Monday, April 16, 2018

Frederick Douglass's Women
Ida B. Wells, Part Three
During her two tours of Great Britain, 1893 and 1894, and all the years thereafter to 1920 when women received the right to vote, Ida Wells had to battle white temperance and suffragist leaders who insisted upon including in their organizations racist Southern women.
Many leaders refused to advocate for the ending of lynching. … protecting white women’s virtue was often the excuse used to justify the brutal act. In the white imagination, black men’s insatiable sexuality was a threat to white women’s purity … After the passing of the 15th Amendment, Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the Senate, pushed this dangerous message: “I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all,” she said. “When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue — if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts — then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary” (Dionne 3).
Other leaders accepted Southern white women into their organizations out of expediency. Getting the vote for women was more important than opposing lynching.
Many in the women’s suffrage movement resented the fact that the 15th Amendment had granted the black man the right to vote but not the white woman. Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Women Suffrage Association, argued: ““You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses” (Dionne 5)!
During her 1893 and 1894 tours, Wells waged war against “one of the most formidable American leaders within the movement to gain women the vote, or suffrage: Frances E. Willard, national president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Throughout much of the 1800s, the women's alcohol temperance movement was a powerful force in the greater push toward women's suffrage. … To Willard, giving women the right to vote was the only way to rid the U.S. of evils of intemperance.  … She was even willing to court white Southern women, at the expense of blacks, even though her parents had been abolitionists. "'Better whiskey and more of it' is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs," Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice. "The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities."  Wells was incensed.  Willard “‘unhesitatingly slandered the entire Negro race in order to gain favor with those who are hanging, shooting and burning Negroes alive,’ Wells said in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice” (Fields-White 1).
Wells took Willard on during her second tour of England. “Willard was in England as the guest of Lady Henry Somerset, head of the British temperance movement. Both women were invited to speak before British temperance advocates on May 9, 1894.”
Wells came to the lecture armed with a copy of the 1890 interview with the New York Voice that echoed such racist thinking. Willard had told the publication that the local tavern "is the Negro's center of power ... the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt."
When asked her opinion of Willard, Wells chose to read the interview. With Willard at her side and little time to actually speak, Wells asked the audience how influential white women could continue to turn a blind eye to the white mobs who threatened black lives. Afterward, she was able to get a British journal, the Fraternity, to reprint Willard's interview.
Lady Somerset was so enraged by Wells' commentary that she demanded that the Fraternity article not be printed, or Wells would never be heard in Britain again. The article was published anyway. Lady Somerset also sent a telegram to black abolitionist Frederick Douglass demanding that he publicly reprimand Wells. Douglass didn't give in to Lady Somerset's demands (yet Wells later sadly noted in a letter to Douglass that he did little to fully support her overseas campaign).
Lady Somerset and Willard were not done. Pushing to publicly embarrass Wells in the press, the pair arranged for another Willard interview with the Westminster Gazette, a London newspaper. This time it was conducted by Somerset, who gave Willard a platform for her version.
Willard talked about her family background and expressed concern for the plight of blacks. But she also stated that "the best people I knew in the South" had told her black people were threatening the safety of white women and children. She continued, "It is not fair that a plantation Negro who can neither read or write should be entrusted with the ballot."
Other U.S. publications — including the Memphis Commercial — weighed in with statements against Wells' character. The Commercial examined her career, painting "the saddle-colored Sapphira" from Holly Springs, Miss., as a harlot. The newspaper also stated that Wells was pushing her "foul and slanderous" outbursts on the British.
Even so, the media campaign didn't stop Wells. She lectured to audiences in London; was invited to dinner in Parliament; and before she headed home, helped Londoners establish the London Anti-Lynching Committee. Forming this group was a clear victory for Wells in the anti-lynching crusade. It comprised some of the most influential editors, ministers, college professors and members of Parliament. To Wells' surprise, Lady Somerset joined the committee, and Willard was among the Americans who also signed on (Fields-White 4-5).
Another crusader for women’s suffrage that placed expediency above justice for black Americans was Susan B. Anthony.
A chapter in her [Wells’s] autobiography describes her work with suffragist Susan B. Anthony. On most issues the two women agreed about both goals and tactics. But at one point, Anthony explained to Wells-Barnett [Wells’s married name] why she had not invited Frederick Douglass to address the Equal Suffrage Association in Atlanta, and why she did not support the foundation of a colored branch of the association: that she "did not want anything to get in the way of bringing southern white women into our suffrage association." Anthony asked Wells-Barnett if she was wrong. "I answered uncompromisingly yes, for I felt that although she may have made gains for suffrage, she had also confirmed white women in their attitude of segregation," … (Bane 1).
Before she joined the campaign for woman suffrage, Anthony was a temperance activist in Rochester, New York, where she was a teacher at a girls’ school. As a Quaker, she believed that drinking alcohol was a sin; moreover, she believed that (male) drunkenness was particularly hurtful to the innocent women and children who suffered from the poverty and violence it caused. However, Anthony found that few politicians took her anti-liquor crusade seriously, both because she was a woman and because she was advocating on behalf of a “women’s issue.” Women needed the vote, she concluded, so that they could make certain that the government kept women’s interests in mind.
Though Anthony was dedicated to the abolitionist cause and genuinely believed that African-American men and women deserved the right to vote, after the Civil War ended she refused to support any suffrage amendments to the Constitution unless they granted the franchise to women as well as men (Williams 1).
 Works cited:
Bane, Mary Jo. ““First Things: Ida Wells-Barnett.” Boston College Magazine. Summer 2004. Web. <>.
Dionne, Evette. “Women's Suffrage Leaders Left Out Black Women.” News and Politics. August 18, 2017. Web. <>.
Fields-White, Monee. “The Root: How Racism Tainted Women's Suffrage.” Opinion Hosted by NPR.  March 25, 2011. Web. <>.
Willaims, Yohuru. “Women Who Fought for the Vote.” History. Web. <>.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Frederick Douglass's Women
Ida B. Wells -- Part Two
In 1893, Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition (forerunner of the World’s Fair) to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World.  The exposition featured exhibits from 46 countries, displayed new technologies, and introduced to the public many new consumer products.

