I enjoy Black History Month each year. It’s a time when I get to hear about and study great African American people that have made a great contribution to society. Frederick Douglass is a notable person of interest. “He’s Black royalty,” as my mother would say. During my studies of him this year, something that jumped out at me were the women in his life.
Little is known about these women but they had a tremendous impact on Douglass’ life, all the while enduring criticism from both the world and people close to them.
His first wife, Anna Murray, was a free Black woman who mothered all five of Frederick Douglass’ children. The archives of Maryland document some of the contributions she made. She played a major role in his escape from slavery, using her own money to buy his train ticket and sewing clothing for his disguise. Early in his career, she also used her own money (earned from mending shoes), to support the family, and buy their most famous family home, Cedar Grove. Anna was a diligent hostess for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, according to the article On the Life of Black Abolitionist Anna Murray Douglass by Leigh Fought. Throughout Douglass’ career, Anna was chastised for the dark color of her skin and rejected by his colleagues due to her illiteracy. Yet she continued to support him, never responding to criticisms, and maintaining the privacy of their family according to the article The Hidden History of Anna Murray Douglass by Lorraine Boissoneault.
After Anna died, Frederick married Helen Pitts, a white woman, who was a distant cousin of President John Quincy Adams. The marriage caused quite a stir, as it would at the time, being that she was white and he was Black. Helen was disinherited by her father, criticized by Frederick’s biological children, and rejected by the African American community. Yet, Helen was very loyal and worked tirelessly to maintain his legacy after his death. She challenged his children’s efforts to sell Cedar Hill and worked to establish it as a memorial, which remains today. She also worked to establish a bill creating the Frederick Douglass Memorial Association and traveled extensively to lecture about her husband’s history according to Helen Pitts Douglass Frederick Douglass’ Second Wife by Jone Johnson Lewis.
Frederick Douglass will always be remembered and honored for all he contributed to the advancement of African Americans in this country. But the discovery of the contribution of Frederick Douglass’ two wives was eye-opening to me. As I consider the context of his life, I think of similar instances in which women were and still are largely ignored for the contributions they make. I rarely hear of the work his wives put into his life’s mission and his legacy when people highlight his life and career. Without the contributions these women made Douglass’ legacy may not have been the same to this day.
Above images in public domain from Flickr