Thursday, April 13, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Julia Griffiths
 
Douglass was aided considerably by the administrative talent of Julia Griffiths, whom he had met during his stay in England.  She was an articulate, intelligent anti-slavery worker and they quickly developed a friendship that became intense and that lasted until they died, almost a half century later.  On May 7, 1849, she arrived in Rochester, accompanied by her sister Eliza, to help him edit the newspaper.  His unending lecturing trips, and his inclination not to focus upon the practical aspects of publishing made it necessary for someone else to make the operation efficient.  The two worked opposite each other daily at a table and a desk in the newspaper’s office.  But she and her sister resided in Douglass’s home.  This, and that Julia Griffiths was a young woman and that she was white and that she was forthrightly assertive and that Douglass openly appreciated her immediately fueled the thoughts of the suspicious.  Vicious gossip soon abounded, despite the fact that Eliza always accompanied Julia and Frederick when they traveled together.  Frederick, in fact, seemed to enjoy the stir they created.
 
… simply the sight of a black man escorting white women on the street was enough to raise hackles.  Walking along the Battery in New York City after attending the 1850 May meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the three were accosted by a gang of white men; shouting obscene racial epithets, the men dragged Douglass away and beat him, until a policeman, hunted up by the women, drove the attackers off (McFeely 165).
 
Surely he did not relish this incident but he did make use of it.  Asked by a reporter of the London Times afterwards to comment, he said that his offense was not that he had walked with white people but that he had walked with them “on terms of equality.  Had I been with those persons simply as a servant, I should have been regarded with complacency by the refined, and with respect by the vulgar class of white persons.”  The American “aristocracy of Skin” insulted “a colored man with the most perfect impunity” (Bontemps 184).
 
Gerrit Smith and his wife were undaunted by the interracial nature of the friendships and welcomed Douglass and the Griffiths sisters to Peterboro.  Most of their colleagues in the movement, however, were far from welcoming the new editorial team, and when Eliza Griffiths hitherto always present as chaperone, was no longer available for the assignment, the criticism of the two candidly unorthodox friends grew.  Late in the summer of 1850, romance had bloomed elsewhere in the office; John Dick … married Eliza and took her off to Toronto, where, in time, he would work on another antislavery paper.  … Now Julia Griffiths and Douglass had no protection against the gossips (McFeely 165-166).
 
Julia continued to live with the Douglasses.  Anna Douglass had been accepting of her husband’s friendship with the eccentric Englishwoman at first, but her resentment of Julia’s presence and of the favored attention Frederick gave her surfaced and intensified.  Julia’s habit of reading to him at night must have been especially galling to the illiterate women.
 
Julia did make friends with some of the townspeople.  She became secretary of the local antislavery society.  Her closest friends, aside from Douglass, probably were the Gerrit Smiths, whom she visited frequently and with whom she corresponded.
 
With the Smiths, Julia let her hair down.  Anna was giving the unblemished Douglass a hard way to go.  Poor man, only Julia knew what trials he suffered behind the brick walls of his home.  Her fire was not to be quenched by the stupid suspicions and jealousy of an illiterate woman whose capacity for intellectual growth and new horizons was so limited.  Certainly the mission of Frederick Douglass was too clear and bright to be allowed to bog down in that way.  Certainly the crusade for freedom was the main thing, and the help that Julia Griffiths could give should not be withheld because of petty irritations (Bontemps 186).
 
Friends of Douglass began to urge that he end his friendship with Julia.  Douglass refused to listen.  His right to her friendship was a part of his right to be liberated.  In January 1852 he wrote to Samuel Porter, with whom he had worked in moving fugitives into Canada.
 
“Individuals have rights not less than society.”  … Douglass chided Porter for writing to him of the “scandalous reports” instead of speaking to him directly.  “Miss Griffiths—is a free woman—and [acknowledging that they had indeed felt the sting of criticism], of her own free will” had moved out of his house to board elsewhere two months earlier …
 
He would not allow Porter or anyone else to undercut his friendship by making fun—“speaking lightly” – of Julia, whose forthright ways and eccentric clothes made her an easy target.  “She has a just claim upon my gratitude, respect, and friendship,” he declared.  Julia Griffiths had built something like a satisfactory relationship with Anna Douglass, sharing tea with her in the kitchen, and had even, unsuccessfully, tried to teach her to read.  Douglass … insisted that “when she was in my family—I was necessarily in her society—our walking and riding together was natural.  Now we are separated and meet at my office at business hours and for business purposes—where we are open to the observation of my printers and the public.”
 
 
… By 1855, the criticism had become so shrill that the two could no longer withstand its pressures.  Julia packed her bags and went back to England, where she continued her anti-slavery activities.  Later, she wrote a regular column … for Douglass’ Monthly, … which appeared as a separate publication starting in January 1859.  … In time, Julia married the Reverend H. O. Crofts, a stolid clergyman with whom she moved from parsonage to parsonage in England.  After he died, she conducted, for twenty years, a school for young women in St. Neots.  Until the death of Frederick Douglass, three months before hers, she never ceased corresponding with her “beloved friend.”  But she was never again to sit with him in his parlor (McFeely 170-171, 182)
 
 
Works cited:
 
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.