African Americans wanted to be employed at the exposition.  They also wanted their racial achievements showcased.  Few acquired jobs and no exhibit spaces were allocated.  Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells published a pamphlet titled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition.”  The pamphlet, Wells later wrote

was a clear, plain statement of facts concerning the oppression put upon the colored people in this land of the free and home of the brave. We circulated ten thousand copies of this little book during the remaining three months of the fair. Every day I was on duty at the Haitian building, where Mr. Douglass gave me a desk and spent the days putting this pamphlet in the hands of foreigners (Chicago 1).

Wells reported that more than 20,000 people at the fair received copies.

For additional information about Frederick Douglass’s and Ida Wells’s involvement at the Columbian Exposition, read these posts:

“At the Fair” January 24, 2018, and “Activist Fervor Revived” January 31, 2018 --

After the exposition, Wells chose to stay in Chicago rather then return to New York.  She worked at and contributed articles for the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African-American newspaper in the city. 
Later that year (1893), accepting the invitation of Catherine Impey, an English Quaker, she toured England, Scotland, and Wales for two months speaking to the British public about lynching practices in America.  The lynching of black men and women seemed to have become a sport among Southern white mobs — reaching a peak of 161 deaths in 1892” (Fields-White 1).  She displayed during her speeches a photograph of a white mob and grinning white children positioned near a hanged black man.  Her speeches created a sensation, although some listeners remained skeptical of the veracity of her accounts.
I turn now to Ida Wells’s beliefs regarding race, injustice, and lynching based on the extensive research she had conducted prior to her 1893 and subsequent 1894 United Kingdom tours.

Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.  But Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart had been lynched in Memphis, one of the leading cities of the South, in which no lynching had taken place before, with just as much brutality as other victims of the mob; and they had committed no crime against white women.  This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was.  An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and “keep the nigger down.”   I then began an investigation of every lynching I read about (Curry 4).
She understood that race was used as a stratagem of order.  She abhorred the practice of white women being forced to declare falsely that they had been raped.   “The only rapist driven by racial antipathy are the ‘majority of the superior white men who are the fathers of mulatto children.’"  In instances in which a black man and a white woman had consensual intercourse, the white woman “was a willing partner in the victim's guilt, and being of the superior race must naturally be more guilty" (Curry 5).
She spoke of white women’s sexual interest in black men.  … White men constantly express an open preference for the society of black women.  But it is a sacred convention that white women can never feel passion of any sort, high or low, for a black man.  Unfortunately, facts don’t always square with the convention; and then, if the guilty pair are found out, the thing is christened an outrage at once, and the woman is practically forced to join in hounding down the partner of her shame.  Sometimes she rebels, but oftener the overwhelming force of white prejudice is too much for her, and she must go through with the ghastly mockery.  “What!” cried out one poor negro at the stake, as the woman applied the torch, egged on by a furious mob, headed by her relatives, “have you the heart to do that, when we have been sweethearting so long?”  It was this specific argument she [Ida Wells] made — lynching is punishment for the bare fact of white women’s sexual desire for black men — that brought her under constant threat of lynching herself.

“It may be remarked here in passing that this instance of the moral degradation of the people of Mississippi did not excite any interest in the public at large,” she wrote of one horrible lynching in which the victims were innocent.  “American Christianity heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment” (Seltzer 3-4)

Ida Wells “understood that the immorality of whites meant they would not be moved by the suffering they committed against Blacks. The gun as an instrument of self-defense has a special place in her political philosophy: a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has ‘to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched’” (Curry 6).
“While self-defense would arrest assault by lynchers, by itself it would not vitiate the cultural and civilizational motif of white supremacy that justified lynching. To do this,” Wells intended “to ‘shame’ and display as inferior the brutish civilization of white America to the world.”  She “was not swayed by the illusion of change in whites' hearts and minds.”  She “held that cultural and/or civilizing change must come from those other than the voiceless victims of white supremacy.”  A vigorous campaign against lynching would compel governors of states, newspapers, senators and representatives, and bishops of churches to declare one way or another their position regarding her and others’ condemnation of racial barbarism in America.
What Wells saw in Britain “was a disposition already formed against lynching stemming from Britain's abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. Like a good agitationist sociologist, she believed her tour in Britain could motivate the English to sanction and condemn the actions of America and expose the horrors of lynching the United States continued to deny internationally.  Wells … saw the receptivity of Britain to be linked with their economic stake in maintaining trade and imperial prestige, not some unrequited moral compassion for the Negro's humanity.  … By appealing to Britain's interest in being the world superpower, Wells … was able to effectively conduct her assault against the United States' image and negate its claim to a superior government
and democracy.  Britain's receptivity to her plight could be used against white Americans as proof of Britain's moral and civilizational superiority and white Americas lawlessness” Curry 7-8).
Works cited:

Curry, Tommy J.  “T. Thomas Fortune’s Philosophy of Social Agitation as a Prolegomenon to Militant Civil Rights Activism.”  TRANSACTIONS OF THE CHARLES S. PEIRCE SOCIETY.  Vol. 48, No. 4 ©2012 .  Indiana University Press.  Media.
Monee Fields-White, “The Root: How Racism Tainted Women's Suffrage.”  Opinion Hosted by NPR.  March 25, 2011.  Media.

“Ida B. Wells: African Americans at the World's Columbian Exposition.”  Encyclopedia of Chicago.  Media.

