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The lesser known scandalous life of Frederick Douglass

buzzz worthy. . .

By Mona Austin

Much of what the average American knows about Frederick Douglass lies in the pages of "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave."  His memory has lived on through the annals of history as a heroic abolitionist. A recent article revered Douglass  as "A king among men."  Note to The Atlantic writer who wrote those words in the article Memo to the White House on the Contributions of Frederick Douglass -- applying that very Biblical reference to Douglass is an overstatement. 

The article was a response  to President Donald Trump saying at a White House "Listening Session " on Black History Month that  Douglass is “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”  The Atlantic article was intended to show Mr.Trump and others who may be ignorant of his significance that Douglass was not on the sidelines of Black/American history, but an active change agent in it.  However, there is an under told taboo aspect of Douglass' personal life that would be a suitable script for an episode of "Scandal." 

It was during a visit to his Cedar Hill Residence, that has been maintained as a National Historic Site by the National Park Service in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that a tour guide filled me in on the sordid details of Douglass' disgraceful affairs with white women he had under the same roof with this black wife and children. Barring scarce academic research papers and a scattering of newspaper articles, this part of the freedman's narrative escapes common knowledge. 

The paraphrased version goes like this: A politically connected, "powerful" black man risks everything to marry a much younger, educated white secretary whose father was a friend with preference over his black wife who was by his side before the popularity or wealth. 

Sound familiar?

This is not an uncommon theme among modern celebrity couples.  Like many others, the Douglasses were impacted by the downside of fame interfering with their matrimony. Certain rules of a more conservative society may have made managing their situation more challenging.  Women who marry celebs tend to know they must sacrifice the time they spend with their spouses and have the ability to deal with their men being the center of female attention.  But not even the most seasoned, loyal politician, preacher, athlete or actor's wife could tolerate this. . .

Douglass moved his white mistress (Helen Pitts) a woman's advocate and daughter of an abolitionist, who first worked for him as a  clerk, into  Cedar Hill with his black wife (Anna Murray) preferring the former due to her education. Pitts was 20 years his junior.

Murray, a free woman who was six years older, helped Douglass escape slavery the second time and later married him when he sent for her to join him in New York. (They would take residence in New England and eventually settle in D.C.)  While Murray could barely read or write and her husband did not bother to involve her in his activist activities, she was well known around D.C. for her sewing and laundering service. Before Douglass accumulated wealth, in the beginning of their relationship with her talent and earnings she supported the cause by ensuring he presented himself in well-tailored attire and funding his travels to speaking engagements. 

Pitts, on the other hand, stimulated Douglas intellectually as a co-laborer in the fight for freedom and equality. Their interracial union less than two years after Anna's death was shunned by both blacks and whites, despite her family's home being a stop along the Underground Railroad.  

As an orator Mr. Douglass traveled abroad and was known among foreigners and gained more female admirers. Two European white women are documented as imposing their desire for his attention on his wife and family, staying in the Douglass home in spurts, fueling rumors of infidelity for most of his marriage.  British reformer Julia Griffiths visited Douglass annually and was rumored to be his lover.  German Journalist and Feminist Ottilie Assing had a love affair with Douglass for over 20 years when he lived in New York before he quit her informally to  prioritize his family;  Anna had bouts of illness and they'd lost a child. 

An excerpt from a New York Times article details how involved the mistress and the abolitionist were and the level of disrespect the real Mrs. Frederick Douglass endured:

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 addition to running The North Star Newspaper and lobbying to ban slavery on the speakig circuit, Douglass was a recognizable voice in the Women's Suffrage Movement. He had spoken at the heralded Seneca Falls Women's Convention and in 1888 later recalled his views at an International Council on Women event in Washington  stating:

For this is an International Council, not of men, but of women, and woman should have all the say in it. This is her day in court. I do not mean to exalt the intellect of woman above man’s; but I have heard many men speak on this subject, some of them the most eloquent to be found anywhere in the country; and I believe no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself. The man struck is the man to cry out. Woman knows and feels her wrongs as man cannot know and feel them, and she also knows as well as he can know, what measures are needed to redress them. I grant all the claims at this point. She is her own best representative. We can neither speak for her, nor vote for her, nor act for her, nor be responsible for her; and the thing for men to do in the premises is just to get out of her way and give her the fullest opportunity to exercise all the powers inherent in her individual personality, and allow her to do it as she herself shall elect to exercise them. Her right to be and to do is as full, complete and perfect as the right of any man on earth. I say of her, as I say of the colored people, “Give her fair play, and hands off.

This vision was not a reality the women in Frederick Douglass' life experienced whether by choice or force. The fact that Douglass kept his wife and lovers under the same roof under morally reprehensible circumstances and stood for "women's rights" or feminism does not pale his work as an abolitionist, yet it is a stain on his character as a man fighting for the total liberation of women. It is an irony that perches on male dominance to say the least. 

Cedar Hill
Anna did not requite the disrespect by leaving.  The couple remained married for over 40 years, until her death. In those times, as a woman she did not have any more rights than her husband's covering would afford her. Besides, she had invested in their home too.   It appeared their union was a marriage of convenience and a front for his career. 

There are not many references about the life of Anna Murray Douglass that portray who she was adequately. Her daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague,  offers a perspective on her life as a wife in the book,  "Anna Murray Douglass, My Mother As I Recall Her": 

Her courage, her sympathy at the start was the main-spring that supported the career of Frederick Douglass. As is the condition of most wives her identity became merged into that of her husband. Thus only the few of their friends in the North really knew and appreciated the full value of the woman who presided over the Douglass home for forty-four years.

From various other sources I have gathered that while the man of the house was away Murray acted as a stay- at-home-mom to their five children and ran the residence. Not many black women could boast of her status in the 1800s as one who enjoyed domesticity on her own terms and womanhood at a middle to upper class level.  Anna Murray Douglass did not fit the stereotypical image of a black woman as a mammy or slave wench, despite the degradation whites tried to force upon her.  While she did not fit the mold of the Cult of True Womanhood she came as close as any white woman whose husband bred children with slave women as they maintained marital norms of the time.  Bringing quiet strength to an undignified situation, she hosted many of her husband's white abolitionist friends, some of whom told Douglass he had married beneath his station and treated her as servant in her own home.

All the women in Frederick Douglass' life contributed to his growth and success.   Many articles and reports leave out these details and the important role Douglass' first wife, Anna Murray Douglass played as nurturer and business woman, in enabling him to become the historic figure we know today.