• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass’s two great loves

The daughter of Mary and Bambarra Murray, Anna Murray was the first in her family to be born as a free black in rural Maryland. Bambarra and Mary had previously been enslaved, as were their first seven children. Shortly before her birth, Anna’s parents were manumitted.

At the age of 17, Anna moved to Baltimore and worked as a housekeeper. At a meeting of the East Baltimore Improvement Society, Anna met a young ship caulker by the name of Frederick Washington Bailey. She soon befriended the handsome young fugitive slave six years her junior. Anna invited Frederick into her circle of free blacks and before long, the young couple had fallen in love.

Compared to the dashing good looks of Frederick Bailey, Anna Murray was rather plain physically. However, Frederick saw something wonderful in Anna and wanted her to be a part of his life. With her help, he was able to flee slavery and move to New York. He was there but a few days when he sent for her and the couple was married shortly thereafter by the prominent black minister, Rev. J.W.C. Pennington. Originally the couple adopted the name “Johnson,” but then later changed it to “Douglass”.

Between the years 1839 and 1849, Anna gave birth to five children – Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick Jr., and Charles. Annie, the youngest, died at the age of 10. During these years, Frederick was on the road a lot as an up and coming abolitionist orator. Anna stayed behind and kept the home fires burning while he was gone.

Over the years, something of a gulf grew between Frederick and Anna due to the fact he was a well-read speaker and she was illiterate. Being unable to read or write did little, however, to hamper Anna’s life and accomplishments. One of her greatest skills was being able to pinch pennies so tightly, the design on the coins almost popped off. Throughout the years, Frederick’s income was meager at best; yet Anna kept the family afloat with her economic marvels.

Following the death of Annie in 1860, Anna’s health began to deteriorate at a steady pace. She passed away on August 4, 1882, in Washington D.C. Frederick was heartbroken. He took his beloved Anna home to Rochester and laid her to rest in Mount Hope Cemetery. For 44 years, Anna provided Frederick with unswerving loyalty, which served as the main-spring support for her husband.

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As the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, Frederick found himself in need of a clerk to help with the paperwork. He soon hired a woman by the name of Helen Pitts. Helen traced her lineage to John Alden of Mayflower fame and strongly supported women’s suffrage, in addition to believing in equality for all the races.

After a year’s mourning and depression, Frederick was very lonely and his home on Cedar Hill felt terribly empty. He now made the decision to marry again. Given the numerous similarities between Frederick and Helen Pitts politically and in other respects, she was a good match for him.

Society, however, had other ideas due to the fact she was white and he was black. Not able to be swayed by society’s opinion in the past, Frederick now responded to the public’s attitude by telling them that since no one raised an objection when he married a woman the color of his mother, he had difficulty understanding why they should object to him marrying a woman the color of his father.

Anyone who knew the real Frederick Douglass knew he chose to marry Helen, not because she was white, but because he loved her. Following the couple’s wedding on January 24, 1884, the house on Cedar Hill was no longer lonely. Music and happy voices filled the air and the backyard was regularly used to entertain guests with games of croquet.

In September 1887, Frederick and Helen set sail on the trip of a lifetime. Traveling to England, Frederick introduces Helen to the many friends he had made there while in exile years before and maintained contact with after he returned to America. Then boarding a train which took them from London to Paris and on to Rome, the couple visited a number of towns and museums, quaint villages and formidable castles along the way.

During the trip, Douglass was overwhelmed by a multitude of emotions. As he looked at the dark recesses of the torture chambers in the castles’ dungeons, memories of his life as a slave previously filed away were brought to the forefront again. He continued to find it difficult to understand man’s ability to treat a fellow human so horribly. A Roman amphitheater had somewhat the same effect as he was made aware of the way men would fight wild animals before cheering crowds, most of the time losing their lives during the encounters.

Not all the places he visited resurrected sad memories. The Museum of Genoa in Liguria, Italy was a favorite of Frederick’s. Here he saw the violin which had belonged to the greatest musical genius of his time, Niccolo Paganini. A violin player himself, Douglass found it hard to pull himself away from the display. In Rome, he walked on the same Appian Way as the Apostle Paul.

Towards the end of his trip, Frederick climbed to the top of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. As he stood at the top and viewed the Sphinx and the other pyramids, he was filled with thoughts and feelings which were totally new to him.

At the end of the year, it was time for Frederick and Helen to return home. This he did with a happy heart.

"This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother

and the second, the color of my father."

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