Seltzer, Sarah, “Ida B. Wells, Anti-Lynching Crusader, Was the Godmother of the Social Justice Internet.”  Flavorwire.  November 24, 2014.  Media.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Frederick Douglass's Women
Ida B. Wells -- Part One
Ida Wells was not one of Frederick Douglass’s wives, an alleged mistress, or a long-time co-worker.  She was, however, linked to him during the last three or four years of his life.  Wells was a remarkable black activist her entire, tumultuous adult time.  It had been her published newspaper articles and pamphlets that had drawn Douglass’s attention to her in 1892.  Most of their day-to-day association occurred in 1893 at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition (the first World’s Fair), where, together, they had opposed blatant White disparagement of black American achievement.  I urge you to read two previous blogs (“At the Fair” January 24, 2018, and “Activist Fervor Revived” January 31, 2018 -- -- to learn details of their collaboration at that event.
She was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi.  She and her slave parents -- James and Lizzie Wells -- were freed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation almost six months later.  Her parents were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction.  Her father was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society.  He helped start Shaw University, a school for the newly freed slaves (now Rust College), and served on the first board of trustees.  Ida attended the university.
At the age of 16 (1878) yellow fever killed her parents and a sibling.  Suddenly she had five sibling younger than she to support.  Having convinced a nearby country school administrator that she was 18, she was hired to teach.
In 1882, Wells moved with her sisters to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt. Her brothers found work as carpenter apprentices. For a time, Wells continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville.
On one fateful train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Wells reached a personal turning point.  Having bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville, she was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans, and refused on principle.  As she was forcibly removed from the train, she bit one of the men on the hand.  Wells sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit court case.  However, the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court (Biography 2).
The injustice caused Ida to begin to write about race and politics in the South.  Many of her articles were printed in black newspapers and periodicals.  She eventually became a part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.  She arranged for the Free Speech to come out on pink paper, which made it easier for people to recognize.  She successfully courted new subscribers; at one point during her tenure circulation climbed from 1,500 to 4,000 in less than a year.  She worked as a journalist and publisher and taught in a black public school.  She wrote in the Free Speech about the poor quality of the buildings in Memphis’s Negro schools.  She wrote about the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them.  She was not rehired in 1891. 
She went to work for the newspaper full time, promoting the Free Speech from city to city, writing articles as she traveled.  About the lynching of a Georgetown, Kentucky, black man, Wells wrote an editorial in 1891 that advocated self-protection and retaliation.  The Memphis Daily Commercial Appeal had written that “two wrongs do not make a right; and that while white people should stick to the law, if they do not do so, the blacks can hope for nothing but extermination if they attempt to defend themselves.”  Wells’s answer had been “This is a cowardly argument.  Fundamentally men have an inherent right to defend themselves when lawful authority refuses to do it for them; and when a whole community makes itself responsible for a crime it should be held responsible . . .  The way to prevent retaliation is to prevent lynching” (Curry 4).
Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites.  And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women.  But Wells would change all that.  In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business (Cools 2).
Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart had set up a grocery store.  Their new business had been drawing customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood.  The white store owner and his supporters and the three black men clashed several times.  One night, the three black owners, guarding their store, shot several white vandals.  They were arrested and brought to the jail.  A lynch mob took them from their cells and hung them.
Wells wrote articles decrying the lynching … and the wrongful deaths of other African Americans (Biography 6).  She wrote: “"There is therefore only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons" (Kettler 2).
She called for blacks to leave the city "which will neither protect our lives and property."  More than 6,000 black residents [about 20 percent of the city’s black population] left, and many others boycotted white businesses … (Fields-White 3).
Putting her life at risk, she spent two months traveling through the South, gathering information on other lynching incidents.  Combing through statistics and interviewing eyewitnesses, she conducted the first in-depth investigation into the real reasons behind the lynching of these black men — and many others who were mostly accused of allegedly raping a white woman.  She wrote about her tragic findings in a column for the New York Age newspaper (Fields-White 4) printed June 25, 1892.  The article, titled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” was expanded and published as a pamphlet later in the year. 
Ida had discovered that “lynching was far from just vengeance for rape, it was inflicted for petty crimes, supposed insubordination or impertinence, drunkenness, competition, and so on.  She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they consisted a form of social control, a replacement for the terrorism of the slave system” (Cools 4).
While she was In New York, enraged by her “Southern Horrors” editorial, a mob stormed the office of her Free Speech newspaper.  It destroyed all of her equipment.  She was warned that she would be killed if she returned to Memphis. 
Staying in New York City, she bought a pistol and wrote: “They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth."
She became part owner of the New York Age, and continued to write.  Energized by Wells’s writing and anti-lynching work, Frederick Douglass wrote an introduction to her Southern Horrors pamphlet.  He visited her several times.
Ida Wells had come to understand that “white civilization uses race as the stratagem
of order, and claims lynching to be that necessary practice that demarcates and forces the ‘Negro’ to stay in (his) place in society” (Curry 6).
Works cited:
Cools, Amy, “Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!”  Ordinary Philosophy.  July 16, 2017.  Media.
Curry, Tommy J., “T. Thomas Fortune’s Philosophy of Social Agitation as a Prolegomenon to Militant Civil Rights Activism.”  TRANSACTIONS OF THE CHARLES S. PEIRCE SOCIETY, Vol. 48, No. 4 ©2012.  Indiana University Press.  Media.
Fields-White, Monee, “The Root: How Racism Tainted Women's Suffrage.”  Opinion Hosted by NPR.   March 25, 2011.  Media.
“Ida B. Wells Biography.”  Biography.  The Website.  A&E Television Networks.  January 19, 2018.  Media.
Kettler, Sara, “6 Fascinating Facts About 'Crusader for Justice' Ida B. Wells.”  Biography.  July 15, 2017.  Media.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Frederick Douglass's Women
Helen Pitts Douglass
Over a century ago, one of Central 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 Washington society by joining in interracial matrimony.

