still dreadful and deadly today, even with treatments. Indeed, treatment is still heroic, involving surgery and essentially poisoning the woman just enough to eliminate the cancer without killing the woman. This is progress. In the nineteenth century, radical mastectomy was the only treatment; and, in an age without mammograms or other early detection technologies, by the time surgery took place, the cancer was already in the lymph nodes, coursing throughout her body. If you are curious about how this disease corroded a woman's body, search in Google Images. You would understand the horror. Suicide was a your own merciful exit, even when you had a family, doctors and wealth to take you through the longer death.

This is a late nineteenth century depicting of a mastectomy procedure.:

Assing had no family when she learned of this diagnosis. Sure, she had friends, but they had families or were elderly, none equipped to take on the last months or years of a dying woman's life. Douglass himself was out of the question because he was a man. Men did not do that. Women did, and she did not know the new Mrs. Douglass. This ordeal she faced, she faced alone; and, even had she not been alone, she still faced the ordeal. Suicide allowed her control and dignity in her dying.

This is the Bois de Boulonge, the green strip just below the horizon, as seen from the Arc de Triomphe.:

I anticipated a cultivated park, much like Central Park in New York City; but, really, it is a Bois -- a forest. At least, the part into which I wandered was very wooded, silent but for the distant hum of traffic.:

I have no idea where she died in the park. As  you can see from the map, it sprawls over a large space.:

Park benches were difficult to find, as well. Not that I could say, "here. Here is where she passed her last moments." I just wanted to imagine what she did, where she did it, and what she faced, in order to understand her with more sympathy and accuracy than I have read.

The police gathered her body, unidentified, and took her to the city morgue to lie with the victims of murderers, the indigent who passed away unnoticed and unnamed, and the bloated bodies fished out of the Seine. At the time, the Paris morgue displayed the bodies, unclothed, but with their private parts covered, for people to identify the unknown dead. The procedure became a draw for tourists (Victorians were such ghouls -- says the woman who visits cemeteries on vacation) and the newer morgue building had a design that served that purpose better. It sat on the Ile de Cite, behind Notre Dame and not far from the Prefecture of Police. You can see its location in this image, taken from the Bell Tower of Notre Dame (no, I saw no hunchbacks), down by the point at the end of the bridge, about where the greyish white building stands.:

The site is now part of the memorial for the Jewish deportees from Paris. Assing, incidentally, was also part Jewish, but professed atheism. Perhaps she would have found this use of the space fitting, and would not have minded so much her body being slated for scientific research. Or not.:

I don't know where she is buried. I can find no record of a cemetery on the verge or on the edge of town or for the morgue. I don't even know if Douglass visited her grave. His diary for his journey doesn't include Paris.

So, I leave her here, with this view of her last identified resting place, the site of the morgue and the deportee memorial at night from a boat on the Seine: