“Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”
Many years ago, I was preparing pathfinder for my library media center on Fredrick Douglass. I had read much of Mr. Douglass: including the genealogical surprise my former husband was descended from the Lloyds of Maryland. History is what it is: it makes one uncomfortable – but the truth is the truth. After I recovered from that observation and shock, I did a fist pump for female empowerment. Why? Mr. Fredrick Douglass had a sudden and romantic happy ending in his later years, after suffering from depression on the loss of his first wife and mother of his children. He married a friend and neighbor. She was an intellectual equal, with the same interests and passions of abolition and suffrage.
And she was a white woman.
Helen Pitts was born in 1838 – twenty years after the birth of Fredrick Douglass. A native of Honeoye, New York, she graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1859. Helen taught school and became a suffragette. Eventually, she relocated to Washington, D.C. to be an editor in a suffragette newspaper and became a neighbor to Fredrick Douglass. Helen’s ancestors were among the original settlers from the Mayflower.
Fredrick Douglass, himself bi-racial, was a widower with grown children. He had already established his role of being an abolitionist and author and a supporter of women’s rights when he met Helen.Already famous and a well-respected leader, Douglass and Helen had so many obstacles to overcome to be together. His children opposed the union, her family opposed the union, and society – including the very abolitionist community that Douglass was part of – thought the marriage too sudden and brash. But that didn’t stop this couple who loved one another.
“This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father,” Douglass joked, but he was right: people should marry for love, not race.
The Douglass union lasted for twelve years, until Fredrick died. Upon his death, his widow wanted to preserve his legacy. Douglass left his home, Cedar Hill, to Helen. However, the will was determined to be invalid. In a spirit of compromise, Helen asked the children of Douglass’ first marriage to preserve Cedar Hill as a testament and memorial to the great work of Fredrick Douglass. The children declined and and insisted the estate be sold and for all proceeds be split among all the heirs.
This didn’t stop Helen Douglass – she had a goal of preserving her husband’s legacy. She was able to raise enough money to purchase Cedar Hill and to establish the Fredrick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. She fought an uphill battle as she tried to maintain the estate, by touring and lecturing. Her health grew frail. At last, she sought advice on what to do about Cedar Hill – as there wasn’t enough funds to maintain it. A reverend friend recommended she should cease mortgage payments and any money from the sale after her death could go towards college scholarships. Helen, always putting her husband’s legacy first, agreed to the idea, but only if the scholarships would be in her husband’s name.
Helen died in 1903. The mortgage on her estate was reduced to $4000 and the National Association of Colored Women, of Buffalo, New York, bought Cedar Hill. Today, you can visit their home in Washington, D.C. The website is located at https://www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm. The grounds are beautiful: I visited there several years ago and you will feel the spirit of Mr. Douglass in his home! From his everyday life to his writing and politics, you will learn about one of America’s greatest men!
Even in death, Helen had more difficulty with Douglass’ children. Although she is buried with her husband, Fredrick Douglass and his first wife, Helen desired to have him buried with her, at Cedar Hill, but his children – opposed to his widow’s desires – had the last say. The things written by Douglass’ children not only dishonored their father’s wife, it was cruel.But in the end, Helen became the true bearer of the legacy of Fredrick Douglass.
And with this blog, I hope his descendants will honor their step-ancestress with the respect – and all of our own generation – she is due. I think Elizabeth Cady Stanton said it best, “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.”