Neither black nor white communities offered many congratulations.
The Washington 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 Mt. Holyoke simply exclaimed, “How could she?”
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 Indianapolis 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)?
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 Richmond. Her grandfather founded the village (originally called Pittstown) after fighting in the American Revolution.

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 Adams and from another Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Rutherford B. Hayes. Other distant cousins included William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry David Thoreau.
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 Naples undertaker. By some accounts, more than six hundred former slaves traveled through the Pitts’ basement passageway (Hansen 1).
Helen entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts in 1857.  She graduated in 1859.  She was among a growing number of young women from all over 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 Norfolk, Virginia.  Just a month earlier, the Brute Street Baptist Church had opened a school exclusively for freed slaves, a project of the American Missionary Association.”
Roughly twenty more teachers arrived in Norfolk 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).
In the late 1870s, Helen lived in Washington, D.C. 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).
Helen moved to Indiana 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.
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 Washington, DC. 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).
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 Egypt in 1886 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 Frederick wherever we go but they wear no unpleasant expressions” (Hansen 8).
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]
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 Rochester.   
Works cited:
Fought, Leigh, “Commentary: Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage.”, February 25, 2013.  Net.
Hansen, Heather Baukney, Heather. “Right Is of No Sex.  Truth Is of No Color.”  Mount Holyoke CollegeAlumnae Association, April 7, 2017.  Net.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Frederick Douglass's Women
Ottilia Assing
I encourage you to read my Frederick Douglass May 28, 2017, post, “Ottilia Assing and Slavery in the Territories,” before you proceed with the following.
Maria Diedrich's ''Love Across Color Lines'' explores in depth Douglass's 28-year relationship with Ottilie Assing, a German journalist and intellectual. Diedrich makes a persuasive case that this long friendship was in fact an intimate love affair that Douglass and Assing maintained in spite of Douglass's marriage to a black woman who was the mother of his five children. Although previous biographers have acknowledged the importance of Assing to Douglass, Diedrich, a professor of American studies at the University of Mnster in Germany, offers a much more elaborate portrait of Assing and of the liaison that was at the center of her life .
Ottilie Assing was born in Hamburg in 1819 to a Jewish physician and his wife, the daughter of one of Germany's most prominent intellectual families. Ottilie's aunt Rahel Varnhagen had presided over a legendary salon in turn-of-the-century Berlin, and her writings came to serve as a ''feminist bible'' for her niece. Ottilie's parents, ''disciples of Romanticism,'' provided her and her younger sister with an excellent education and with revolutionary ideals emphasizing human equality, the intellectual capabilities of women and the dangers of the constraints of convention. From a young age, Ottilie and Ludmilla engaged in bitter emotional rivalry, and, not long after their parents' deaths in the early 1840's, Ottilie set out to establish an independent identity.
She first turned to journalism, attacking Hamburg's cultural philistinism, then assumed a position as a tutor to the children of one of the city's leading actors, Jean Baptiste Baison. Assing became Baison's ''partner, nurse and probably his lover,'' and she ''enjoyed the spotlight of scandal,'' deriving satisfaction from her superiority to convention. But what Assing regarded as a relationship of equality was in fact profoundly asymmetrical, ''for it was always Ottilie Assing adapting to Baison's needs,'' even to the point of yielding him a substantial portion of her inheritance. When Baison died of typhoid fever, Assing was forced to rely almost entirely on her own labors for support. In 1851 she began to write for Morgenblatt fr Gebildete Leser, a distinguished journal to which she contributed for the next 14 years. Faced with increasing anti-Semitism and growing restrictions on freedom of the press in the aftermath of the failed Revolution of 1848, Assing immigrated to the United States in 1852.
Her experience as a person of Jewish descent in Germany made her especially interested in American racial issues, and soon after her arrival she began to write for Morgenblatt on ''race relations, slavery, black America'' and ''to set herself up as Germany's 'Negro expert.' ''Such ambitions made it almost inevitable that she should seek out Douglass, as she did in 1856, literally knocking on his door in Rochester to propose a German translation of his work. From the outset, Diedrich writes, she was ''completely taken by Douglass's powerful male presence'' and wrote about him in such erotic terms that Diedrich calls her subsequent Morgenblatt article ''the first . . . of the many public love songs'' Assing composed for Douglass. But Diedrich characterizes Assing's description of Douglass as one that ''deprived him of his blackness,'' assimilating him into her elitist white conceptions of cultural excellence.
Assing and Douglass began to correspond as she arranged to translate ''My Bondage and My Freedom,'' and in 1857 Assing spent the first of 22 summers living in the Douglass family home. Douglass had earlier been romantically linked in public gossip with an English abolitionist, and Assing believed that ''the Douglass marriage had been over long before she entered the scene.'' ''Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to see'' Douglass's wife, Anna, ''as a fellow human being and as a woman,'' Assing treated her with contempt, writing disdainfully of her blackness and her illiteracy.
In the years that followed, Douglass and Assing shared an intense personal and professional relationship during summers in Rochester and through his frequent winter visits to her rooms in Hoboken, N.J. It was to Assing that Douglass fled when he feared implication in the John Brown conspiracy, and after the Civil War broke out the two collaborated to produce parallel articles for Douglass' Monthly and Morgenblatt urging the transformation of the conflict into a war to end slavery (Faust 1-4).
Diedrich presumes that the 28-year friendship of German journalist Ottilie Assing and married abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was a love affair. Styling herself as Germany's ""Negro expert,"" Assing ""enjoyed the spotlight of scandal,"" according to Diedrich. She wrote and traveled in the U.S. after having been ostracized in Germany as a ""half-breed"" whose Jewish father converted to Christianity, believing that her genius would uplift America's underdeveloped cultural scene. Although envisioning herself as egalitarian, Assing told friends she meant to ""introduce readers to highly educated darkies""; in writing about Douglass, Diedrich argues, she ""carefully avoided any physical feature or character trait that might denote difference,"" presenting Douglass as ""the ideal personification of the classical Western orator (PW 1).
Although their collaboration continued after the war, Douglass showed no inclination to leave his wife. More pessimistic than he about the future course of American politics and race relations, Assing also began to quarrel with him about the fecklessness of his grown children. Although Diedrich believes it was still ''obvious that Douglass cared deeply'' about her, signs of tension and even estrangement began to appear. In 1876 Assing departed for a European trip with hopes that Douglass would join her en route. But he proved to be less interested in her than in his career and family in the United States.
When Anna Murray Douglass died in the summer of 1882, Douglass made no apparent effort to contact Assing. Eighteen months later he married Helen Pitts, a white woman almost 20 years younger than Assing. The following August, Assing, said by friends to be suffering from breast cancer, killed herself in a Paris park with a dose of potassium cyanide. She coupled this ultimate gesture of Romantic self-determination with what Diedrich calls ''a more substantial way of haunting'' Frederick Douglass. Her will provided that the income of her $13,000 estate be delivered to him in semiannual installments for the rest of his life (Faust 5).
In the process of writing her book, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Faught expressed doubts about the accuracy of Maria Diedrich’s interpretive narration.
I am just having problems with the book [Love across Color Lines] as I re-read it while trying to place Assing in my own work; and in reading the book yet again I am finding that I question the premise of the work, the methods and interpretations of the research, and -- most importantly -- the overall significance of Assing herself.
The author doesn't show her work in how she got to the conclusion that this affair was a sexual affair, she doesn't discuss how she deduced that and interrogated that deduction and then come to that conclusion. The conclusion is just there as an accepted fact that guides everything afterward.
Thus, everything that Assing and Douglass say or do is motivated by or interpreted only as furthering that relationship. Thus, Assing moves from New York City to Hoboken, NJ, to have a place to meet with Douglass, not because she is quite poor at that point and a boarding house Hoboken might be a less expensive place to live. She moves from Hoboken to Washington, D.C., during Reconstruction again to be near Douglass, not to (or not also to)be near the center of political action as a political journalist.
Such real, practical considerations are ignored elsewhere, too, and with greater implications. If this affair went on for two decades, at least half of which were before Assing entered an age for menopause, and during which she stayed with the Douglasses for months on end, why did she not get pregnant? Where, in fact, did they have sex? Under the same roof as Douglass’s wife and children – and later in laws and grandchildren? Under the boarding house roof where her landlady and landlords were raising children?  … The Garrisonians who made such gossip of Julia Griffths only a year before Assing showed up make no mention of Assing at all (and they were as gossipy as a clique of 12-year-olds). No alternate explanations are explored nor practicalities considered. All the reader receives are contradictory dismissals that the landlady and landlords were German and liberal, and therefore exempt from American middle class sensibilities, that the Douglass family – in laws included – were forced to accept whatever Douglass imposed on them (likely, but still not satisfying), and that no one talked about the affair because everyone wanted to protect the movement as a whole and, besides, no one ever visited the Douglasses anyway.
What I am thinking here is that Assing was very deeply taken with Douglass, but him not so much with her. I think he got something out of the relationship with her – she was a journalist, he was an editor, she had connections on the European continent, perhaps she was a kind listener, clearly she would have been a willing booty-call but he wasn’t deeply in love with her and certainly wasn’t going to follow her to Europe or leave his wife, or really go out of his way for her. That, right now, is my hypothesis that I have to test through rigorous research in the documents (Fought 1-6)
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.   … Suicide was a your own merciful exit, even when you had a family, doctors and wealth to take you through the longer death.
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 (Fought 1-2).
Works cited:
Faust, Drew Gilpin.  “Fatal Attraction: The Affair Between Frederick Douglass and a German Journalist Endured for 28 Years until Its Tragic Conclusion.”  Books: The New York Times on the Web.  August 1, 1999.  Net.
Fought, Leigh, “Suicide in the Bois de Boulogne: Ottilia Assing's Death.”  Frederick Douglass: In Progress, Notes, Queries, and Musings about Frederick Douglass.  April 30, 2012.   Net.
Fought, Leigh, “The Problem With Assing.”  Frederick Douglass: In Progress, Notes, Queries, and Musings about Frederick Douglass. November 14, 2011.  Net.
Publishers Weekly Book Review of Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass by Maria Diedrich.  June 1, 1999.  Net.